Taking the Turner by surprise

LAURE PROUVOST’S win of the Turner Prize for 2013 is the latest in a long line of surprises that have helped keep the visual arts award in the news.

Another nominee, Tino Sehgal, was the favourite to win this year. The prize itself — £25,000 for the winner and £5,000 for each of the other three finalists — is not a huge sum. But the Turner has succeeded like no other in stimulating debate on what actually constitutes visual art, and what relevance the medium has in contemporary culture.

Prouvost was announced as the winner on Monday at the Ebrington Barracks, in Derry, where her work is being shown, along with that of the other three nominees: Sehgal, David Shrigley and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye.

Derry scored a coup in securing the Turner Prize exhibition, and prize-giving, for its UK City of Culture programme. This is the first time the event has been held outside of England. The exhibition has proved hugely popular. Thousands of people have streamed through Ebrington, where the exhibition will run until Jan 5.

Part of the attraction has been the playful and accessible installations by Prouvost and Shrigley. Prouvost’s includes films, paintings and pottery, furniture and bric-a-brac. At its heart is the film, Wantee, her tribute to the eccentric German artist, Kurt Schwitters, whose legacy she celebrates via a fictional grandfather figure, a conceptual artist whose final work is an attempt to tunnel from his home, in the Lake District of England, to Africa.

The Turner Prize is awarded to a British artist under the age of 50. Prouvost was born in Lilles, in France, but qualifies because she studied in London — at Central St Martin’s and Goldsmiths colleges — where she still lives. In 2011, she won the MaxMara Art Prize for Women, a biannual award co-sponsored by the MaxMara fashion house, and the Whitechapel Gallery, in London. Her prize included a six-month residency in Italy and a solo exhibition at the Whitechapel, which hosted her installation, Farfromwords, earlier this year. She also won the principal prize at both the 56th and 57th Oberhausen Film Festivals, in Germany.

One of the most popular misconceptions about the Turner Prize is that it is presented for the work shown at the exhibition. In fact, the judges base their decision on an exhibition or presentation by each artist in the previous 12 months. This gives a more rounded impression of their oeuvre. Prouvost was nominated for her installation at the Whitechapel, and for another that was part of the Schwitters in Britain exhibition at Tate Britain.

Selections for the Turner often seem intended to stoke controversy, and this year was no exception.

Sehgal’s inclusion was perhaps the most provocative. In Derry, the space allocated to him is devoid of objects: no paintings, no sculptures, no installations. Instead, Sehgal’s work is in the form of encounters between the gallery guides and visitors. The morning I attended, the guide invited those present to comment on the market economy. A lively debate ensued; everyone agreed that the free-market has led to social inequality and injustice, but no-one seemed quite sure of how the system can be fixed.

It’s not the kind of conversation that usually revolves around an artwork, and that is Sehgal’s point: that art should stimulate debate about issues other than itself.

Shrigley has also involved the audience in his work. His installation features a naked artist’s model that visitors are invited to draw or paint. Their efforts — hundreds of them — are displayed around the walls. The model is peculiar, a larger-than-life male, with an abundance of hair on his head and none on his body. He blinks at intervals, and now and then he pees into a bucket.

Some of the visitors’ drawings are very accurate, while others display more enthusiasm than skill. Shrig-ley’s success is to have involved so many — from children to the elderly — in the process of making art.

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye is of Ghanaian descent, and is the first black woman to have been nominated for the Turner Prize. She is also the most traditional artist in the running this year. Indeed, it was a surprise that even one among the four artists works in paint on canvas. More unusually again, Yiadom-Boakye’s paintings are of people, albeit imagined individuals rather than real ones. Yiadom-Boakye’s work is the most technically accomplished, but she always seemed the least likely to be awarded the Turner.

The Turner Prize was inaugurated in 1984, and has only once been cancelled, when Drexel Burnham Lambert withdrew its sponsorship in 1990. Some of the earliest winners were well-established artists, such as Howard Hodgkin, Gilbert and George, and Richard Long. But by the 1990s, the judges seemed to favour emerging artists, whose careers received a significant boost by winning. Those who have worked the win to their considerable advantage include the conceptual prankster, Damien Hirst, the painter, Chris Ofili and filmmaker, Steve McQueen, who has since made the feature films, Hunger, Shame, and Twelve Years A Slave.

Until now, Prouvost has been little known outside of Britain. But winning the Turner Prize exposes her work to an international audience. How she builds on that depends entirely on the scale of her ambition.


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