Wednesday, 23 October 2013

The Turner Prize 2013: First Impressions

The UK's most prestigious art exhibition visits Derry-Londonderry. Our writer tours the four galleries and presents his initial thoughts

Leaving the relatively shiny cobblestones of the now nearly two-year-old Ebrington Square behind me, I tread onto a short twisting gravel passage sandwiched between mossy surfaces. Lest I sound too poetic or artistic, the brick building in front of me looks relatively ordinary; worn-down and old-fashioned, as you'd expect from a site that ceased to be an army barracks a long time ago. But wait a minute. Twisting and turning everyday life or run-of-the-mill objects into art that makes a powerful statement; isn't that what the Turner Prize is all about?

The inside of the building is as professionally prepared as you would expect any "prestigious" art house to be. Programmes and art books are easily accessible in the reception area. Legenderry coffee, tea and food, prepared by the staff from the city's most famous Warehouse, await upstairs for those needing to take a breather.

Into prize nominee David Shrigley's exhibition I step, and before even looking at the artwork (more on this in a moment) I am struck by the spotlessness of the gallery's walls and floor, the lighting and the London accented voices I hear. It is as if one has been instantaneously transported to England's capital city.

But back to Shrigley. Renowned for drawings and animations that satirise and commentate on what people do and say, the Macclesfield-born artist has chosen 2012's "Life Model" as the basis for his exhibit. And what do we have here? A tall, mechanical and nude humanoid figure, with rather large ears, a long nose, a prominent fringe and very, very thick sideburns.

"He" even blinks at inconsistent intervals, and "urinates" in a metal bucket placed below him. On its own, the model seems rather creepy, suggesting a man "going about his business" with absolutely no awareness of his appearance to others. The black humour that Shrigley's work has been praised for comes to the fore here.

The true "joy" in this exhibit, however, lies in its interactivity. Various visitors are invited to draw or paint their own artistic impressions of the mechanical model, and each impression is exhibited on the walls of the gallery for everyone to see. One visitor thinks that the sculpture looks like "your man from Lord Of The Rings" (Gollum, surely?), one visitor thinks the art is "more Andy Warhol than Shrigley", and one visitor writes, beside his own drawing of the model, that "his fig leaf fell off".

Levity, cultural references, and matters of fact, all on the same wall. Analytical and artistic minds working hand in hand through the eyes of their beholders. It would appear that both Shrigley and his audience have completely grasped the message of the Turner Prize.

Laure Prouvost has earned her reputation through films and installations with a richly layered, fractured narrative, disorienting stories with surreal interruptions. Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that I find her unconventional storytelling, in the "Wantee" and "Grandma's Dream" films, to be a little baffling – muddled videos in wildly different but strangely comfortable surroundings. Yet because of that, it is distinctive.

"Wantee" is displayed within a collection of empty chairs and empty tables in a dark room. It's like Amelie minus the excessive colour and quirk. "Grandma's Dream" can be watched on a soft carpeted floor, in a tiny pink enclosure that reminds one of an attic with light and without all the dust and clutter.

The films themselves inspire actions and reactions through bizarre imagery – one such image that springs to mind is a teapot attached to the back of a passenger jet – and excellent sound. When "Grandma" sinks into muddy water, and when a piece of paper is scrunched up, you really sense it happening.

A conflicting spectrum of emotions awaits us in another darkened room, the gallery where the paintings of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye lie. There is a narrative connection between the six paintings, with expressions, features and actions of the solitary figure (or two, as is the case with "The Generosity") in each painting saying more than a detailed background ever could.

Opposite "The Generosity", which appears to imply two men struggling to survive in a very tough scenario, lies a painting of what appears to be a soldier in battle. Perhaps there is a war theme here. Not too far away from the starkly untrustworthy smile of "Bound Over To Keep The Faith" rests another painting of a genuinely happy man. I also see a portrait of a man relaxing contentedly on a beach, and another with a man staring into the distance, as if he does not quite know what to do.

It is the very lack of a background, in addition to the emphasis on specific features – the eyes, teeth and socks stand out in this darkened room – that makes these images as interesting and open to interpretation as they are.

All sorts of interpretations can be taken from Tino Sehgal's exhibition, which isn't really "art" in the expected sense of the word at all. When we think of art, we often align it with painting, drawing, music, dance and so on, things that titillate the eyes and ears of the beholder. Sehgal focuses on the brain of the beholder. Two words, in this case, "market economy", are presented to the visitor by an attendant. It is then left for the visitor to have as detailed a discussion about the aforementioned two words with the attendant as he or she possibly can.

Whether questioner or answerer agree with one another or not is irrelevant – the whole exhibition is about formulating a stimulating discussion, filling one’s head with ideas, and improving one's way of thinking. It's a remarkable idea – Brain Training without imagery. Like every other exhibition in this year's Turner Prize, it defines not only the artist's individuality but the visitor's individuality, one of four galleries that merges the thoughts, dreams and fears of the populace into a not always cohesive, but satisfying, whole.

The Turner Prize 2013 will be staged in Derry-Londonderry's Ebrington Barracks from October 23 2013 (today) to January 5 2014. The winner will be announced at an awards ceremony at Ebrington on Monday December 2. For more information, visit