In between the commencement of this year’s Festival de Cannes—arguably the most important showcase for European film and those that want to be photographed on yachts looking like they watch European film—and the news that Hollywood juggernaut Marvel Studios has just managed to gross over $10 billion—from a Cinematic Universe in which bromances are tested with less permanent repercussions than Bill Murray’s Phil Connors punching Ned Ryeson (Stephen Tobolowsky) square in the chops, ad nauseam, in Groundhog Day (1993)—another piece of film related news managed to slip out without as much of a paparazzi gilded fanfare: the shortlisted nominees for The Turner Prize 2016 were announced.
Set up in 1984, the prestigious Turner Prize is awarded each year to “a British artist under 50 for an outstanding exhibition or other presentation of their work in the twelve months preceding.” Previous (in)famous winners include the permanently besuited “living sculptures”, Gilbert and George; Anish Kapoor, whose recent work, Dirty Corner, has been described by the artist as a monumental building sized “vagina of a queen who is taking power”; Antony Gormley, known for his human figure statues (notably the Angel of the North) and that one time he got people to stand on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square—one of whom “pitched a tent, from which a live chicken and two blow-up dolls emerged”; Grayson Perry (and his female alter ego, “Claire”) whose work features an overly generous number of “scenes of child abuse, bondage and sadomasochism” but has more recently also turned to socially conscious tapestries and TV shows where The Common Man cries at the startling authenticity of it all; and Damien Hirst, the poster boy for the Young British Artists (YBAs) of the ‘90s and those with a Norman Bates predilection for bisecting animals for formaldehyde soaked display.
The Turner Prize, then, has always been seen as a bit wacky (it has been protested by Stuckist artists dressed as clowns), sometimes shocking (Chris Ofili’s 1998 elephant dung work can be challenging), and a tad controversial (Fiona Banner’s 2002 nomination for Arsewoman in Wonderland “is the transcript of a porn film printed in pink ink on a huge billboard”). Yet, The Turner Prize is also controversial in the way that a quick Google search will generate plenty of ostensibly feverish reactions. On closer inspection, nobody seems to be especially bothered (unless you are Prince Charles, who as part of his official remit to preserve the integrity of outdated institutions, believes the Turner has “contaminated the art establishment for so long.”)
The cultural nadir of calculated shock value may have been around 2001, when Martin Creed’s The Lights Going On and Off was exactly that and US pop-star Madonna swore while presenting the award on TV, which was fractionally less premeditated than when she kissed Britney Spears on screen in 2003 at the MTV Video Music Awards and presumably more intentional than when she tumbled backwards off the stage at the televised 2015 Brit Awards. Although, maybe that was performance art beyond mortal comprehension.
Yet, for all of the confused, increasingly apathetic disdain and faux-frothy-mouthed tirades that the Turner Prize now annually receives from the barely worked-up mainstream press (as recently as 2014, The Daily Mail lazily held Tracey Emin up as an example of Turner Prize winning controversy, when she has not actually ever won it—she was nominated in 1999), in terms of filmmaking there have been several notable reasons to keep following the awards seriously and closely, or slightly more seriously and closely than you have before.
First of all, since 1996, there have been eight artists who have won with “video” or “film” formats. That’s nearly half of the winners. Prior to 1996, the award went to more traditional fields such as “sculpture” and “painting”, yet by 2003, when numerous artists were also being nominated for their “installation”—a catch-all aegis under which they could mix materials and approaches (including video and film) to express themselves without being pigeon-holed—Grayson Perry, that year’s winner, was musing: “I think the art world had more trouble coming to terms with me being a potter than my choice of frocks.”
This fluidity of formal boundaries and the ascendancy of the moving image in The Turner Prize might reflect a cultural change in feelings towards the artistic value of the filmic medium itself, the affordability and democratization of equipment, the shifting attitudes of the judging panel, or a genuine development in the medium. Either way, the prevalence of the wins have, in some way, helped to further critical thinking and discussion around the artistic potential of film and video, especially in the UK, despite the frequently foolish hubbub that often surrounds the proceedings.
For example, A.L.Rees, in his book A History of Experimental Film and Video moves through the familiar landmarks of visual art movements such as cubism, abstract film, and surrealism, through to the avant-garde, structuralism (not forgetting its “post” form), and to art cinema. From here, Rees arrives at the YBAs of the mid-to-late ‘90s. The names that Rees circulates are not all exclusively Turner related, but it is significant that the artists and works associated with the prize are a predominant part of the conversation.
