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December 06 2010

Who should win the Turner prize?

Sound artist Susan Philipsz may be the bookies' favourite, but Angela de la Cruz, Dexter Dalwood and the Otolith Group are also strong contenders. Ahead of tonight's announcement, who gets your vote?

When it comes to predicting the winner of the Turner prize, I have appalling form. One year I was convinced that Phil Collins's brilliantly sardonic TV project about Turkish reality shows was going to win (it didn't). In 2008, I quite fancied Cathy Wilkes's chances (Mark Leckey went on to win). So when I tell you that my favourite for this year's award is Angela de la Cruz, who makes awkward, funny sculptures that don't quite do what they're meant to, my advice is: don't listen to anything I say.

The betting is, of course, hardly the point. And some would argue that, when the shortlist includes work as different as painting, film, sculpture and sound, choosing a winner at all doesn't make much sense. But that's prizes for you, and – like it or not – a winner will be chosen later this evening, in the full glare of the world's press, at Tate Britain.

A reminder about who's in the running. There's Dexter Dalwood, who paints scenes that many of us have imagined (the death of Dr David Kelly, Jimi Hendrix's basement, wartime Iraq) but never seen. Dalwood has his fans – you lot said he should win – but Britain's newspaper critics aren't among them: Richard Dorment of the Telegraph called his work "cack-handed paintings of imaginary landscapes and interiors", while our own Jonathan Jones said back in 2000 that "if this is what they mean by painting, I hope it goes away soon". Then there's The Otolith Group, Anjalika Sagar and Kodwo Eshun, who make erudite, multi-strand work drawing on the history of cinema and social movements. Their room in the Turner prize exhibition contains a 45-minute film made of fragments of other films, a row of TV sets playing an obscure documentary about Ancient Greece, and a densely packed book. Easy to digest it certainly isn't; maybe that's the point.

The next room in the show is de la Cruz's, and contains a number of new paintings that have been torn apart or otherwise subjected to violence. They're called things like Deflated and Clutter, and squat anxiously in the gallery as if they're embarrassed to be there. I love her work – the wit as well as the sadness of it – but there's a feeling that perhaps this isn't her year. I guess we'll find out. The fourth artist to be shortlisted this year is Glaswegian Susan Philipsz, whose contribution to the show you hear long before you see it. Actually there isn't anything to see, just three loudspeakers and a bench; it is a piece of sound art, recordings of the artist singing slightly different versions of a Scottish medieval ballad. Mysterious and enticing, sorrowful and enigmatic, these songs overlap and intermingle, echoing around the room and out into the gallery beyond. The bookies tell us that Philipsz is the favourite to win – a good result, if only because it will be the first time that sound art has received this kind of recognition (and if you want to find out more about what she does, we ran a video interview with her last Friday).

The judges are meeting this afternoon to decide, and the waiting will be over for the rest of us at about 7.50pm when the ceremony is broadcast on Channel 4 News. Both Charlotte Higgins and I will be tweeting snippets live (follow us at twitter.com/andydickson and twitter.com/chiggi; we'll use the #TP2010 hashtag). We'll have news and reaction as soon as we can, pictures as soon as we get them, and tomorrow morning we'll have a video digest of the night's events. In the meantime, you could watch Adrian Searle's video tour around the exhibition, read Laura Cumming's astute review, or test your wits with our Turner prize quiz. And of course we want to know what you think. Have you seen the show? Did it pass muster? Who do you reckon should win?

Oh, one final thing: you haven't seen any of the artwork and still feel like posting that it's a load of old nonsense, I'm afraid Twitter's IanVisits has already got there: he suggests using #YouCallThatArt, #MyKidCouldDoBetter, #ItsRubbish or #WhatAWasteOfTime as tags. Enough said.


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November 25 2010

Turner prize to be held in Derry in 2013

Turner prize to leave Tate Britain for third time since it was founded in 1984 for Derry, 2013's UK City of Culture

The Turner prize, the most important event in the UK's contemporary art calendar, is to leave the island of Great Britain for the first time. It will take place in Derry in Northern Ireland in 2013, the year that the city takes up the mantle of the UK's official City of Culture.

It will be the third time that the prize – the ceremony announcing the winner, as well as the three-month-long exhibition created by the shortlisted artists – has been held outside Tate Britain, which has been its base since the prize began in 1984.

In 2007 the prize was staged at Tate Liverpool, European Capital of Culture the following year. In 2011 it will be held at Baltic in Gateshead.

As part of the Tate's strategy to reach out beyond its official bases in London, Liverpool and St Ives, the Turner prize will migrate from London in alternate years.

The Tate said: "By showing [the prize] outside London it will attract new audiences around the country and bring the prize to a wider and more diverse audience outside the capital."

The Turner prize exhibition usually attracts between 70,000 and 90,000 visitors; in Liverpool 71,000 people visited.

The organisers of Derry-Londonderry 2013, as it is officially known, say they were confident that the prize would attract excellent audiences.

Caoimhín Corrigan, cultural broker for the bid, pointed to the city's existing credentials as a centre for contemporary art.

These include Declan McGonagle, a curator who was, unusually, nominated for the Turner prize in 1987, along with the Orchard, the Derry gallery that he ran at the time.

Through the work of McGonagle – one of the champions of the 2013 bid and now director of the National College of Art and Design in Dublin – Derry hosted one of Antony Gormley's first public art projects, a set of sculptures installed on the city walls.

McGonagle also mounted exhibitions including works from Richard Hamilton's famous Troubles sequence and an exhibition of work by Richard Long.

Corrigan also pointed to two successful contemporary art venues in the city today – the artist-led space Void and the Context Gallery. Void is now hosting an exhibition of work by Mat Collishaw. For the opening night, said Corrigan, "the place was stuffed." He added: "We have brilliant curators in the city who are incredibly ambitious."

Artists who have had exhibitions in the city include Jeremy Deller, who won the Turner prize in 2004; and Susan Philipsz, who is nominated for the prize this year.

The venue for the 2013 Turner prize exhibition has not yet been decided. However, it is likely to be staged in a new or converted space. Possible sites include the former Ebrington army barracks, which were closed in 2003.

Designated for redevelopment under the auspices of the Northern Ireland Assembly, the barracks, on the banks of the Foyle, are largely 19th-century buildings covering 26 acres.

Derry is also the birthplace, and current home, of one of the UK's most significant artists, Willie Doherty.

Doherty, who works in installation and film, was nominated for the Turner prize in 1994 and 2003. He represented Ireland at the Venice Biennale in 1993, and Northern Ireland in 2007.

The UK City of Culture scheme was launched by the last government to create a home-grown initiative that would echo the success of Liverpool's year as Europe's Capital of Culture.

It had always been hoped that cultural events normally held in London could migrate to the chosen city during its year of culture.

The success of the Derry bid was announced in July. The other shortlisted cities were Sheffield, Norwich and Birmingham.


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November 14 2010

The art of noise: Susan Philipsz

'Sculptor in sound' Susan Philipsz uses her untrained, unaccompanied singing voice as her sole medium. Her work, heard on city streets, under a bridge and by a lake, is so intangible it can't even be seen. So how did she become this year's Turner Prize favourite?

For someone who makes a living out of singing, Susan Philipsz is somewhat lacking in musical talent. Although she can hold a note all right, her voice, she admits, is distinctly average. She can't read music and neither does she write any of her own songs. "I hate my voice," she tells me as she bites into a tuna sandwich over lunch. "I particularly hate my speaking voice: I think I mumble a lot and it's way too quiet."

It's funny then that Philipsz's singing can currently be heard in some of the most prestigious galleries and venues the world over. At the Guggenheim in New York, for example, once every 10 minutes her a-cappella rendition of "Oh, Willow Waly", a chilling number about sex and death, which she sings like a lullaby, fills the rotunda. Drop in on this year's São Paulo Bienniale and there it is again, ringing out across a vast concrete thoroughfare in glorious surround sound. And, should you chance upon the gardens of the Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon, or wander through London's financial district, it's there again, loud and clear across the city air.

Philipsz is one of this year's Turner Prize nominees and her contribution is, once again, a song. In her gallery at Tate Britain there's nothing but three large black speakers out of which comes her voice singing a 16th-century Scottish ballad called "Lowlands" in three different parts, a piece she originally installed on the underside of three bridges in Glasgow. She's been billed by the press as the "controversial" nominee – the first sound artist ever to be shortlisted for the most prestigious prize in British art – but is the favourite to scoop the £25,000 pot, the winner of which is announced on 6 December. At the time of writing, the odds on Philipsz to win are 2-5. "She's been very heavily backed," the man from William Hill tells me. "I've never seen odds that short. It means there is a 72% chance that she is going to win."

