Enlightenment in the Dark at the Turner Prize

James Richards, 'Rosebud 2013' HD Video 13 minutes, Courtesy the Artist, Cabinet, London and Rodeo, Istanbul

The Turner Prize nominees exhibit mostly in the dark this year, reliant as they are – with the exception of Ciara Phillips – on the medium of video. Huddled away in a corner of Tate Britain, the pieces are most suitable for the particularly contemplative observer: one willing to sit still for over two hours considering sexually explicit images that have fallen foul of Japanese censors (James Richards); the rise of capitalism (Duncan Campbell); and frenzied ramblings influenced by experimental poet Henri Chopin (Tris Vonna-Michell). The answer as to who must win, then, surely hinges on which artist is able to make the unlit and long-winded wonderful.

The most sincere work (and, I’d argue, the most rewarding) is Tris Vonna-Michell’s Postscript II (Berlin). Two videos play simultaneously, showing flashes of windswept marshland and empty rooms, overlaid with an anxious monologue that you might dismiss as nonsense if you don’t lean in to catch glimpses of fragmented imagery – a milk carton is being scrunched up, a French poet is being born. The accompanying literature suggests that these are explorations of birthplace and identity, particularly pertaining to Vonna-Michell’s mother and the artist’s childhood in Essex, but trying to force such a narrative onto the videos ultimately seems a fruitless exercise, if fun. These detours and dead ends, however, ultimately reflect the exploration of linguistic ‘signs’ that underpins Vonna-Michell’s practice. 

I’d also pick out James Richards’ Rosebud 2013 as being well worth its minutes. The monochrome video collage is by turns disorientating, unpleasant, humorous and unexpectedly lovely. Richards describes the video as structured around ‘a restricted set of image sensations’, ranging from a budgie sitting on its owner’s hand (kept there by a tiny chain) to a shot of a woman’s arms as she gracefully rolls over the floor out of sight. The most exciting parts are those featuring erotic imagery, where the offending aspects of the pictures have been sandpapered out. Rather than ruining the images, the censor’s interventions endow the works (by Robert Mapplethorpe and others) with bizarre new narratives that demand a second glance to be properly understood. This work has an acute textural sensitivity – it is a knitted blanket of images and moments – and its mixing of new and found footage beautifully challenges the idea of the objective documentary form.

Celebrating its 30th year, the Turner Prize 2014 is presented at Tate Britain until 4 January 2015. The winner will be announced at an awards ceremony, broadcast live on Channel 4, on Monday, 1 December 2014.


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