As the birds drift south, and trees across the continent shiver from yellow to deep red, and the first dustings of snow arrive, we can only acknowledge the approaching winter in North America, and overseas, the annual arrival of the art loons in England.
Yes, it’s the season for the Turner Prize.
This yearly art carnival, and its $80,000 dollars in prize money, sponsored by the prestigious Tate Gallery, regularly sends the art world into fits of rage and enthusiasm.
The 2006 jury consisted of three curators and a newspaper critic (not an artist among them).
Most curators and critics today are well-versed in artspeak, a peculiar language related to Klingon, but more incomprehensible.
Artspeakers have mastered using many abstract words while saying nothing.
Just combine affirmative, investigate, explore, physicality, and causality in a sentence and voila! You’re an art critic and/or curator.
The year started with a bang when the critic admitted she’d finished judging the award as naive about art as the day she started.
So much for wise juries.
She also casually mentioned that not one juror had seen all the shows nominated.
Ah well. If someone tells you its good, it must be good.
The latest nominees, while acceptably ludicrous, didn’t quite rise to the Olympian heights of previous anointees. After all, how can you top last year’s winner, Simon Sterling, who ripped a shed apart, reassembled it into a makeshift boat and sailed it down the Thames to the gallery where he turned it back into a shed?
But the jury tried hard by nominating paintings that resembled reproductions of wall art from a retro furniture store, lumps of unfired clay on boxes, videos of people who claim they were mistreated by Reality TV shows and an artist who quotes advertising campaigns.
Speaking of quotes, here’s the ‘sculptor’ on her clay lumps: “The figures are quite inept, but in a good way. I think too much training would be a bit of curse. I want them to look like they’d been made by a sort of pervy, middle-aged art teacher.” Now that’s an artist!
Previous winners include Martin Creed’s The Lights Go On and Off, which consisted of an empty room with a flickering light.
This caused many meditations on temporality, and naturally, enlightenment.
Tracy Emin’s 1999 Unmade Bed was also a crowd pleaser. She just moved her bed into the gallery, adorned with her menstrual knickers and several rather unsavoury stains.
In the uproar over this challenge of traditional definitions of art, two wannabe artists stripped down to their shorts, leapt onto the bed, and had a pillow fight while shouting at each other in Mandarin.
As they were being hauled away by the security staff they insisted that Unmade Bed was an “unfinished” art work and they were merely completing it.
In a memorably rare moment of wisdom the Tate refused to press charges — thereby avoiding the opportunity for a judge in a courtroom to decide what is art and what is vandalism.
Emin’s inspired bed was defeated by Steve McQueen’s photograph/slide of a half-submerged bicycle wheel.
The jurors “admired the poetry and clarity of his vision, the range of his work, its emotional intensity and (his) economy of means.” Translated, this means it was a good photograph of a bicycle wheel in a creek.
But the real genius of the Turner Prize has to be Damien Hirst. He made his reputation with a dead shark in a formaldehyde tank. The philistine tabloid, the Sun, immediately headlined its purchase as “$95,000 for fish and chips.”
Unfortunately, his masterpiece soon began to decompose, despite the formaldehyde. Hey, even geniuses have had bad days.
Recently purchased for $8 million by a New York collector with a bigger wallet than brain, the sculpture is now a muddy tank of shark goo.
Mr. Hirst is spending more than $700,000 on replacing the shark with one that won’t rot.
Needless to say, this caused an uproar. Can original art also be a replica?
Hirst, naturally, considers controversy an important part of his art.
Hirst has had his problems with art critics.
His exhibit of a dead bull mounting an eviscerated cow was refused entry by New York customs officials who deemed it “a hazard to public health.”
They didn’t understand that decay was a “natural process.” He also ran into trouble with his epic assemblage, Party Time.
Hirst, like many fine, contemporary artists has a keen interest in detritus. After the wildly successful opening of this popular installation, the janitor came along.
Encountering the assemblage of partial sandwiches, half-filled coffee cups, empty beer bottles, and over-flowing ashtrays, he assumed it was left-over junk from the opening, and diligently hauled it to the dumpster.
Since Hirst can command $500,000 for a minor artwork there was some dismay at first, until Hirst declared the incident “hysterically funny,” thus rescuing the poor janitor’s job.
His closest competitor is Chris Olifi, whose much-noted painting of the Virgin Mary smeared with elephant dung sent New York over the deep end.
Olifi’s reputation was diminished somewhat recently when, along with the rest of the Tate board, he pleaded for artists to donate their art to the Tate because it couldn’t afford to buy much — shortly before the Tate announced its purchase of his latest work for $1.5 million.
These artists and their scandals often outraged me, until, while writing these words, I heard the radio announce that a perverted milk truck driver had assassinated several little girls in an Amish school.
Suddenly I was remembering the cluster bombs in Lebanon, the-gold threaded bath curtains of a corrupt CEO’s servant, the latest tour of the Rolling Stones, the use of woman as breeders in the ‘Christian’ town of Bountiful, the belief of Jihadists that they will fly to heaven in the belly of a green bird, and the sad comedies of Reality TV.
This wacky bunch of conceptualists and installation artists are just that, artists, real artists, holding up a mad mirror to the modern mind.
Brian Brett, poet, journalist, novelist, lives on Salt Spring Island and returns to the Yukon whenever he can. His new book of poetry and prose is Uproar’s Your Only Music.