It seems that Philipsz has had the good fortune of being picked for the Turner at exactly the right point in her career. Is she, I ask, having something of a moment? "Yes I suppose I am," she says. "I've never worked harder than I'm working now. Personally, I think the timing is good – although I'm not sure everyone agrees. When the BBC came to interview me for News at Ten one of the questions they asked me was, 'How does it feel that you've only been asked to be in the Turner Prize now that you're 44 and have been an artist for over a decade?' I was like, 'Well, you know… I just think I'm making my most interesting work right now.'"

Philipsz, who was born one of six in Maryhill, in the heart of Glasgow, has loved to sing for as long as she can remember. She went to a school run by nuns, "horrible, sadistic nuns who used to pull my hair". The one positive thing she took from the experience was a deep joy of singing in church. "I just thought it was so magical when all those voices would rise up and come together." Along with two of her sisters, Philipsz joined the local Catholic choir and whiled away much of her youth belting out three-part harmonies.

She studied sculpture at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art in Dundee and it's this discipline that informs her work today. Her songs, she says, are "sound sculptures". Each one – whether played in a gallery, under a bridge or over the Tannoy in a Manchester Tesco Metro – is designed to make her audience alter their response to each particular space. "It's all about how the emotive and psychological effects of sound can heighten your awareness of the space you are in," she says. "It felt like a very natural progression to go from sculpture to sound."

The fact that her singing voice isn't anything special is crucial. "Everyone can identify with a human voice," she says. "I think hearing an unaccompanied voice, especially an untrained one, even if it's singing a song you don't know, can trigger some really powerful memories and associations. If I'd gone to music school and had proper training, I would not be doing what I do today."

I first came across Philipsz in 1994 when she was in Belfast doing an MA at the University of Ulster. She had just made her first ever sound piece, entitled Safe – a rendition of a lullaby from the opera Hansel and Gretel which she played down a chimney breast in a former old people's home in Lady Dixon Park. She was living with her now husband, photographer Eoghan McTigue, in an archaic former Victorian girls' school called College Green in South Belfast. The couple met in their local pound shop. "She doesn't remember," says McTigue, "she was too busy inspecting a small plastic toy."

College Green had been artists' flats for decades; apparently Oscar Wilde and Errol Flynn used to stay there and there were rumours of all sorts of shenanigans. Philipsz found herself living next door to Phil Collins, video artist, filmmaker and Turner nominee in 2006. The pair quickly bonded over their love of music. "Every time they got together," remembers McTigue, "they'd start singing Bowie albums. They would start with the first song and work their way, track by track, through the entire album."

I came across Philipsz again when she and Collins were exhibiting at their first big international show, Manifesta 3 in Ljubljana in Slovenia, in 2000. She recorded a version of the old socialist anthem "The Internationale" and played it under a public walkway in the city centre. "That was a totally career-changing show for me," she says, "it got me a lot of attention." She chose the song because, when delivered in her voice, it became ambiguous whether it was a rallying call to political action or a lament to the past. Central to the work was the fact that Slovenia had not long gained independence from the Soviet Union. "One of my enduring memories was seeing a group of elderly women standing stock still silhouetted in the underpass, humming along to it. One of them was crying. It was amazing."

That night we were invited to a lavish party on the lawns of the house in the centre of Tivoli Park. My enduring memory of the evening is of later on, of Philipsz and Collins propping up a bar and, true to form, working their way through Bowie's Low, including all the tricky instrumentals on side two.

If Philipsz's recognition has been a long time coming it's possibly something to do with the medium she works with. Sound art can be intangible and difficult to grasp and, what's more, presents no striking images of sharks in formaldehyde, or whatever else, to give an identity to the artist. "It has been really quite hard," she says. "For a long time I was always busy with my art, always in shows, always travelling, but I never had any money, really no money."

In 2005 Philipsz was signed up by Isabella Bortolozzi Gallery in Berlin, where she now lives. Then, in 2007, she was invited to show at the Münster Sculpture Project in Germany, an exhibition so prestigious it happens only once a decade. For this she split the soprano and mezzo soprano parts of a duet from an operetta called The Tales of Hoffmann and had them play from opposite sides of a lake 150m across, as if one voice is calling out to another. After that Tanya Bonakdar gallery in New York signed her, too. "That's when everything changed," she says, "that's when I realised, actually it can be done."

Last year she married McTigue, in a party in Berlin so raucous the police were called. And he, along with her technical operator Frank Bode, now plays an integral part in Philipsz's work. "We live and breathe art 24/7," she says, "but it's good because I really can't do it on my own any more."

In the gallery at Tate Britain it's interesting to see how people respond to her work. One man inspects the speakers as if they are a work of art in themselves. A girl in DMs and laddered tights draws a floorplan of the gallery, meticulously marking the location of each speaker in her tatty notebook. Most just sit on the bench listening. "It's nice to hear all three voices coming in at once," one visitor says to me, "but beyond that I'm not sure what to say." On the internet someone posted afterwards: "I haven't stopped crying – I mean really WEEPING – since I experienced that glimpse into Susan Philipsz's "Lowlands" – beautiful." While another writes: "Sound art. Is that not what mere mortals call music?"

I wonder how Philipsz responds to this criticism. Is she, I ask, a one-trick pony? "That's not true," she says, horrified. "My work is always different. I always start with the location in which the work is set, that's what then gives me the idea for the song. The only thing that is the same is the medium I use, which is my voice."  It is, I guess, a bit like criticising a painter for always using paint.

Despite her success and all her years in the art world Philipsz remains refreshingly unaffected. On the night of the Turner opening, she held an after party at the Arts Theatre Club in Soho, but forgot to tell her friends. "It didn't matter in the end," she says, "I still danced until dawn." And when she takes me on a tour of "Surround Me", her six-part sound installation in the City, commissioned by Artangel, she manages to lose her work. "I know it's near here somewhere," she says, hurrying through an alley. We stop to ask three lots of people directions before McTigue finally has to come back to rescue her.

At London Bridge, Philipsz's voice rebounds off the architecture so it sounds, eerily, as if it's coming from the middle of the water. In the desolate Moorfields Highwalk, surrounded by empty offices, she sings the alto, bass, tenor and soprano parts of a 16th-century madrigal. And in nearby Milk Street there's a seven-part instrumental called "Lachrimae", each part based on a different falling tear.

Philipsz does seem drawn to dark songs. The song at London Bridge can be interpreted as a cry from those who have disappeared beneath the waters of the river; and "Lowlands" is about the ghost of someone coming back to make a final farewell. "I think people are fascinated by mortality," concludes Philipsz. And, as we walk away, the sound comes after us, as if it doesn't want us to escape.

The Turner Prize 2010 exhibition runs at Tate Britain until 3 January; Philipsz discusses her work on 26 November at 3pm. For tickets visit tate.org.uk/tickets or call 020 7887 8888. Surround Me continues until 2 January. For details, go to artangel.org.uk/surroundme


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October 30 2010

British Art Show 7: In the Days of the Comet

There's plenty to love about British Art Show 7 – from veterans like Sarah Lucas and Wolfgang Tillmans to some newer faces

The British Art Show, a snapshot of contemporary art that takes place every five years, is now in its seventh edition. It has survived most of the early outcry – too partial, or English or painting-minded, too big, or small, or smitten with video – and outlived several artists from the first show. It is unimpeachably venerable.

But it is also an unexceptional fixture by now, given the advent of the Tate Triennial, the Glasgow, Liverpool, Whitstable and Folkestone Biennials, the Turner prize and Charles Saatchi's new British art shows. And the common ground expands. Consider the crossover between this year's British Art Show and last year's Tate Triennial – Spartacus Chetwynd, Charles Avery, Nathaniel Mellors, David Noonan, Matthew Darbyshire, Olivia Plender and the Otolith Group (also shortlisted for the 2010 Turner prize). You would hardly think there was enough art to go round.

Or perhaps consensus has hardened into orthodoxy. Here are the top British (or British-based) artists at work today; watch closely and you will see one or more of them appear on next year's Turner prize shortlist. That is certainly how it might appear. But what is valuable about this British Art Show – apart from the individual artists, and the show's immense reach through four cities, 11 venues and more than 12 months of national touring – is precisely that it breaks the chain.

There are new names (to me, at least) as well as veterans like Alasdair Gray, Sarah Lucas and Wolfgang Tillmans. The selection feels independent, broad-minded, sensitive. The curators have not attempted to be definitive (how could they be?). They are not punting any themes or trends (what would they be in our all-embracing wide-world culture?). If there is a particular taste at work, it is for the comic, historic, poetic.