It may well be that avant-garde Turner Prize works, based as they are on the “outer fringes of the map of cinema and even over the borders” (pg. vi), are sometimes only recognizable and mappable—especially by the mainstream—precisely because they win such visible awards. The same thing often happens with niche films at festivals like Cannes, or when (super-hero) films cross landmarks at the box-office, ensuring more column inches in the popular press and social media streams, but I hadn’t fully realized how much The Turner Prize has played its own part in this whirling cultural game of musical (cinematic) chairs until this year when I noticed with some disappointment that none of the shortlisted nominees for 2016 use film or video in any of their nominated work, which in turn also made me look more closely at the past nominees and winners.
Through the Prize winning work of artists such as Duncan Campbell in 2014 (whose short film It for Others responds to Chris Marker and Alan Resnais’ 1953 Status Also Die by examining African art with a Michael Clark created dance sequence), Elizabeth Price in 2012 (whose multi-part video installation, The Woolworths Choir of 1979 draws upon archival sources to “reconstruct the event of the fire within the auditorium”), and Gillian Wearing in 1997 (whose video, 60 minute Silence features 26 uniformed police officers posing exactly still, as though they were frozen within a photograph), one might be able to see, for example, how video and film can be used to test, probe, and explore other cultures (and perceptions of them), collected remembrances of the past, or frequently stereotyped national institutions in a way that differs, sometimes drastically, from the conventions of traditional cinematic storytelling. Yet, unlike the usual Turner headliners that jostle for attention and adoration, this is art that doesn’t shut people out with spectacular or shocking vulgarity. It uses the properties of the medium to encourage the viewer to reflect upon their own experiences.
Other winners, such as Mark Leckey (in 2008) and Laura Prouvost (in 2013) are equally playful with their subject matter, as Leckey’s Made in ‘Eaven (being one part of his multi-media exhibition) plays a slight-of-hand magic trick with Jeff Koons’ Bunny, and Prouvost created Wantee, “a video offering a witty tribute to a fictional grandfather”, who happens to be the artist Kurt Schwitters. Both films weave reality with fiction to draw the viewer closer into an examination of the legacies and artwork of other artists in surprising ways.
It is often quite easy to laugh at surreal or abstract imagery that tests our own normative boundaries (quite often, that is its purpose), but it may also be the case that it is equally tempting to turn that initial reflection into a disdainful excuse to shut down the process of engagement. So, it doesn’t help when articles make dismissive statements such as Artspace‘s: “in 2007, there was a similar public outcry when Mark Wallinger won for Sleeper, a 154-minute film of the artist walking around a German gallery wearing a bear suit”, because this isn’t at all true; while Sleeper is a Wallinger video, he actually won the Prize for State Britain, a far less amusing “meticulous re-creation of peace campaigner Brian Haw’s anti-war protest in Parliament Square.”
One wonders if The Turner Prize would be less controversial if reports on the contest actually took notice of the competition winners beyond merely attempting to convey how “shocking” they are. It speaks volumes that when Jeremy Deller won in 2004 for an installation that included the video Memory Bucket: A Film About Texas (“A documentary about Crawford, Texas [George Bush’s hometown] and the siege in Waco, Texas.”), The Guardian actually led with the headline, “Turner prize shock: out of four serious competitors, the best artist wins.”
Being a “serious” Turner Prize artist doesn’t mean that the only worlds in which their output exists are hermetically sealed galleries and collections (read Howard S. Becker’s Art Worlds for a sociological/Bourdieusien examination of why this has never been the case for art). Actually, when one begins to look at the Turner Prize nominees and winners in a little more detail, there are a number of video and filmmakers that have also produced work outside of the British “Art World” represented by The Turner Prize. Some of them have resurfaced at prestigious international film festivals, and a couple of them have even flirted with the mainstream—or have swum closer to a mainstream at any rate.
For example, Deller’s 2001 work The Battle of Orgreave, was a public re-enactment of a violent conflict from the 1984 Miners’s Strike. While the piece resides with the Tate (where it was a part of a larger installation), the event was directed by Mike Figgis, director of the Academy Award and Independent Spirit Award winning Leaving Las Vegas (1995), and was shown by the British public-service television broadcaster, Channel 4.
If you are more interested in having your visual media contain a little more narrative, then Derek Jarman was nominated in 1986 “primarily for his achievements as a filmmaker, and in particular for Caravaggio” (which makes me wonder why Peter Greenaway has never been selected). Notably, Sam Taylor-Johnson, who was nominated in 1998 as a YBA and spent 2004 filming footballer David Beckham sleeping in David, would go on to direct the UK Film Council funded John Lennon biopic Nowhere Boy (2009), followed by the critically maligned yet financially astounding (with a worldwide gross of over half a billion dollars) Fifty Shades of Grey (2015). Nine more of those and Taylor-Johnson will match Marvel’s cumulative gross from 13 films.
