The Turner Prize 2011

Baltic – Gateshead
Written for All Points North – October 2011

The annual announcement of the Turner Prize shortlist always stirs within me conflicting feelings of both intrigue and, in recent years, apathy. I must stress this is not due to my own artistic conservatism or an unusual dislike for the nominated artists. Rather it is due to the fact that this most significant of awards for British contemporary art has become increasingly formulaic throughout its 27-year existence; a formula which has been adopted by the British media whose unvarying coverage has reduced the Prize to a series of clichés, buzz words and tired debates, pigeonholing the award as a champion for difficult, confusing and impenetrable art. It is this combination of sameness, overexposure and missing the point that leaves me rather disinterested.

It is therefore a welcome relief that the Prize has been uprooted from London and the Tate exchanged for the North East’s very own institution for contemporary art. This move has brought with it an essential new perspective and a fresh relevance for the Prize within the UK, and surely there is no better platform for the Turner Prize outside London than BALTIC itself.

In truth, for many years now the Turner Prize has been quietly maturing, distancing itself from controversy and the excessive provocation relished by the media. Recent winners, Susan Philipsz and Richard Wright strike an altogether more subdued tone, and in keeping with this, nominated artists Karla Black, Martin Boyce, Hilary Lloyd and George Shaw are united in contemplative processes and considered statements.

BALTIC’s Turner Prize exhibition is elegant and beautifully paced, achieving a unity between this group of disparate artists seldom matched in similar presentations. The level 3 gallery, usually a vast, open space spanning the width of the building has been divided into four separate galleries, affording each artist a self-contained space in which to present their work. Installations are therefore considerably more concise than the blockbuster-sized shows BALTIC are used to presenting, but it is this spatial contraction that delivers such visual accordance; these displays are not made to overwhelm but to take hold and immerse.

Martin Boyce occupies the first of four galleries, his installations an immediately enticing blend of muted theatricality and romantic surrealism, presenting a delicately balanced visual poetry within an ambiguous psychological landscape. The autumn day has swept into the space, reminiscent of the afternoon outside the gallery, bringing with it rustling geometric leaves. Nearby, a waste bin leans curiously to one side, a moth-eaten sweater serving as its liner. Concrete paving moves up the wall embellished with tumbling typography communicating in an unknown language, and the sky above is filled with angular clouds, or could they be birds? A kind of otherworldly intelligent design can be perceived here; all forms conforming to incantations of the same abstract geometric code. Boyce compares his fragmented landscapes to the process of recalling distant memories, which, pulled from deep recesses of the brain, return to the present jumbled and indeterminate. It is this strong sense of inhabiting another’s lost memories that infuses the space with wistful, reflective melancholia.

This indefinable coalescence of urban and domestic architecture, overtly staged, contains a mystifying otherness that is both of this world and not. Familiar yet strangely off kilter, this landscape emanates a delightful unheimlich, and the dusky low-level lighting creates a somnambulant warmth that is endlessly seductive and hard to leave behind.

Hilary Lloyd is similarly concerned with ushering the outside into the gallery, albeit with far greater contextual immediacy. Lloyd has opened up the gallery, inviting in views of the Tyne River; a backdrop which both supports, informs and contextualises her work in ways that would not have been possible at Tate Britain.

Her abstract films and video projections, presented amongst an imposing, and at times hostile, structural environment of industrial equipment and multiple screens, fracture and magnify elements of the material world for its purely formalistic features. Subjects are reduced to a series of shapes and repeating patterns which hover onscreen with a frenetic rhythmical energy, denying all narrative. Formal repetition is central in Lloyd’s work. The constant process of looping within her films is echoed and repeated from screen to screen, constituting a highly referent, communicating network of shapes and motifs extended across the gallery and out into the world. Therefore Floor presents a magnified wooden floor similar to that in the gallery, projected at floor level; Tower Block is a formal repetition of the view outside; and Moon and Shirt (all 2011) enter into a formal exchange with each other and the world. The urban context completes the work and the window serves as yet another screen.

Karla Black’s painted polythene drapes drift out of the third gallery, scattering flakes of colour like confetti. Her voluminous sculptures exist in a constantly suspended state between transformation and collapse; passing visitors literally bear witness to the work’s disintegration. Black deliberately elicits human interaction in these fragile, unstable environments, consciously setting in motion a process of simultaneous destruction and metamorphosis.

There are two works here, Doesn’t Care In Words and More of the Day, 2011, flowing seamlessly into one sensual mass of texture, colour and material. This vast undulating landscape of tumbling paper layers sweeps across the gallery, appearing delicate and fragile despite its heft. Rudimentary cellophane clouds and bows float above, offering a raw and unformed prettiness, but this is less fantasy dreamscape than, as Black describes, ‘absolutely here and rooted’ to this specific temporal environment. Installations are intended as material spaces for a physical kind of escapism, existing outside language and intellect, demanding pure bodily response. A romanticised notion perhaps, yet perfectly in keeping with Black’s method of making work which is so embedded within movement and unconstrained gestures of material application. There is an absorbing feeling of lightness grasped through intuitive engagement with the sweet smelling powders and gentle pastels of Black’s sculptures.

Entering the fourth and final gallery, the sudden shock of empty space jars with the sheer volume of the last. It feels sparse but is pitched perfectly with George Shaw’s visually restrained, depopulated suburban landscapes. Here too it is forever autumn; a succession of lustreless dreary afternoons, aching with exhaustion and hopelessness, distinct from Boyce’s utopianism. Shaw has been painting these carefully edited versions of his childhood home for over a decade in a repetitive process that is more Sisyphean punishment than catharsis. These landscapes owe more to a remembered past than reality, infused with Shaw’s deeply personal, resentful nostalgia.

Shaw describes his practice as ‘painting my journey out of this world’, and the depictions of boarded up shops, decaying pubs and demolition sites are full of endings. However his bleak vision is counterbalanced by irony and sarcastic humour witnessed in everything from the shimmering high gloss finish to which he treats all his paintings, to their titles, The Same Old Crap, The Age of Bullshit and Landscape with Dog Shit Bin which simultaneously recall tabloid headlines, the voices of disillusioned residents and titles of 18th century British landscape painting.

It is perhaps surprising that, despite their many formalistic differences, there exists between these four artists a similar concern for constructed environments and staged spaces. Neither entirely of this world nor separate from it, these spaces are somewhere in-between reality and fiction, and material and inner worlds. Significantly, each installation is entirely depopulated, creating an absence intended to be filled by the viewer, offering at once pause for reflection, introspection, new ways of looking or complete physical abandon.

It is never wise to invest too much significance in this prize, or use the nominated artists as a measure of current trends in British art, nor is it advisable to make predictions. However, with such a strong shortlist, perhaps the winner’s announcement will garner some genuine excitement after all. Nonetheless, having dramatically upstaged Millbank this year, one cannot help but feel that the true winner will be BALTIC itself.

– View article at All Points North –