Elizabeth Price, for instance, has made a wonderfully droll black-and-white film that achieves all three. A seamless blend of B-movie melodrama, French critical theory and cold-war menace, with a gleeful hint of Antiques Roadshow, it centres on a series of objects revolving on an LP turntable. Coffee pots, cups, kitsch ashtrays, an LP itself ("a mirror of the terrible 20th century" according to the scathing on-screen script) it matches one kind of bric-a-brac with another, sending up all kinds of rhetoric from computer etiquette to management deadspeak. And all this with a terrific soundtrack and some very deft editing that made me think of Fernand Léger's dynamic 1924 film Ballet mécanique.

The American artist Christian Marclay is showing The Clock, one of those anthologies of film clips so prevalent in recent years, this time featuring clocks, watches and movie characters reacting to both. The alarm goes off, the office clock clicks agonisingly slowly towards the hour, the hero consults his Rolex. Time rushes in the underground, stalls at the top of the skyscraper, terrifies, oppresses, infuriates.

And Marclay has made a 24-hour marvel out of these fragments, somehow managing to find a clip for every minute, even the empty and overlooked. Robert De Niro glances up at 2.03pm. It is six minutes after midnight in Sunset Boulevard.

Each narrative is established for a moment or two, then replaced with the next. Enthralled by these miniature scenarios, amazed at the visual drama, you forget the time but are constantly reminded of it on screen. And Marclay has synchronised the art-life clocks, so to speak: every second on screen is passing away at exactly the same time in real life too.

There is a painter here, Maaike Schoorel, whose extraordinarily fugitive self-portraits seem to shift in time. You stare into the blanched surfaces of her canvases, noticing a whisper of a form that is not quite audible, become distracted by another notation – a bright pupil, a trace of water – and the picture changes. Looking becomes an event.

There is another painter whose portrait heads have overtones of Arcimboldo: hybrids of faces and masks and unidentified objects, something like hooks or postbox slots. Milena Dragicevic is a Serb born in what is now Croatia, and one senses a pressure of horrifying history in these "Supplicants", as she calls them. They have a mysterious force of personality.

It is excellent to be introduced to the work of these artists and others. Karin Ruggaber's Relief No 90 is an array of small painted sculptures, or sculpted paintings, each with it s imprecise suggestion of a form – palettes, clogs, violins, crescent moons – hints from the real world and with the real world carried in their surfaces, from tree bark to pebble and moss. Dancing across the wall, they invoke small objects in rhythm and yet at the same time the turning world itself, the ground beneath one's feet; as beautifully ordered as the words in a sonnet.

I've taken good care to avoid the much-touted performances of Spartacus Chetwynd, whose moniker says it all, but here she has produced a very strong work. With its rickety scaffolding and high platform above, and its vast lunette windows on wheels below, The Folding House conjures the tumbrels en route to the guillotine (though the catalogue, it should be said, refers to modernist architecture). What a macabre name that would have been for the scaffold.

Sarah Lucas is also at her best here, in a quasi-classical phase of not-quite figures – of something like limbs, in fact. Writhing, twining, inter-penetrating, these nameless forms are fashioned out of nylon stuffed with kapok, the resemblance to flesh a lesson learned long ago from Louise Bourgeois. But how perfectly Lucas deploys them here to suggest both ecstasy and rapacity; think of John Donne's hands roving "behind, before, above, between, below".

There are 39 artists here and the ratio of good to forgettable is strikingly high. This may be to do with the curators, Tom Morton and Lisa Le Feuvre, who are clearly passionate about art that can speak for itself; and to the eye, not just the mind. But it must also have something to do with the state of contemporary art too, about which they rightly do not generalise.

For any theory that can be made to stretch all the way from Nathaniel Mellors's Rabelaisian language games to Ian Kiaer's super-refined abstract installations can hardly be of much ultimate value. Yet there is one point of connection, it seems to me – intelligence. We are a long way now from the wilful crassness of Britart.

Indeed the high point of this show is quite possibly the subtlest thing in it: Luke Fowler and Lee Patterson's beautiful sound-and-vision project. A walnut in flame, its incandescent energy releasing in high-pitched song; the sound of raindrops on biblically dark water, increasing to apocalyptic thunder: one artist films the places where the other records sound, the material is separately edited then played in parallel.

The convergences are sublime: the corrugated surfaces of gigantic containers on the Clyde rise like organ pipes to the sound of thrumming vibrations in the air. The screen fills with tiny silver lights that seem to quiver like tiny bells: both artists are intent upon a coiled silver spring, quivering in the darkness. Sound poems, poetic visions, these miniature masterpieces present the perpetual son et lumière of the overlooked world.


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October 09 2010

Passionless prize

Tate Britain, London

Be careful what you wish for, lest it come true. This miserabilist's charter came to mind at Tate Britain this week. For the 2010 Turner prize has righted the wrongs of many years and, in theory at least, accomplished everything one could reasonably hope for, and yet it remains imperfect.

This year's shortlist, for instance, is not sensational, modish, tendentious or obscure. The judges have not broken any unspoken rules. None is in charge of a gallery where a shortlisted show took place; none has a professional relationship, as far as I know, with any of the artists. There are no obvious conflicts of interest.

Nor does it strain credulity to imagine that the judges might actually have seen the art in person, as opposed to viewing the works on video or slide. The shortlisted shows were happening here in Britain, not in Eindhoven or Texas, as in years gone by. It is even possible that the public nominations were for once heeded, rather than binned. For some of the shows – Dexter Dalwood at Tate St Ives, Angela de la Cruz at Camden Arts Centre – were both popular and critically praised.

And while some proportion of these facts may have been true in the past, what is so unusual this time round is that we too can see (or hear, in Susan Philipsz's case) the shortlisted art in Tate Britain. Instead of four tranches of new or different works by the shortlisted artists, we have the opportunity to experience a good proportion of the art selected by the judges. We are in their position.

Which is why it pains me to report that this is not the best of shows, however much one might respect both artists and judges. It is beautifully displayed, concise, undoubtedly representative, indubitably serious. But it falls fairly short of exhilarating.

Take Dexter Dalwood, currently tipped as favourite by William Hill. Dalwood is a painter of strength and wit; his pictures touch upon the limits of the imagination.

In the past he has painted interiors that exist, or must once have existed, but were necessarily imagined – Che Guevara's mountain hideout, Jimi Hendrix's last resting place, the Queen's bedroom (with a single-bar heater). The protagonists are always absent, but their presence evoked in the image.

If that were all, Dalwood would not be the modern history painter he is. The Bay of Pigs, the Brighton bomb and Greenham Common have all been portrayed in recent works constructed like out-of-kilter collages full of abrupt stylistic disjunctures. Death of David Kelly has a pale moon rocking in a midnight-blue sky, uninflected as a child might paint it, sadness in its stark simplicity. By contrast, the brown earth below is an open wound of ab-ex brushstrokes: a painfully adult enigma.

In White Flag, Jasper Johns's eponymous white painting of the stars-and-stripes flag appears solid, forming the wall of a compound, its shattered floor strewn with the hookah pipe and Arab slippers from one of Delacroix's Arabic paintings. Every motif in Dalwood's picture acquires a double meaning – eastern-western – by juxtaposition, clinched by the political pun of that title.

But though there are trenchant concepts here, this is by no means the best of Dalwood's recent work. I remember a painting about the execution of the Ceausescus that sampled Baselitz and Goya to terrifying effect, and none of these pictures has anything like that power. Ipso facto, I should stop wishing to see only the shortlisted works.

Another moral easily drawn from this show is that not everything survives Tate Britain. Those who heard the recording of Susan Philipsz's clear, sweet voice singing that melancholy ballad "Lowlands Away" beneath the George V bridge during this year's Glasgow international art festival knows that it drifted out across the water to poignant effect, its lament for a drowned lover now seeming to commemorate all those who drowned themselves there in the Clyde.

These recitals are by definition site-specific. The 16th-century ballads currently issuing from discreet speakers around the City of London put you on the spot, make you mindful of the Shakespearean past. If Philipsz is an artist at all, it is by this fine application of sound to place. At Tate Britain her work dwindles into a pleasant recording.

The Otolith Group – aka Kodwo Eshun and Anjalika Sagar – has turned its gallery into a cross between an arthouse cinema and a seminar room, complete with desklights and books.

On screen you can watch Otolith III, a film initially inspired by one that was never made, Satyajit Ray's 1967 The Alien. The characters from that film are now looking for people to play them, literally searching the streets, alternately hopeful and frustrated; precisely the feelings engendered in the viewer, especially one unfamiliar with The Alien, let alone the critical accretions surrounding its legend.

