Turner Prize: It's art all right – but is it modern?

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

From a holy puppet to a Malibu palace, and contemporary or not, this year's crop of Turner Prize hopefuls get Zoe Pilger's approval

What makes this piece contemporary?" an interviewer asks performance artist Spartacus Chetwynd, 39, who lives and works in a nudist colony in South London. The interview is part of a series of films that accompany Chetwynd's extravagant cut-and-paste sets. Wearing a leopard-print costume, black face-paint obscuring her features, Chetwynd's response is brittle: "We're all alive at the moment so that would make it contemporary."

Cat-fights over what it means to make "contemporary" art have characterised the Turner Prize's 28-year history. Returning to London's Tate Britain after a sojourn at Baltic, Gateshead, this year's selection of artists is impressive for all the right reasons. It is both appropriately mad and actually interesting.

Chetwynd describes her method as "unbridled enthusiasm". This is clear from the high paper walls that corral the viewer-participant into the lair of a deity-like puppet, who resembles a creature from the deep. Pages from Plato's Republic jostle with images of cockatoos to create a rainbow-coloured labyrinth.

Performances that include Chetwynd's friends and family will take place every afternoon at the gallery from 12-5, continuing the craze for live art that has emerged as an exciting response to the economic crisis. Indeed, capitalism itself becomes a target for Chetwynd, who draws on Chaucer's The Triumph of Death, wherein money tears a group of friends apart and eventually annihilates them.

The mood changes abruptly with Paul Noble's room of stunning graphite pencil drawings, founded on a fictional town called "Nobson Newton", where "there is no story or time". The 48-year-old London-based artist, who just slipped under the Prize's age limit of 50, has created spacious, intricate worlds. Paul's Palace (1996) looks like a Malibu beach house, albeit one designed by an architect with a surrealist bent. Details – an open cardboard box in a tiny room – reveal themselves in Russian doll formation, so that the image continues to expand and deepen. Noble's mysterious symbolism is powerful; he would be a deserving winner.

Luke Fowler's fascination with the anti-psychiatrist R.D Laing has compelled him to produce a film and a series of photographs. The 34-year-old Glasgow-based artist zooms in on Laing's furrowed, imperious brow. The atmosphere of a radical period in recent history is captured by oblique statements about "inside/outside".

The final artist is London-based Elizabeth Price, 45, whose rousing, passionate music greets the visitor before the accompanying video installation can be seen. The video dramatises a fire that ravaged a Manchester branch of Woolworth's in 1979. Scenes of smoke pouring out of windows are spliced with lyrical text. The whole is compelling.

"At best it's called punk and at worst it's just a mess," Chetwynd explains to her bemused interviewer. Just to drive the point home further, NON-CONFORMISTS is printed across the wall of her installation in giant letters. Fowler mirrors some of her themes of psychedelic liberation, but the range of work on display here is otherwise broad, and not always attention-grabbing. Noble's drawings are quiet yet stand-out. There may be fewer "But is it art?" complaints this year.

Odd Man Out: Spartacus Chetwynd

The only performance art in this year's shortlist is from Chetwynd. She has recreated scenes from Odd Man Out, the exhibition that brought her the nomination, which is "meant to celebrate political ineptitude". In one room, visitors present themselves to the "oracle" which tells them facts and predictions from "you are going to lose your mobile phone" to "80 per cent of people are smarter than you" before being led out by Swamp Thing-style acolytes.

Her carnival-esque performances are heavily influenced by theatre and film, especially Fellini, and references art history and literature.

In the past her work has referenced Jabba the Hut, while in this show Chetwynd herself performs a puppet show of the tale of Jesus and Barabbas.

Chetwynd is an anarchist who lives in a nudist colony in south London and she has recently given birth, meaning her performances will be more limited. She believes the drama and anxiety at the turn of the millennium drove the rise in performance art: "I joked that the impending apocalypse drove our need to be more gestural."

She was yesterday sporting a beard for the big opening, saying she did not have time to buy a new dress for her big night.

"It's about having a lot of freedom in what you do, and not worrying what others do."

The Woolworths Choir of 1979: Elizabeth Price

The band Talulah Gosh counts some high achieving alumni. Along with a chief economist at the Office of Fair Trading and a philosophy editor of Oxford University Press, it can now count a Turner Prize nominated artist in former singer Elizabeth Price. She uses "existing archives of image, text and sound to create video installations that drift between recent social history and fantasy," curator Lizzie Carey-Thomas said. Price's installation comprises three distinct parts woven together through some visual themes. It ranges from pictures of church architecture, clips of girl bands from the internet and news footage of a fire in Woolworths furniture department in 1979.

Villa Joe (Front View): Paul Noble

Noble was installed as an early favourite when the nominations were announced. The painstaking works in pencils cover his creation of Nobson Newtown, a fictional place he started drawing 16 years ago by accident when he created a typeface. Curator Sofia Karamani said the fictional town "is not a coherent geographical location with a linear history," adding: "It is an ongoing journey in a world that is the equivalent of reality, a state of mind." His exhibition also includes several new sculptures made in marble to echo forms drawn in the drawings on the wall.

All Divided Selves: Luke Fowler

The Glasgow-based artist has put the film All Divided Selves on display, about the ideas and legacy of controversial Scottish psychiatrist R D Laing. "Fowler is very interested in social norms, structures in society, and he tries to unravel what's underneath," curator Sofia Karamani said. It uses archival material that also bears witness to psychiatric sessions. "The film is fascinating, how Laing's character evolves over the course of an hour and a half," Karamani says. The 93-minute film means the artist has called in designers to adapt the space so people can watch it comfortably.

Also in the exhibition, a selection of Fowler's photography from the series Two Frame Film is displayed on the walls. Fowler collaborates with artists, musicians and writers, saying: "Film-making for me is very much a social process." He also set up Shadazz, an independent record label focusing on the works of artists and musicians.

Nick Clark

Arts & Entertainment
TV

Arts & Entertainment
Customers browse through Vinyl Junkies record shop in Berwick Street, Soho, London
music

Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
ComedyCollier was once told there were "too many women" on bill
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
music

VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatre

Review: Of Mice and Men

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit