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Annabel James has published 13 articles

Review: Turner Prize 2009

Annabel James explores this year's entrees to the ever controversial Prize
Annabel James on Saturday 26th December 2009
Photograph: Sam Drake and Gabrielle Johnson, Tate Photography

After previous shortlists, which have included Keith Tyson’s wall-text ‘Arsewoman in Wonderland’, Chris Ofili’s paintings with elephant dung and, of course, Damien Hirst’s various bovine experiments, this year’s Turner looks decidedly tame. There is little in the way of surface sensationalism; instead, all the artists seem concerned with raising questions through the de-contextualization of material or subject matter.

The room of Lucy Skaer’s work is dominated by a huge whale skeleton, concealed but for slits in the wall around it, part of her installation ‘Leviathan Edge’ (2009). It might seem gimmicky to have spectators peering closely and walking about to try and get a full view of what is in front of them, but Skaer’s approach questions the limits of empirical knowledge. Her enforced slowing down of the process of looking leads us to question how much we can ever know of this skeleton, whether it is partially obscured in a gallery or spot lit on a plinth in a science museum. The shapes of the whale’s bones seem to correspond to her work ‘Black Alphabet (after Brancusi)’ (2008), a series of 26 identical objects that repeat the form and number of all the ‘Bird in Flight’ sculptures Constantin Brancusi made in his lifetime. Whereas his were bronze, alabaster or marble, and praised for evoking the weightlessness of flight, Skaer’s are batch-produced out of compressed coal dust. The solid weight of these forms and their matte black surface entirely contradicts their streamlined, finlike shape. In transforming the originals, Skaer highlights the impossibility of sculpting something as intangible as ‘flight’. 

The next room’s installation by Enrico David, a self-described ‘modern Surrealist’, delivers perhaps more what you’d expect from the Turner Prize. The assortment of cloth dolls, pornographic photographs and large papier-mâché eggs looks cheap, more than anything. Bits of craft paper messily stapled onto MDF are so self-effacing they beg you to seek out an underlying conceptual framework – but the objects themselves aren’t giving anything away. The aforementioned eggs, for example, stand about two metres high with an oversized photo of a human face pasted on the front. They rest on wooden runners, which, if you stepped on them, would make the egg roll, forward and crash into you – presumably, you would be consumed by its face. Elsewhere, a long cloth doll drapes across things, its useless distorted limbs lolling grotesquely. It’s all very sinister, but apart from a general sense of impending doom, David’s various transformations of the human body do not seem to cohere. 

Roger Hiorns’ material experiments are perhaps the clearest demonstration that our ideas about everyday sights are completely determined by their contexts. The use of strange materials, or rather, materials in strange contexts, is a central concern of Hiorns’ work, and his untitled 2008 piece consists of what appears to be a pile of dust of different shades of grey, heaped on the floor of the gallery. When we learn that it’s actually an atomised passenger jet plane, our perceptions of what seemed insignificant dirt or rubbish are undeniably changed. What seemed like meaningless, pointless matter now appears to comment on the aviation industry, on 9/11, the fallibility of machinery, the limits of human invention. 

However, it is the untitled 2009 wall painting by Richard Wright that is this year’s winner. The single painting occupying one wall of a large white room was made directly onto the gallery walls and will be painted over after the exhibition. Few photographs are available of it and there are no postcards. The imagery is non-figurative, bafflingly intricate with many lines of symmetry, and all rendered in gold leaf. This material links back to religious frescoes of the Renaissance and earlier, but here there is no overt religious subject matter, and no hierarchy of divinity, since the gold covers everything. What is more, the certainty of this image’s destruction seems a comment on the impossibility of a truly everlasting religion. We may get caught up in the surreal mathematics of this design – close-up, the immersive patterns are sublimely  beautiful – but its existence as an object is finite.

Wright has said of his approach to painting that he ‘wanted to get at the idea without the object getting in the way’, and his Prize entry seems the closest possible way of doing this without painting nothing at all. In that sense, it is a quiet rebellion against art that demands to be remembered through sensationalist images seared on the viewers’ memories. Rather than attempting to evade the fragility of art in the face of time, Wright’s paintings acknowledge it by disappearing of their own accord. Perhaps this year’s Turner is not so tame after all, then. Its winning piece is thoroughly anti-institutional, just not in the same way a cow in formaldehyde is. 

Four stars

The Turner Prize 2009 is on at the Tate Britain, London until 3rd January.

Admission is £8. 

Photo: Lucy Skaer - 'Thames and Hudson' (2009) - courtesy of the artist and dogfisher, Edinburgh. © Copyright the artist.