More compelling by far is Chris Marker's 13-part television series on Ancient Greece. The Owl's Legacy (1989) featured George Steiner, Elia Kazan, Cornelius Castoriadis and many others offering violently contrasting views on Greek culture, from democracy, mythology and music to philosophy and sex. The Otolith Group's contribution is to screen the series on 13 sets simultaneously: emphasising the brilliance of its montages as a montage.But that is secondary compared to the challenge issued to British television executives to broadcast this stupendous series again now.

The remaining contender, Angela de la Cruz, makes sculptures out of paintings, monochrome canvases that are made to behave like real people. Weary, slack, crumpled, slumped, coming apart at the seams, they are stretched past all endurance. A yellow canvas hangs as if over a hooded body, irresistibly proposing the torture victims of Abu Ghraib. Other forms are bent double, battered, collapsed on the floor, anthropomorphism made manifest.

This is a perfectly good selection of de la Cruz's work. She deserves to win as much as Dalwood, but certainly no more than so many other artists showing during the Turner year: for instance Fiona Tan, Willie Doherty, David Shrigley, Katie Paterson, Marcus Coates, Kutlug Ataman, Tacita Dean, Luke Fowler, Rosalind Nashashibi, in no particular order. Which reminds one that this show only represents the taste of five judges, first to last, and nothing more this year – thankfully not the zeitgeist, the market, or the politics of the art world, but nor its passion and excitement.


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October 08 2010

Video verdict

The Guardian's art critic finds there's much to like about this year's Turner prize show, and offers his tip for the winning entry



October 05 2010

What to say about ... the Turner prize

The critics are underwhelmed by this year's crop of artists, even though the gallery had a surprise publicity stunt up its sleeve

Everyone with taste already agrees that Tate Britain itself should win the Turner prize 2010. Few art pieces can match the wry genius of the gallery's own media intervention, in which the organisers created up a legal "document" and presented it to "photographers" who had come to take "pictures" of the "exhibits". Signing this form, furious snappers found, would commit them to ensuring that none of their photographs could be used in a way that might "result in any adverse publicity" for the show. After some ructions, the gallery then staged a humiliating capitulation. As a self-ironising comment on the power and fragility of artistic elites, it was almost equal to Christian Bale's great audio work, Untitled 1, in which he pretended to swear aggressively at a member of the crew on the set of Terminator Salvation.

Sadly, having been founded in 1897, the gallery is too old to compete under the rules of the Turner prize. And so the £25,000 winner's cheque will go to either Dexter Dalwood, Angela de la Cruz, Susan Philipsz or the Otolith Group. And how largely unexciting the critics find them. "Things could be worse," sighs Michael Glover in the Independent with well-practised ease, "but can this really be the best art made in Britain by a man or woman under 50 has to offer?" (The Independent's subeditors may want to have another look at that.) "Contributors go back over the past to look for ideas," says Rachel Campbell-Johnston on The Times website, to about 14 people. "But, once they have got hold of them all, they don't seem to add up to very much."

Most despised is Dalwood. "The relentless promotion of [his] cack-handed paintings of imaginary landscapes and interiors frankly amazes me," says Richard Dorment in the Telegraph. "His pastiches have virtually no aesthetic interest, but that's OK with the artist because Dalwood's one big idea is to add a title that evokes the presence of an absent celebrity without actually depicting him or her."

Philipsz's submission, a recording of her singing transplanted from underneath a Glasgow bridge into Tate Britain, fares slightly better – although in Ben Luke's opinion, "in the gallery, her versions of the Scottish lament Lowlands Away lack that sense of poetry and mystery". Adrian Searle agrees that the effect is different – but the result, he says, is merely that he likes it differently. "The voices [turn] in on themselves instead of lilting over the water and echoing under the bridge," he says. "As you move around the room, the voices cleave you and steal your heart."

The ravaged paintings of De la Cruz are also admired, but with reservations. "This is antediluvian stuff," says Dorment, "but I love it. I have to add however, that she is at her best when she is working in black ... The pretty colours diminish [the] sculptural gravity."

Most intriguing to the critics are the Otolith Group, two artists who have presented a selection of books and videos including a full 13-part television series about classical art. "At times it becomes a visually ravishing dream world," says Glover. "As an enterprise, it also feels monstrously pretentious." Searle agrees: "The Group might well be accused of pretension," he suggests, "but what they really have is ambition ... If one thinks it is derivative – well, nothing comes from nothing, and originality means going back to origins," he adds.

This is about as innovative as the prize can manage this year, in Luke's opinion. "Other than the Otolith Group," he says, "none of the artists are doing anything particularly surprising or fresh." Let's all hope the Tate's lawyer is young enough to be considered in 2011.

Do say: "Fortunately there was not a single thing on display at the Turner prize show that any reasonable person could dislike, or which would negatively impact on Tate's reputation in any way."

Don't say: Anything that could get you sued.

The reviews reviewed: Would have been better with the lights going off and on. Especially off.


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October 04 2010

Dark nights of the soul

From mangled canvasses to disembodied voices singing Scottish laments, the entries for this year's Turner prize are mournful, tough and beautiful, says Adrian Searle. So which of the four contenders should win?

This year's Turner prize exhibition at Tate Britain in London has got soul, passion and intelligence. It resounds with echoes of past music and quotations of past art, as well as all the usual argy-bargy and din that surround the annual prize itself.

Ever since he was a student in the early 1980s, Dexter Dalwood has been interested in producing a kind of narrative painting – art that tells a story. Using De Kooning licks and Rauschenberg drips, his work splices references to famous 19th- and 20th-century paintings into scenes that depict real people and situations: William Burroughs in exile in Tangiers, the mysterious death of weapons inspector David Kelly in the Oxfordshire countryside, the Greenham Common protest, the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Dalwood's human subjects never themselves appear, though their presence and absence is signalled in all kinds of sidelong ways – a pair of slippers and a hookah on a step, a typewriter on a table in Burroughs's room, the wobbly moon hanging over the hill where Kelly died. There are no nukes or protesters in Dalwood's painting of Greenham Common. The author of The Naked Lunch is not at his desk – perhaps he's out scoring drugs or a boy. Instead, Matisse's Moroccans fill Burroughs's bed, and Rauschenberg's brushstrokes and a Cy Twombly scribble mess up his room, like so much mental clutter. Dalwood's attempt to track down the junkie-modernist author in Tangiers is waylaid by all that art.

Dalwood's work forms a narrative of art both contaminated and informed by life. In White Flag, Jasper Johns's white-on-white stars and stripes forms the wall of a compound. Smashed slabs litter the ground, a reference to Hans Haacke's work in the German pavilion at the 1993 Venice Biennale, when the artist tore up the marble floor, an explicit response to the pavilion's Nazi past. Dalwood's paintings are suave and clever, but recontextualising and quoting great art doesn't by itself make you great. Witty though they are, these works are too big, too flat, and suffer the same mechanical failings as grand 18th- and 19th-century history paintings. Spotting the references is apt to make you smug, like shouting answers at the telly while watching University Challenge.

Kodwo Eshun and Anjalika Sagar, the Otolith Group, have turned their space into a kind of darkened seminar room. Lamps illuminate pamphlets on a table. You can sit and read, ponder the 49-minute film Otolith III, projected on to the end wall, or sit with headphones watching The Owl's Legacy, a rarely seen TV series by veteran film-maker and artist Chris Marker about the legacy of ancient Greece, whose 13 parts play on 13 monitors. By showing Marker's work in their Turner space (and retitling it Inner Time of Television), the Otolith Group are presenting us with what they call "a monument to dead television". Words, words, words. More words, quotes by Marker and others, emblazon the walls.

The Otolith Group, at one level, are dismantling the idea of a "Turner prize show". They swamp you and eat your time – you could spend the day in here – which is either to signal that they don't care about winning the prize, or that they want to overwhelm the opposition. "I want more life, father," says the boy in Otolith III, a film that contains fragments of other films and is intended as a kind of prequel to legendary Indian director Satyajit Ray's unmade The Alien. If Dalwood demands of his viewers a certain art historical diligence and knowledge, so the Otolith Groups's film works demand a familiarity not just with auteurs, but also goings-on in the underground art and film scenes of the patchouli-drenched late 1960s. Good Lord, there's the young David Medalla up a ladder at a happening at London's Arts Lab. And there's a painting by Jannis Kounellis floating by. The details accumulate.

But what matters? We see old footage of London, still struggling out of postwar austerity well into the 60s, while a voiceover invites us to search for possible actors among stock footage of pedestrians on the street, asking, "Could this gent play Arthur C Clarke?"

