Turner prize 2014: a deliberately difficult shortlist that will shake up art
This is an unexpected shortlist. It baffles me, and for once I’m stumped. Best known for his quasi-documentary films on Irish peace activistBernadette Devlin and ill-fated car-maker John DeLorean, Duncan Campbell is nominated for his film installation in the Scottish pavilion at last year’s Venice Biennale, It for Others. Campbell’s film was concocted from a strange mix of footage: African masks and other artefacts, images of perfume bottles and snack packaging, and shots from a dance piece by British choreographer Michael Clark in which the performers, shot from above, contort themselves into the shapes of equations. Campbell’s film was not without its pleasures, but was terribly long. It lost me somewhere. Bravely, and perhaps unwisely, he paired this work with a projection ofChris Marker and Alain Resnais’ 1953 film Les Statues Meurent Aussi (Statues Also Die), about the commodification of African sculpture. It was all too easy to abandon Campbell for Resnais and Marker.
Also showing at Venice, film work by James Richards paired censored images in a state art library in Tokyo – imported art books in which customs officials had scratched out depictions of genitalia using sandpaper (an act that seems to be as prurient as the pictures they are trying to protect the public from), with languorous underwater footage shot by the artist with a cheap camera. Except to note the denial of pleasure in the censored images, and the sensual image-grabbing of the underwater shots, I didn’t make much of this either. Richards, for me, is an unknown quantity.
I have never understood Tris Vonna-Michell’s melange of film and video footage, photographs and objects, which often entail a peripatetic quest: looking for obscure French artist Henri Chopin; revisiting the sites of his own adolescent rites of passage (including a trip to Japan where he slept rough for a while); and travelling to Detroit or Leipzig (where Vonna-Michell destroyed his entire archive of photographs and student work in a shredder). This comes together in his films, photography, objects, live performance and concrete poetry – and takes a lot of unpacking.
Canadian-born, Glasgow-based Ciara Phillips is a printmaker who mostly works in silk screen and often works collaboratively. Her images flow from the wall onto banners and textiles. There are signs, abstractions, patterns, words. Great. It is her lightness that seems to be the point in a Turner shortlist that’s intent on being more serious – or at least more difficult and demanding than usual. Apart from the work of Phillips, there are few concessions here to visual pleasure or the easy headlines the prize often attracts.
It’s all a bit dour, and I take this as deliberate. This year’s judges seem to be intent on delivering an exhibition that not only shakes things up – none of the shortlisted artists are exactly familiar to a wider audience – but also want us to struggle with meaning as much as the artists seem to do. There is also a desire to bring us work we are somewhat less familiar with than in most previous shortlists. It marks a shift – not only of artistic generations, but also of the prize itself. It’s going to be hard work.
- The Guardian, Wednesday 7 May 2014 10.11 BST