Furthermore, Douglas Gordon, who won the Prize in 1996 (and was the first video artist to do so), has built a substantial part of his art career on the cinematic output of Hollywood. When he isn’t slowing down Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) to a run time of 24 hours in 24 Hour Psycho, or screening The Exorcist (1973) simultaneously next to The Song of Bernadette (1943) in his Between Darkness and Light (After William Blake), Gordon is reflexively exploring shot-reverse-shot editing with Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) in Through a looking glass. Outside of the gallery work, Gordon can also be regularly seen damaging theatre walls in axe attacks, as a member of the Official Competition Jury at the 65th Venice International Film Festival, or premiering his own football documentary film Zidane, un portrait du 21e siècle out of competition at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival.
If we are cataloguing artists associated with The Turner Prize that have worked within the art world and have also had a significant cultural (or financial) impact in other filmic arenas, then Steve McQueen, who won in 1999, is the principle player in this story. McQueen won the Turner for surreal pieces that included Prey (a video of a tape recorder playing the sound of tap dancing, before it floats off into the air, having been tied to a balloon), and Deadpan (a recorded recreation of the house falling stunt from Buster Keaton’s 1928 classic, Steamboat Bill Jr., with McQueen in the protagonist’s role). Although on the surface this might make McQueen’s work appear somewhat flippant, he won for the “poetry and clarity of his vision, the range of his work, its emotional intensity and economy of means”, with Deadpan being considered a complex metaphor for slavery and servitude.
From here, McQueen has gone on to make Hunger (2008), a theatrically released piece of narrative cinema concerning a Northern Irish prison hunger strike, where once more, McQueen was praised for his “clarity of vision”—this time, not by the art world, but by the Sydney Film Festival. Hunger, which premiered at the 2008 Cannes Festival, also won McQueen the Caméra d’Or (first-time director) Award. McQueen’s follow up, Shame (2011)—a film about sex addiction in New York City—premiered at The 68th Venice Film Festival, where actor Michael Fassbender won the Volpi Cup for Best Actor.
Linking back to Deadpan, McQueen’s most recent cinematic film, 12 Years a Slave (2013) is a historical drama adapted from Solomon Northup’s autobiographical 1853 slave narrative memoir. It screened at the Telluride Film Festival and the New York Film Festival before winning the People’s Choice Award at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival. From there, it has gone on to pick up three awards from nine nominations at the 86th Academy Awards (winning Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actress), also making McQueen the first black director to direct a Best Picture winning film. McQueen’s first couple of films were nominated for dozens of awards and accolades; 12 Years a Slave has won a staggering 145 from 322 nominations (including multiple BAFTAs, Golden Globes, and Independent Spirit Awards). It also can’t hurt that the film has gone on to gross $187 million, which is less than Taylor-Johnson’s Fifty Shades of Grey, but at least McQueen still holds the respectable distinction of having not directed Fifty Shades of Grey.
Bringing all of these achievements back to 2016 then, to my knowledge there are no exhibitions nominated for the Turner Prize this year that feature a video or film component. Josephine Pryde’s miniature rideable train as a part of her installation, Lapses in Thinking by the Person I Am, may challenge the conventions of the gallery space, but it also reminds me of the stop-motion animated train chase from Wallace and Gromit’s The Wrong Trousers (1993) and the recent Thomas the Tank Engine scuffle in Ant-Man (2015). If I squint my brain a little, Anthea Hamilton’s Project for door (After Gaetano Pesce), an 18-foot tall sculpture of splayed bare buttocks emerging from a brick wall, feels to me like it could be a grotesque prop from a Jan Švankmajer reimagining of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927). It is truly arse gratia artis.
But, in failing to recognize British video or film art, as they also did last year, the Turner Prize is partially denying those that don’t have access to art galleries around the world an opportunity to know more about the “outer fringes of the map of cinema”, areas which might in turn reflect upon or directly influence a wider spectrum of artistic and commercial film. Therefore, this is also limiting the debate and discussions that can be had around all of these prominent cultural tent-poles when looking at Britain’s cultural output to the world. After 20 years of moving visual art dominance, could the Turner Prize be looking for new directions and inspirations (as it did last year with a conscious focus on political art with a social conscience)? I know that one or two years without such accolades are hardly the end of the world, and I’m not saying that there aren’t filmmakers already out there honing their craft, but I’m sure that the “traditional” sculptors were saying the same sort of things back in 1996 just as video and film took over and started to seize our imaginations.
Josephine Pryde’s Lapses in Thinking by the Person I Am