It is all very reminiscent of Marker and of the Black Audio Film Collective, whose work the Otolith Group curated in a major travelling show. The Group might well be accused of pretension (and what's wrong with that?), but what they really have is ambition. Otolith III must be seen from beginning to end in order for it to mean anything. It also has a kind of passion and sadness that means I want to watch it again. If one thinks it is derivative – well, nothing comes from nothing, and originality means going back to origins.

A galumphing, ridiculous act

Much has been made of the formal correspondences between the work of Angela de la Cruz and the late American painter Steven Parrino, who died in 2005; the New York Times's art critic Roberta Smith flagged up the connection in a 1998 review of her work. If De la Cruz's paintings have in the past paralleled some of Parrino's formal gambits and deconstruction of painting's surface and support, she recast the idea of the wounded, damaged painting in terms of her own body image and sense of human vulnerability.

For De la Cruz, even the business of painting became a galumphing, ridiculous and accident-prone act. Her paintings and sculptures may be knocked-about as well as knockabout, but there is a great deal of personal abjection in them. She also lets the muck of daily life in, the frustrations and absurdities of painting, of creativity itself. Each work is a kind of personage, or a plight, or an uncomfortable and sometimes funny situation. Her work is also painful – the broken chair on top of a rickety stool could be taken for a self-portrait, the filing cabinet and paint-rimed metal box jammed together on the wall a kind of collision of bodies, her dangling, mangled canvases fighting gravity, twisting in the wind, flopped hopelessly on the floor. Her Turner prize room is a tough, emphatic display.

Her best and biggest show, in Lisbon in 2006, took place soon after De la Cruz suffered a debilitating stroke, and it took a long time for her to start working again. Both her Turner exhibition and her Camden Art Centre show earlier this year have focused, mostly, on work made prior to her stroke, which interrupted an increasing concern with sculpture and objects. I think De la Cruz is in a moment of transition.

Who will win the Turner?

The final gallery is almost empty. Three audio speakers are hung low on the walls. Daylight falls in. Susan Philipsz's unaccompanied voice fills the space, singing three slightly different versions of the Scottish lament Lowlands Away, the voices moving together and apart, the variations in the lyrics and intonation creating dissonances, harmonic beats, a palpable friction. It is beautiful. As you move around the room, the voices cleave you and steal your heart. The experience is also very sculptural. I found myself thinking of Richard Serra, and the way he makes you feel your own presence in a space.

I first heard Philipsz's Lowlands when it was broadcast beneath a bridge on the Clyde at this year's Glasgow International festival. The effect in a room is utterly different, the voices turning in on themselves instead of lilting over the water and echoing under the bridge. This weekend, and every weekend until January, her voice also echoes and drifts in corners, alleys and courtyards in London's financial district. In this separate project, Surround Me, A Song Cycle for the City of London, Philipsz sings sad and yearning 16th- and 17th-century madrigals by John Dowland, Orlando Gibbons and their contemporaries.

Her voice glances off glass-and-steel office buildings, leaks down alleys and resonates below London Bridge. Unlike walking around with an iPod, the music inhabits the space rather than your head. It follows you like a rumour, dogs your steps, disappears in the traffic. You find yourself looking for it, and searching for what cannot be seen. Susan Philipsz should win the 2010 Turner prize.

Turner Prize 2010: see artist profiles and more images from the show – plus give us your verdict at guardian.co.uk/turnerprize.

Win two tickets to an exclusive private view and guided tour of the Turner Prize exhibition at guardian.co.uk/extra


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Turner prize puts Iraq war centre stage

Dexter Dalwood's 'visual testaments to history' rub shoulders with sound and film installations on diverse 2010 Turner shortlist

See more images from the exhibition and tell us what you think

A painting about the horrors of Falluja is among the works in the 2010 Turner prize exhibition, which opens to the public tomorrow at Tate Britain.

The new work, by Dexter Dalwood, is titled White Flag, a reference to the famous Jasper Johns painting of the same name. In fact, the American artist's whited-out stars and stripes are transformed into a forbidding blank wall in Dalwood's picture.

Part of the imagery in the painting is derived from a video game – which was withdrawn from sale – called Six Days In Fallujah, which aimed to recreate the notorious 2004 Iraq war battle from the point of view of a US marine. Dalwood also references the lush orientalism of Delacroix's Women of Algiers, with a section of the painting richly painted with images of slippers and fine carpets.

Dalwood's unpeopled, meticulously researched paintings are, according to Turner prize exhibition co-curator Katherine Stout, "visual testaments to individual moments in history" – a kind of modern equivalent of the grand history paintings of the 19th century, but packed with references and direct quotes from art of the past, and are "evoking a feeling", according to Stout, rather than providing a direct narrative.

He also shows a work called The Death of David Kelly, which imagines the moonlit spot at which the weapons expert committed suicide in 2003; and another titled Greenham Common.

The other artists on a shortlist described by co-curator Helen Little as "highly rigorous and mature" are the film-makers and collaborators the Otolith Group, painter Angela de la Cruz, and sculptor and sound artist Susan Philipsz. Little said that on a shortlist notable for its diversity of work – ranging from painting to sculpture and from video to sound art – what drew the artists together was an intense questioning of the "limits of their own medium".

For instance, the other painter on the shortlist – the 2010 prize is unusual in having two painters in contention – deliberately damages and breaks her own canvases to transform her works into a kind of sculpture. Little says the Spanish-born De la Cruz is asking: "When is a painting not a painting?" For one work, Deflated IX, she removes a painted canvas from its stretcher altogether and hangs it from a hook, "like a coat from a wall", according to Little. De la Cruz has made a number of works under the collective title Clutter, one of which appears in the show, that recycle old canvases hanging around in her studio. They appear as unruly, dishevelled stacks on the floor, more sculpture than painting, and perhaps a humorous reminder that paintings are, in the end, just "stuff".

Philipsz has recreated a sound work for Tate Britain that was heard this summer under the bridges of the Clyde in her native Glasgow. Strongly tipped as a serious contender to win the prize, the Berlin-based artist recorded herself singing three versions of a traditional Scottish lament, which were then heard drifting over the gloomy waters of the river. For the version at Tate Britain, the visitor will enter a room completely empty but for three speakers.

The Otolith Group – Kodwo Eshun and Anjalika Sagar – question the role and appeal of film. One of their pieces for the exhibition is titled Inner Time of Television – which is, in fact, an installation on 13 screens of a 13-part television programme about ancient Greece called The Owl's Legacy. Made by French film-maker Chris Marker, it was broadcast on Channel 4 in 1989 – an experimental and boldly intellectual programme, according to the artists, that "could never be broadcast on British television today".

The judges for this year's prize are novelist Philip Hensher, curator Polly Staple, Arts Council England's executive director, Andrew Nairne, and the director of the Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian, Isabel Carlos. They are chaired by the Tate Britain director, Penelope Curtis. The winner will be announced on 6 December.


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October 01 2010

Exhibitionist: The week's art shows

From Gerhard Richter in Leicester to the Turner prize in London, find out what's happening in art around the country



September 16 2010

Green sound machine

The Organ of Corti – which takes sounds from saturated environments and recycles them using sonic crystals – wins £50,000 prize for most innovative idea for a new musical work

A £50,000 award given to the most innovative idea for a new musical work was tonight given to an arts practice that recycles everyday noise whether it is the repetitive drone of motorway traffic or the tumbling rapids of a weir.

The biennial New Music award is one of the most financially lucrative prizes in the arts calendar – more even than the Turner or Mercury – and is given to what is judged the most groundbreaking concept for a new musical work, whatever the genre.

At a ceremony at the Serpentine gallery pavilion, in London, first prize went to an arts practice called liminal led by composer David Prior and architect Frances Crow, for their entry, The Organ of Corti, named after a part of the inner ear.

In essence, the project sculpts sounds. It uses a portable structure resembling a fairground organ to take sounds from saturated environments and recycle them using sonic crystals. One of the project's aims is to encourage people to listen more carefully and be more aware of the sounds around them.

The judging panel was chaired by the Guardian's chief arts writer Charlotte Higgins. She said the decision had been unanimous after "a long, sometimes difficult, and always stimulating debate". She added: "The judges admired the quiet beauty of the idea of 'recycling' sound in a world saturated by noise and overwhelmed by music. In a world obsessed by glitz and glamour of large-scale, bells-and-whistles events, the thoughtful, discreet and gentle idea of the Organ of Corti utterly caught their imagination."

The prize, established in 2005, is funded and organised by the PRS for Music Foundation which funds music across all genres, supporting everything from unsigned bands to composer residencies.

