This year’s Turner Prize exhibition has mostly avoided the platitudes normally levelled on it by the popular press, but this does not mean it is a show of uninspired art. In fact, the variety of work in terms of medium and subject matter is vast, contributing towards an intriguing mix of artistic practice within the four gallery spaces.
The first nominee is the painter Dexter Dalwood who presents fragmented interiors and landscapes that he imagines and reconstructs from famous scenes to engage in a dialogue with narrative painting of the 19th century, laced with deep political and historical contexts. Most of his works are very large and have an immediate impact; Lennie bleeds loneliness and desolation, capturing the emotional resignation of the disturbed itinerant worker in Steinbeck’s post-Great Depression novel Of Mice and Men. A murky green strip cuts across the middle and a hastily formed mountain backdrop perhaps alludes to the character’s state of hazy confusion.
Other works appropriate the faux-patriotism of Jasper Johns or retranslate the Moroccan interiors of Matisse, but they all seem mysteriously flat: perhaps reflecting Dalwood’s method of painting whereby he constructs a collage first, and proceeds to translate this into different methods of working with paint. Dalwood’s paintings are apt for a time during which appropriation, reinterpretation and contextualisation played a defining role to create works to compete with past allegories and narratives.
It seems to be an exercise in curatorship and film theory and really requires the full forty-nine minutes of attention to digest the multifaceted production…
Following this conventionally hung room of paintings are a series of filmic installations by the Otolith Group. Their darkened gallery space appears part cinema, part seminar room with lamps gently illuminating discussion tables coated with pamphlets. Their collaborative practice acts as an investigation into film and documentary as a whole and their film Otolith III recycles and samples footage from sources as diverse as Bollywood cinema to documentary footage of 1960s London in order to adhere to an unused narrative from the same period. It seems to be an exercise in curatorship and film theory and really requires the full forty-nine minutes of attention to digest the multifaceted production, not too dissimilar to the work of Goshka Macuga – a nominee of two years ago, who also presented a body of work akin to cultural anthropology, appropriating archival material to aid an understanding of the contemporary world.
One would find it difficult not to smile at the work of Angela de la Cruz and her collection of playfully mangled, anthropomorphic works that dance across the boundaries of painting and sculpture. Glossy, monochromatic canvases look sorry for themselves as they begin to fall off stretchers and fold elegantly like apologetic drapery, perhaps mourning the supposed death of painting and waiting to evolve into a magnificent sculpture. They may also be works of artistic frustration: the hopeless canvas bashed about by the artist simply because it was not turning out the way she wanted it, now leaving an object of reluctant beauty.
…the gallery is full yet deserted.
The final room by Scottish Sound artist Susan Phillipsz can be heard melting audibly throughout most of the exhibition, and her decidedly empty display is punctuated by three speakers mounted low down in corners. The haunting lament of Lowlands Away, a Scottish folk song mourning the death of a sailor and the lover he leaves behind, is sung by Phillipsz in three versions that complement and echo eerily to create a strange presence in the empty space: the gallery is full yet deserted. Lowlands was originally installed under a bridge across the Clyde and although it loses some resonance inside, it still retains that element of acute nostalgic loss. The tune will stay with you too, leaving a lasting artistic impression unlike an image burned onto the retina.