Notes on the Turner Prize

When I work on projects with the Tate magazine and the film division on some days, I found myself popping in to see the Turner Prize exhibition again and again. It’s definitely a draw, and I like the art show because of the challenges these artworks present. The film work by the Otolith Group and the political paintings by Dexter Dalwood present difficult materials: layer upon layer of meanings, inspiration drawn from social movements, warfare in Iran and Afghanistan, a historical discourse presented in the form of video and multimedia formats, and last but not least the concept of ‘sound sculpture’ by Susan Philipsz based on a Scottish lament sung at the riverside…If you are not careful, you could easily spend your whole day in this exhibition.

I find it encouraging to see such diversity and boldness in the range of works. The exhibition is curated with much thoughtfulness. After you have finished viewing the respective artworks, you enter a room where the video interviews with each artist are shown, and immediately I feel so much more connection with the artists and their work. The moving image, the dialogues and the behind-the-scenes are compelling contents that keep your mind active on the artworks long after you come out of the exhibition hall.

The Turner Prize has long been Britain’s leading award on contemporary art. Celebrating the achievement or vision of new exhibitions rather than an artist’s individual life-long achievement, it has helped to discover many of the world’s most influential artists. Each year, it stirs up considerable debate as to whom the prestigious prize should be awarded, even though it is, strangely enough, decided by a high-level 4-person panel, chaired this year by Penelope Curtis (although, I have to say, not dissimilar to the Booker Prize).

Based on a Scottish lament Lowlands Away. Susan Philipsz’s unaccompanied voice has been much talked about. The Guardian mentions the way sound or music can dwell in people’s hearts and inhabit one’s living space, pointing out that her voice is judged not so much by the musicality but the unaffected simplicity of it. I cannot agree more. Perhaps, as a poet, I have always been interested in sound and rhythm, and so found the exhibition room where Philipsz’s voice lingers a highly fascinating space. Each time I went in, I could feel something in myself being re-awakened and reborn, something almost akin to a cleansing. In particular, after watching the Turner Prize film that showed me the rivers in Scotland where the music was first heard, I was overcome by the sheer universality or potency of sound  (see Tate Channel) – how it speaks to people without the need for words.

Turner Prize winners
Hall of fame: Turner Prize winners

Other than the four Turner Prize exhibitions featured, one notices the list of previous winners on the wall of the film screening room. Almost all of the previous Turner Prize winners – Martin Creed, Keith Tyson, Wolfgang Tillmans, Steve McQueen, Chris Ofilli, Gillian Wearing, Damien Hirst, Anthony Gormley and Rachel Whiteread — have emerged to be some of the top artists in the world (broadly speaking, all of whom managed to obtain considerable stature a decade or so after they won the Prize), producing artworks that startle or impress.

An artist’s course is never easy nor smooth, but the Prize has shown how some can really make it out there, biding their time and putting in long years of perseverance, talent, and perhaps with a little bit of luck or love.