Sally Taylor, the foundation's chair, said the award was "about looking beyond the obvious and the commercial and envisaging the music of the future. All five ideas on this year's shortlist, which ranged from site-specific sound art to African-inspired human beatbox, captured this spirit of adventure and discovery."

The liminal work will now premiere at the City of London festival in July 2011. It was chosen by a judging panel that also included the artist Martin Creed, the singer and DJ Bishi, the pianist and conductor Joanna MacGregor, the composer and pianist Michael Finnissy and the music journalist Paul Morley.

Details of all the shortlisted ideas are at www.prsformusicfoundation.com/newmusicaward/index.htm


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September 14 2010

Susan Philipsz turns the screw

Clever old Susan Philipsz, who is nominated for this year's Turner prize. Following the opening of the prize exhibition at Tate Britain on 5 October, there will be a chance to encounter more of her work in the streets of the City of London. The project, organised by arts producers Artangel, will, I imagine, lift her chances for the big prize. Surround Me, which launches on 9 October, is a collection of site-specific sound works that visitors to the City at the weekends, when the throb of traffic and workers on the move has ebbed away, will chance across, hearing recordings of her gentle, untrained voice singing a series of English renaissance songs. These include New Oysters, Thomas Ravenscroft's round for four voices published in 1609, which can be heard at Change Alley; John Dowland's Flow My Tears (1609) at London Bridge, and a favourite of mine, Orlando Gibbons's 1612 round The Silver Swan, which will be sited at Tokenhouse Yard. It contains the immortal lines: "Farewell, all joys! O Death, come close mine eyes!/ More geese than swans now live, more fools than wise." Most of the other songs are almost as cheerful.


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August 04 2010

Prickly customers

Cactii on parade, steps to nowhere, and a vast psychotropic dome . . . Jonathan Jones on the two Turner prize-winning artists who are lighting up this year's Edinburgh art festival

As I walk up the Scotsman Steps, a neglected walkway rising from central Edinburgh to the Old Town, I notice a trickle of urine slowly heading in the opposite direction – down towards the Fruitmarket Gallery. There, appropriately enough, Martin Creed is exhibiting his plans for this sorry thoroughfare. The 2001 Turner prize-winner wants to cover every single step with a different coloured slice of marble from a different part of the world. Sadly, his idea has been much delayed, as a redevelopment scheme has to take place first; in the meantime, visitors must make do with Creed's show at the Fruitmarket instead.

Down Over Up, a series of ruminations on the theme of steps and stairs, gives an insight into the Scotsman Steps project. I go in. I go up. I go down. Yup, this is a staircase. Up. Down. I don't think about it that much. Do I want to? Do I need to? Creed has rigged things so that every step triggers a musical note from speakers on the stairs. It's like walking on a synthesiser. Ping, I step up. Pong, I step down. It is often said, of a certain kind of contemporary art, that it makes you aware of your own body and its position in the world, but I don't feel aware of anything much more than the fact that I'm going up and down. Meanwhile, in the lift, a choir sings angelic scales: up from bass to soprano, down from soprano to bass.

On the ground floor, the artist has painted diagonal black stripes along a wall. This doesn't seem to do anything except accentuate the unshapeliness of the gallery. Maybe that's why he put it there; Creed does like to annoy and confound. His Sick Films (films of people being sick) and Shit Films (do I have to elaborate?) are not shown here. At the top of the stairs, a sculpture soars upwards, tall and thin, like some stiff Giacometti. It's made of Lego. It seems as deliberately shocking as those films, in the gleeful way it invites that remark: "A child could do this." It's a good joke. Yes, Creed seems to be saying, a child could do this; after all, this is a kid's toy, do you have a problem with that? No, no problem, but it doesn't give me any deep satisfaction as art, either.

It's as if Creed wants to make sure his art never becomes respectable, which it easily could: many of the works here are gorgeous drawings and paintings. The sketches explore the spectrum of colours, his blueprints perhaps for the Scotsman Steps. From a distance, they stand apart from each other, like musical notes of intense colour, gracefully varied, yet repeating a minimalist sequence that might have been composed by Steve Reich. Only up close do you discover that they were drawn with a felt-tip pen. They are revelations of how close beauty is to us, if we only knew it.

The paintings are slighter: colourful stairs and ziggurats. They remind me of old 1970s film posters for Italian movies, with their cartoon-like reductive style. One row of drawings is juxtaposed with a row of cactus plants: like many other works here (even a rank of nails) the cactii rise in height, an echo of the musical scale. Again, the absurdity of organising the spiky green plants in this way, giving them a hierarchy, is funny.

Towering above all this are Creed's stacks of chairs and cardboard boxes. These simple sculptures have an instant elegance – each a perfect example of the readymade, of the belief that art can be put together from the ordinary, with only the slightest effort. Throughout this show, Creed's appetite for lumpen reality collides with a longing for harmony, the harmony of the musical scale. Still, taken as a whole, it is hard to avoid the suspicion that it's all a contrived, half-serious, half-ironic pose. There is too much of nothing here, too many variations on one idea.

Two ancient Greek artists once competed to draw the thinnest line. The one who got closest to nothing was judged the greatest. In this sense, Creed is made to seem loud and self‑regarding next to Richard Wright's more convincing self-effacement. Before Wright was shortlisted for the Turner prize last year, few people had heard of this Glasgow painter. Then he unveiled a gold wall painting at Tate Britain that dazzled everyone and won the award.

Wright gave up making paintings to sell because he felt "there were too many things". Now he paints on walls, and lets his works be covered over, destroyed even, after a few weeks. But at the Dean Gallery, he has been persuaded to paint something permanent. Called The Stairwell Project, this is a meticulous network of black, flower-like shapes rising into one of the Dean's towers.

Illuminated by natural light from four windows, it seems to change constantly. I saw it on a cloudy day, with creamy clouds glowing in the windows and interacting richly with Wright's design. The work reveals the artist's fascination with perspective. It's as if the glitter was for London, the serious exploration for Edinburgh. Is this wall painting even better than his Turner winner? It certainly lives up to it, and cleverly answers critics who thought his mural was just decorative. Here, Wright achieves an effect just as powerful, through the creation of illusory space; he deploys the same understanding of design that let Renaissance artists and fresco painters make landscapes and clouds seem real.

This is no 3D gimmick, but a subtle, shimmering and richly ambiguous mist of marks. Wright has calculated complex patterns that lead your eye into warped, receding dips of fictional space. A divide seems to open in the pale air and your mind slips through, in an almost psychotropic state. How does he do it? With interfoldings of flecks and spots that echo one of his painter heroes, Titian. Just as Titian used brief, dappled brushstrokes to create a smoke of colour, so Wright deploys fragmentary marks to enchant the light.

His means are ancient, his sources historical, but Wright's art is profoundly of our time. Its theme is intoxication, ecstasy: 1960s psychedelic album covers fire his imagination alongside Titian. Here is painting remade as a drug. These two exhibitions offer two models for art in this century. Creed is the hero of an art that seems to inhabit the perpetual now, while Wright creates something very new from the very old. I hope Wright's triumphant work is the future of art.

Down Over Up is at the Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh (0131-225 2383), until 31 October. The Stairwell Project is at the Dean Gallery (0131-624 6200).


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June 21 2010

Fight and flight

She has filmed a helicopter ballet, melted a jet – and caused a storm by transcribing a porn epic. Will Fiona Banner's latest work go further?

Rising up through the middle of Fiona Banner's two-storey studio is the upturned wing of a Tornado fighter plane. From the first floor, you can see its tip, slicing ominously through the floorboards like an oversized shark fin. If you lean in close, you can make out hundreds of words etched like hieroglyphics into the wing's smooth metal: "arse", "shadow", "light behind stark against dark skin".

This is Tornado Nude, a work Banner made four years ago: a female life model stood naked in front of her while she painted a description on to the wing of a decommissioned jet. "The Tornado," Banner tells me as she shows me around this high-ceilinged east London space, in which her many works are propped against walls and arranged neatly on tables (a plant sits on a sun-terrace in an old aircraft propeller), "is a really, really important and very vicious airplane. And then I engraved this very delicate and traditional life drawing on to it, in words, and now that's become part of it. It's become this totem, this sculpture – possibly an object you might even worship."

Object of veneration or not, Tornado Nude embodies the preoccupations for which Banner is best known: sex, nudity and war. She has, variously, created a catalogue of every fighter plane currently in use by the British military; published a 1,000-page book containing frame-by-frame descriptions of Vietnam war movies (she calls these "wordscapes" or "still films"); and written a "striptease in words" of the actor Samantha Morton's naked body. In 2002, Banner was nominated for the Turner prize. Her exhibition for the nominees' show included Arsewoman in Wonderland, a no-holds-barred description in words of a porn film of the same name, screenprinted in pink ink on a white billboard and duly displayed at Tate Britain. There was a predictable flurry of outrage; the then culture minister Kim Howells, commenting on the exhibition as a whole, scrawled "conceptual bullshit" across a Tate comment card and pinned it to the visitors' wall.

