A Romantic, a Romantic Dis-illusionist, Baroque and the Odd Man Out

The Turner Prize 2009. On show at  Tate Britain until December 21.

There is no link between the seven pieces of Lucy Skaer’s work on display. Or the links are in no hurry to make themselves known. This first available encounter in the Turner Prize display is a quiet one. Even the skeleton of a full-sized male sperm whale is quiet. Unnoticable on entry, it is hidden away to your immediate right, instead of being installed straight-on. Skaer shows a lack of concern with consistency of motif – a sign of confidence in an artist. Skaer is an artist in thrall to enquiry and she does not mind if you do not recognise her at every metamorphosis.

When you eventually come to realise that her theme is the viewing of the parts of a thing versus the viewing of a whole, her print series made from every single component of an ordinary chair with an available ‘surface’ becomes a source of delight. Where the chair prints are concerned, the various components (for components read ‘glimpse’ for the sperm whale) – leg, seat, back etc, are punctuated by full stops and apostrophes.

The whale peeps into your peripheral vision after a few minutes of bewilderment. Encased in bars of wall-to-ceiling white plaster, this ‘charismatic megafauna’ (as described by one zoologist bemoaning the human fascination with whales) wows us with its size and ancient lineage.  The whale appears in a similar role in ‘Death’, a painstaking work on paper where the artist’s graphite pencil-assault on the form of a blue whale skeleton is a gridded and charted labour of love. The drawing is unfinished;  it’s inevitable abandonment.  The mode cannot reach a conclusion.

Her piece ‘Black Alphabet’ has become the most recognisable snapshot of this year’s show and is smaller than the publicity photos would suggest. It also perhaps best represents this year’s love-song to mystification and the sensuality of materials. There are twenty-six uniform shapes made from solidified coal dust and resin. One group stand up like sentinels. The others are stacked like stored missiles. This alphabet of identical ciphers is also conspicuously silent. Wonder speaks loudest of all to Skaer. 

This brings us to the next icon of sensuality. Disappointingly obnoxious in person, Richard Wright’s wall painting doesn’t bear much in common with the majority of his work. His previous body of wall paintings are fascinating in their modesty and sensitivity to their environment. They feature tiny little geometric fragments, almost shy in the way they sit, and never ever looking like luxury. Gold, in the first instance, is a bad choice.  Up close, the intricacies of the painting are worryingly pretty.  It becomes baroque: shapes like castles and forests and Louis XIV sunbursts emerge out of what looks, from afar, like golden ink swirling in milk. Yet it will be painted over as part of its intended life cycle. The act of creating such gorgeousness and then painting over it feels like the kind of whinging irony that made the prize such a receptor for public hostility.

Enrico Davis is this years odd man out,  bang in the middle with his dark theatre of bums and poo. A long invertebrate seems to have stumbled over its own neurosis and now lies in state with its neck cracked over a box (tripping over yourself is a theme I wish people would leave in the past). Using large card cut-outs and paintings made from photos, David makes a large-scale installation that looks like a stage set. David’s other work is stylised in the best possible way. When he is drawing and using felt he creates a unique language of characters and scenarios that crawl under the skin. Unfortunately in the middle of the other three displays this installation work looks grumpy, bored and boring.

Grotesque – but in a different way grotesque to Roger Hiorns, whose self-defined ‘material disenchantment’ is truly terrifying. The two large wall sculptures you encounter in the Hiorns room are made from bovine brain matter, crushed into shapes which resemble the features of the Elephant Man. This sensuality is nasty. Like Skaer, he is fascinated with natural materials  but he seems to want to turn potential feelings inching toward the sublime inside out. Unlike Skaer, he wants to grow, burn and manipulate these materials through violent processes. Hiorns received huge press attention for the installation in which he grew walls, ceilings and floors full of blue copper sulphate crystals in a council flat (’Seizure’). His scope is huge and the techniques with which he has already experimented promise a fascinating and lengthy career.

Yet the jet plane engine dust is inelegant. How amazing to use an expensive and hi-tech process to make something that looks so ordinary. The mounds of dust – atomised into fine piles of black, grey and white – from the engine of a passenger jet. It really doesn’t look as dreamy as a lunar landscape. It looks more like the Olympics building site for 2012 in Stratford. That isn’t to say that it has anything to do with the latter – it just succeeds in leaving me feeling a little disenchanted.


Comments are closed.