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

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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

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