Undeterred, Banner is returning to Tate Britain next week, where she will unveil a new work commissioned for the museum's two central neoclassical Duveen galleries. Previous artists who have stepped up to this challenge include Martin Creed, who in 2008 sent a series of runners sprinting through the crowds at 30-second intervals; and Anya Gallaccio, who in 2002 filled one gallery with oak trees, and the other with a carpet of sugar. Banner is not allowed to tell me what she'll be doing – all will be revealed next Monday – and can only point to her official statement, that she is looking forward to "working with the phallic pillars of this extraordinary grandiose space". But she can tell me what she won't be doing, which is "exhibit[ing] an entire Westland Lynx helicopter that saw service in the Falkands war", as her Wikipedia entry erroneously had it (it has since been corrected). "That's so weird!" she says in a stage whisper, blue eyes widening. "That's not my plan – though I did recently try to buy a Westland Lynx helicopter. But I bought a Tornado instead."

In person, Banner is not at all what you might expect of a sometime porn consumer, war-film aficionado and collector of military aircraft: dressed all in blue – blue shirt, blue jeans, blue jacket – she is wiry and casually elegant, with a direct, easy charm. Her work, too, is quieter, more delicate, intimate and many-layered, than its headline-grabbing subject matter might suggest.

On the ground floor of her studio, Banner shows me All the World's Fighter Planes, a work that was 10 years in the making, and which she completed last year. It's a glass case filled with pictures of aircraft cut haphazardly from newspapers, each one meticulously labelled like an animal specimen: Hawk, Harrier, Bear, Chinook. "I started making this years ago," she says. "I'd been cutting out pictures of fighter planes from newspapers for a while, and realised I'd started a collection. I became strangely excited by the idea that they all had these names from nature. On one level I find these planes incredibly beautiful, but on another level I'm horrified by them."

The ungainly Chinook (in nature, either a kind of wind or a Native American people) is a particular favourite. Banner has spent the last few months at airshows at RAF Odiham in Hampshire, filming pilots perform an unlikely "Chinook ballet" for a new work. "The Chinook is really bizarre," she says. "It's so inelegant, it looks like it shouldn't be able to fly. In the ballet, they've given the Chinooks certain movements – a turn, a sidestep, a double-twist. It's the most extraordinary thing."

From Rilke to Top Gun

Banner's fascination with aircraft may, she says, springs from the long walks she took as a child in the Welsh countryside with her father (she was born in Merseyside in 1966, later moving to London to study at Kingston University and Goldsmiths). "It was completely sublime and pastoral and beautiful," she says. "And then something like a Tornado would come out of nowhere, and the sound would be absolutely phenomenal. We'd be completely astounded, but somehow the beauty of the moment would surpass even the loveliness of where we were and what we were doing."

For one new work, called Tornado, Banner is taking this interest in aircraft even further: she is smelting down her newly acquired Tornado plane into aluminium ingots, and turning those into a huge bell that she plans to display later this summer, in Newcastle. She shows me her carefully shaded drawings for the bell, pinned to a wall. "From the outside," she says, "a bell is a clear object of communication. But in this case, coming from an aeroplane, it has quite a complex DNA."

Banner says that her work progresses more by accident than by design, although she clearly works hard, spending long days alone in her studio with her dog, Olive (a mongrel or "Hackney orgy dog" who recently took a tumble through the hole in the floorboards around Tornado Nude). She never made a conscious decision to be an artist; as a teenager, she read Robert Lowell, Emily Dickinson and Rilke, and dreamed of being a poet or a novelist. At art college, her fascination with words resurfaced, and she found herself writing the first of her wordscape descriptions, of the film Top Gun. "I struggled away with making pictures for years and years," Banner says, "and I found it incredibly complicated. The writing just started to come to the fore as a way through it." She remains obsessed with books – she had her own ISBN code tattooed on to her lower back last year, and runs a publishing imprint, Vanity Press – but her interest is more formal than literary. "I'm as interested in the object of a book as much as the content," she says.

Banner's preoccupation with traditionally masculine subject matter – war films, flying machines, the female nude – raises an obvious question: does she consider herself a feminist? "No," she replies, quickly and emphatically. "No. It's not that I'm radically unfeminist or anything" – she gives an awkward laugh – "it's because I think feminism belonged to a particular point and time. And I can't afford to be part of any 'ism' as an artist. That sounds lofty and possibly a bit pompous, but I just don't impose my political agenda on my work. I'm incredibly lucky to be at this point in history, where female artists are given space and visibility."

What about when that visibility leads to controversy, as happened with Arsewoman in Wonderland? Banner rolls her eyes. "That was one piece! And they're still calling me 'the porn artist'! I just think that sort of kneejerk, oo-er missus reaction is not helpful, really. Because art is layered and complex and requires reflection. And because I never set out to be controversial. On the whole, I actually make very quiet work."

She says she is not afraid of failure; in fact it is something she expects, even embraces. "I find art incredibly difficult," she says. "Most of the things that happen in here, in this studio, they're an investigation. An experiment. I'm with [Samuel] Beckett: 'Fail again. Fail better.'" And when success, in the form of a high-profile commission such as the Duveens, comes her way – what does that mean? She hesitates. "I want to say that it doesn't mean anything. It depends on whether what you do with it will still mean something to you in years to come. And whether it will still mean something to the people that come and see it."


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May 10 2010

A grotesque eye on history

Beautifully coloured and ever-sharp, Steve Bell's cartoons have been a general election highlight. If anyone in Britain is a true history painter, it's him

Last week saw the painter Dexter Dalwood being shortlisted for the Turner prize. According to his jury citation he is a "history painter"; the name of David, the great artist of the Oath of the Horatii, was invoked.

Hmm. There was another event last week – a historic one. The general election 2010 offered newspaper readers, and followers of the Guardian in particular, the chance to see "history paintings" every day. Let's hear it for the political cartoonists. But why be coy? Let's hear it for Steve Bell.

The Guardian's cartoonist has far more claim to be called a "history painter" than Dalwood does. Bell is one of my favourite contemporary artists, and has been since I was at school. In the dark days of Thatcherism, his strip If… was a rallying cry and comic escape rolled into one: it was what made me a Guardian reader.

If… continues, gloriously, but what made me laugh most in this election were Bell's ambitious, indeed epic, creations for the comment pages. These are masterpieces in the vein of Gillray. On Friday, he caught the reality of a hung parliament more accurately than any number of words can.

Art criticism should surely mean being awed by talent, and it is awe-inspiring how Bell can produce images that are so beautifully coloured while being so grotesquely apposite – and do this to punishingly tight deadlines. And the cartoon is a great art form. Tate Britain is right to honour it with the exhibition Rude Britannia: British Comic Art, due to open in June. In truth, this is our own national genre of "history painting".

While artists such as David were making history the highest genre in 18th-century France, the attempts of British artists from James Barry to Joshua Reynolds to elevate history painting in Britain never quite took off. Instead, the local alternative of comic history painting was born. Regency cartoons with their vicious depictions of political leaders have a sense of history all their own, a scabrous vision of the follies of the world. It surely lives in Bell's vision of the general election.


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May 08 2010

Does the Turner prize matter?

Its supposed to promote contemporary art — but has the Turner lost its touch?

NO: Laura Cumming

Not any more. It has long since outlived its most useful function, which was to raise awareness of contemporary art in a society that often found it strange, forbidding, arcane or just plain laughable.

Consciousness-raising was the Turner's founding aim in 1984. The prize created hoopla, especially when broadcast on national TV with a panel of critics, commentators and artists in violent disagreement. But you cannot manufacture dissent like this without passionate opinions. And while there may be no consensus among the judges – or at least that's what they always insist when publishing their accounts of the experience – I strongly doubt that the issue of who wins the prize nowadays raises anybody's blood pressure.

The world has changed since 1984. Contemporary art is everywhere: bought, sold, debated, displayed, televised, mediated, thoroughly and ubiquitously exposed. As many people go to galleries as football matches; Tate Modern is the most visited contemporary art museum in the world. Shock has yielded, happily, to confident familiarity.

Partly that is because the art itself has changed. The tabloids used to puff up like furious bullfrogs over the shark, the shed and the unmade bed. Now they are reduced – along with the BBC's arts editor – to pretending that the relative maturity of this year's shortlist (in their 40s) is some sort of surprise or affront. The expectation of outrage is so high it must be met; but it's an expectation sustained, and fulfilled, not by the art so much as the media.

