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the turner prize
The Turner Prize is a relatively new phenomenon in a nation where historically the primary art form is literature. It is also significant because it is unashamedly focuses on avant-gardist art. Every year four emerging artists are nominated on the basis of 'an outstanding exhibition or other presentation of their work in the twelve months preceding 31 May' and their works are exhibited at the Tale Britain. Towards the end of the exhibition a winner is announced. Due to its progressive nature the exhibition never ceases to attract the wrath not only of the tabloids but even broadsheet newspapers. But this inevitable invective only serves to make the prize a more interesting and entertaining event. Last year the winner was Keith Tyson, and I think he was the right choice. The other three nominees were Fiona Banner, Liam Gillick and Catherine Yass.
On the surface, this was an exhibition of works by four very different artists, but dig a little deeper and, when one begins to map the artists' work onto the still pervasive and dominant discourse of minimal conceptualism, there is a meshwork of connections. Only Tyson resists being framed by this grand narrative. Possibly because of this his work, at least his graphic work, stands out, abjuring the elegance of minimal conceptualism for a chaotic intersection of multiple references and media. He says his work stems from his interest in maps, charts, databases and other information systems.
Having just completed a book on Imants Tillers1, I find the overlap between Tyson's and Tillers' work unavoidable. Like Tillers, Tyson is informed by a poetic interpretation of scientific ideas evident in themes such as chance, entropy, time, and the fourth-dimension. Tyson even uses a floor to ceiling ladder motif that resonates with Tillers' recent sculpture in Sydney's Olympic Park.
Tyson's wall of drawings is like a massive notebook consisting of a wall-sized gridded array of 3 x 4 foot framed drawings. One panel that struck me shows a roulette wheel from which emanates a long pole around which is wrapped a DNA-Iike molecular helix, against a background inhabited by strange Celtic-like organic patterns. Text reads 'Nicola Tesla's third eye' and 'trying to predict not just the future but also the present and the recent past'.
Tyson says he is involved with nature but more interested in the mathematics of a tree and the history of a hill than in their suitability as subjects for a landscape painting. An interest in chance pervades his work and maps onto a concern that can be traced back through Marcel Duchamp and John Cage. However, Tyson's concern with parallel realities (for example, what different people in the world are doing at the same time) resonates more with globalisation and mass media. Tyson's work is rich in ideas and pataphysical poetry but whereas the chaotic mix of references works very well in his graphic work I am not so sure that it is as successful in his sculptures (although I liked his The Thinker which is a tall, smooth black tower that refers to the monolith from Kubrick's 2001, the famous Gray Ill supercomputer and, of course, minimal art).
Unlike Tyson, Banner, Gillick and Yass fit easily into the discourse of minimal-conceptualism-especially Gillick whose work locks into the architecture of its exhibition space in a manner that echoes Carl Andre's, Robert Morris', and Craig Judd's work of the 1960s. But Gillick's work is postmodern in its lightness and technological resonances. it consists of pine and coloured Plexiglas frameworks designed with architectural CAD software and produced in a factory. The last point again follows almost to the letter another of the fundamental principles of minimal art of the 1960s. Indeed, Gillick is even given a stamp of approval by one of the original minimal-conceptualists, Lawrence Weiner, who contributed a conceptual text to one of the catalogues on display in the Turner Prize reading room.
Gillick's exhibit was a false ceiling attached to the gallery ceiling and through it one could see into the structures of roof trusses all the way up to a skylight. This architectonic structure looked quite beautiful through the amber Plexiglas, making the work integrate neatly with the internal structure of the gallery. Gillick's twist on minimalism appears to lie in his focus on architecture to the extent that his productions can be described as 'architectural sculpture', and it is perhaps in this synthesis of two previously discrete domains that his work attains its originality.
Catherine Yass' video work was very impressive. At one level she seems concerned with placing the video eye in situations that transcend even the mostradical camera angle evident in contemporary cinema. Her video 'Descent' 2002 is an edge-to-edge wall projection which was presented in a darkened room. Lt was commissioned by the Canary Wharf construction consortium in London and was produced by attaching a camera to a giant crane that was to be lowered eight hundred feet. The descent is very slow and perfectly perpendicular. I sat there gaping, wondering how on earth it was accomplished (I found out in the reading room). It is extremely slow and utterly compelling. The half-built high rise buildings are shrouded in mist. For a long time one can see only what appears to be a multistory car park on the top left, everything else is mist. Extremely gradually other high rise buildings fade into view.
The camera was upside down and Yass decided to leave it that way, it certainly adds to the surreality of the experience. This work is a minimally elegant, breathtakingly beautiful experience made better, I think, because the high definition video projector broke down. The substitute projector led to colour loss from the original. But comparing the two versions I prefer the enhanced atmospheric effect that the more minimal monochrome version offers. I sat through the whole nine minutes twice so it must have been good!
Fiona Banner's work is postmodern minimal-conceptualism in the sense that it injects a very impure subject matter into the purism of a minimal-conceptual format. Most of her works on show derived from her activity of writing a blow by blow description of hardcore pornographic videos. In one work she converted her verbal description into a silkscreen of Day-Gio pink text (a la Barbara Kruger) onto glossy white billboard paper, in another case the text was painted onto the gallery wall (a second bow to Lawrence Weiner in this exhibition). One particularly minimalist piece by Banner consisted of a text peppered with dialogue from which the words are removed leaving only the quote marks, commas, semi-colons and full stops.
Yass and Tyson stood out in this exhibition and it is interesting that both are concerned with technology, albeit from very different perspectives. Yass is an extraordinary photographer and videographer and, interestingly, Tyson admits to using photography extensively in his preparatory work, but I must say I was entirely refreshed by the fact that his most impressive output consists of graphic art. In an art scene dominated by photography and video this has become a particularly distinctive approach.
1. The Postmodern Art of lmants Tillers, Paul Holberton Publications, London , 2002.