2010 is a respectable shortlist. The show, opening this autumn, should be interesting and entirely uncontroversial. And it is always worth remembering that there are two separate Turner prize events – the award announcement on Channel 4 news and the show at Tate Britain, which is a chance for the public to see a group exhibition of fairly well established artists, excellent some years, excruciating others. It is the exhibition, not the award, that counts.

The prize has had real strengths. It's attracted a new audience to contemporary art. It has given what used to be precious public space to young artists. As more and more artists have arrived in Britain from overseas, it has become an increasingly international prize.

But this is still a small island. The pool of artists is relatively small (and so is the pool of judges). Since exceptional new talent doesn't just keep arriving out of nowhere, year after year, at the very least the prize should reflect that fact.

These days, artists are rarely shortlisted more than once. This is insane. You wouldn't expect Coetzee or Keneally to be shortlisted just once for the Man Booker and then ignored for the rest of their career. In the early years, Richard Long was shortlisted four times and though it may have been painful he was in considerable company: Lucian Freud, Howard Hodgkin, Patrick Caulfield, Richards Deacon and Wilson. Can you even remember who was shortlisted last year? Who won the year before? Has anything been seen of Tomma Abts since she won in 2006?

And the besetting faults of the award never seem to change. There is the impossible task of drawing up a shortlist in the first place. Unless the judges are full-time professionals, doing the back-to-back biennale circuit, there isn't much hope that they will all have had the opportunity to see the shortlisted works. And since these are very rarely the ones displayed at Tate Britain, the public has even less chance of seeing what it was the judges so admired.

I don't say the Turner prize should be abolished, since I am keenly in favour of rewarding artists with money and space. But I do wish that it hadn't become so entrenched. It wouldn't take much to reform the rules. Yet somehow, as with so many British institutions, they remain stuck.

Laura Cumming is the Observer's art critic

YES: Iwona Blazwick

The Turner prize has played an enormous role in creating an appetite for contemporary art in the UK. In the past 10 years we've seen gallery attendance figures double, triple, it's been extraordinary. We're a betting nation so it's rather clever that through this populist structure the Tate introduced the uninitiated public to contemporary art, especially when it was televised and became a nationwide event. Back then there was the glamour too, everyone got their frocks out. It's a little too casual now but it still generates excitement, people discuss who they're backing, William Hill takes odds and some organisations do sweepstakes.

The prize has also spawned many imitations internationally, some of them in places where there's a much smaller audience for art, such as Holland's Vincent award. Those imitators understand that this way of presenting contemporary art gives audiences a greater affinity with an area of culture generally seen as elite and opaque.

But the contemporary art world still has a lot of battles to win. Britain still has an iconoclastic culture which privileges the word. Journalists and the public have become more comfortable with the language of contemporary art so the critical response is more sophisticated but the visual arts don't get the same editorial space as other artforms.

From a public perspective the Turner prize is like the Booker, or the Orange, it guides you, narrows the field. For anyone wanting to know what's happening in contemporary art it's a great starting point.

From an industry point of view it presses a pause button, makes us stand back and take a more focused position. For me it raises questions like: why have these four been picked out of the huge panoply of activity? What do they represent? Can we see a movement emerging? I actually thought last year's prize was one of the best because of the diversity of work. It struck me that even 40 years ago, if the prize had existed, you would've seen four different versions of one tendency – pop art or before that abstract expressionism. To see that shift was interesting – it proved that there are no more "isms".

People complain that some of the prize's shock-factor has gone but I was on the jury in 1993 when Rachel Whiteread was nominated for House and the media furore was exhausting. It was incredibly exciting when she won, she was so deserving of the prize. The entire room got to its feet to give her a standing ovation, and I've never seen that before. But I'm not sure I would want to return to that level of media frenzy. It was actually brutal, especially for the artists.

There have been some winners who have not been particularly successful in the marketplace but in general it's an extraordinary opportunity for them on both a national and world stage. The competitive element of it is a nightmare for the artists because it's not judging like with like, it's apples and pears. But the competition is what generates the excitement and just being nominated is a kind of endorsement. When the Turner first started the artists just had one work of art each in the Duveen galleries at Tate Britain and now it's a proper exhibition.

The only thing I would question is how the prize can be sustained annually without raising the 50-year age limit. A lot of people incorrectly think the prize is for young artists but it was never that. It can overextend new and emerging artists; they need a chance to fail. It's about celebrating an artist's contribution to British art, it's for artists who are at the top of their game without this being their retrospective moment. There have been certain artists who have only come to prominence in their 50s, many of them women, such as Susan Hiller, and they'll never get the chance to be considered.

Iwona Blazwick is director of east London's Whitechapel Gallery


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May 07 2010

Sound art is here to stay

Sound artist Susan Philipsz's inclusion on the Turner prize shortlist should make Britain sit up and listen

The presence of Susan Philipsz, an artist who works primarily with sound, on the Turner prize shortlist is welcome but overdue recognition for a major part of our cultural life. Sound art is nothing new: it has its roots in the early 20th century, with the dadaists and futurists – perhaps even as far back as prehistory, when someone first hung a gourd rattle in a tree just because they liked how it sounded when the wind blew.

And, in London at least, the sound art scene has never seemed so vibrant: Céleste Boursier-Mougenot's guitar-playing finches at the Barbican; Florian Hecker's solo exhibition at the Chisenhale gallery; the extraordinary range of work at the AV festival; and Bill Fontana's installation River Sounding in the light wells under Somerset House. The Turner judges have taken the first step in what will turn out to be a long and interesting journey .

But what actually is "sound art"? The answer is that it's hard to define narrowly. There are fruitful overlaps with contemporary classical composition, experimental rock music and improvisation. Sound artists use everything from sine wave generators to lectures, wildlife recordings, public space, bell ringing, electromagnetic fields – even the odd folk song.

More importantly, perhaps, sound art can be as much to do with the act of listening as it is with making the work. Many of us now live in a world of visual and auditory overload. We happily make do with a pixelated version of music on our MP3 players, and end up hearing things we do not want to. We tolerate buildings and public spaces that look OK, but sound terrible. We eat and shop in places where music and noise are calibrated just short of inducing hysteria. We stick our fingers in our ears when trains screech on dirty tracks. For those of us who live under flight paths or in hectic, noise-filled cities, the recent cloud of volcanic ash brought with it something astonishing – the revelation of hearing the sound of birds and insects for the first time.

Clearly it would be daft to claim that sound art can be instrumental in resolving all, or any, of the above. But maybe it's a start. And, as a more modest proposal in the meantime, I would suggest that taking some time out to visit Fontana's River Sounding, or Chris Watson's forthcoming Whispering in the Leaves in the Palm House at Kew, or Paul Rooney's sound work McKenzie in Liverpool later this month. All will change how you listen to the world.


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May 04 2010

April 30 2010

Who should be nominated for this year's Turner prize?

Last year I wrote that Banksy should make the Turner shortlist – with no standout candidates for 2010, have things changed?

Tuesday sees the announcement of the Turner prize shortlist. One critic has described the prize as "bipolar", veering between good and bad years. Last year's shortlist – which I was involved in selecting and judging – was well-received, after a widely criticised instalment the year before. Will this year's list live up to 2009's, or will it outdo it? In other words, can the Turner have two good years in a row?

It's always fun to speculate about who will be shortlisted. I hope this year's judges come up with some unexpected and exciting names – controversy, too, never goes amiss. But it's not been a spectacular year for British art: there has been no equivalent to Roger Hiorns's Seizure, which simply demanded to be considered. On the other hand, the usual suspects who might so easily have been on last year's list are still around: don't be surprised if the names Ryan Gander, Charles Avery or Susan Philipsz appear in the papers next week. Last year's Turner exhibition featured no film or video for the first time in donkey's years, so perhaps they will go the other way and select a video artist such as Hilary Lloyd or a filmmaker such as Rosalind Nashashibi.

But actually, one British artist has genuinely made an impact this year. 12 months ago I wrote here that I had decided not to nominate Banksy for the Turner shortlist: some people seemed to think I had stopped him being on it and that he was being considered seriously by the rest of the jury. In fact, as far as I know, I was the only juror considering him. In the end, he didn't seem to be doing much that was new – but this year it's a different story. In the last 12 months his museum show in Bristol drew delighted crowds and his film Exit Through the Gift Shop revealed a humour about his own enterprise that contrasts wonderfully with the dull arrogance of a Hirst. So for my money Banksy should be on the Turner shortlist this year. It's a no-brainer. I wonder if the jury will agree. We'll know on Tuesday.


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