The Turner Prize 2012, Tate Britain, London

Another year, another gladiatorial contest, racked with anguish and ambition – but at least 2012's entries have some merit

It can only be a matter of time before the Tate, in the manner of X Factor, televises the judging of the Turner Prize. Picture the scene: the nice judge, the nasty judge, the one who wants to sleep with contestants; and between them Nicholas Serota, thin-lipped as he hisses: "Paul [or Elizabeth, or whoever], you are in/out of the show."

All of which is to say that, were it not for its gladiatorial element, would anyone care about the Turner? The view put about by the Tate is that it is an annual pulse-taking of British art, an uncovering of the newest and best. Never mind that the prize pits artists with careers of 10 years against others with 30, or lens-based makers against muralists. People like the tears of joy or sorrow as some arbiter of contemporary taste – Madonna, say, or Dennis Hopper – opens the fateful envelope and ponies up the forty grand. It could be singers doing the weeping, or fat people or GPs. The point is the anguish.

Ah, well. At least the work in this year's Turner is mostly sensible and well-made, no doubt too much so for some tastes. Paul Noble is an intelligent choice, and, given the glacial pace of his work, could probably not have competed before. Noble is best known for Nobson Newtown, an imagined place he has been drawing in pencil since 1996. As the drawings in question are very big and very meticulous –Villa Joe (Front) is perhaps 15ft by 15ft – they are extraordinarily slow to make. One work, Small Trev, is dated 1996-2006.

Starting with a word in a font of his own devising, Noble works outwards to create an entire cityscape, often with landscape beyond. The flattened perspective of these derives from military maps, and has something of the hyper-rational irrationality of M C Escher. Given Noble's clear interest in turds, you might think of his art as topoography. The villa aforementioned is built up of beautifully drawn stools, while the Henry Moore-ish sculptures in Villa Joe (Rear) suggest the derivation of the phrase "turd in the plaza". Seeing so much of Noble's work together gives a sense of the scale of his project, and his dystopic world looks good in Tate Britain's bland basement rooms.

Luke Fowler was 17 when Noble started on Nobson, and is only 33 now. This is alarming: his Turner show work is eerily clever and mature. A still and moving film questions the way we construct reality, debunking the idea of visual truth, the possibility of neutral documentary.

Take, at random, Alasdair, Hogmanay, Clouston Street. A photographic diptych, one side of Fowler's joined-up image shows a man, the other a place. From the title and juxtaposition, we make up a narrative – Alasdair was in Clouston Street for Hogmanay. Actually, the work makes no such claim. The story is all our own.

This invention of narratives becomes more worrisome when it involves a man whose job was analysing them. R D Laing was a prime mover in the anti-psychiatry movement of the 1960s, and is now largely vilified. By splicing archival film of Laing at work with footage from his own life, Fowler's feature-length, hour-and-a-half video, All Divided Selves, makes us by turns analyst, analysand and voyeur. In exposing documentary as a game of mirrors, this maybe-documentary rescues Laing from history. It is an extraordinary piece of work.

It makes one sorry for Elizabeth Price, whose 20-minute The Woolworths Choir of 1979 it overshadows. Price, too, uses archive film as a readymade. Here, three very different sources – an OU film on church architecture, 1970s news footage of a fire and clips of girl bands – are woven to create a fourth, oddly coherent, story. Price's roots lie in the juxtapositions of Surrealism. What emerges from The Woolworths Choir of 1979 is a syncretic history, in which the Greek khoros becomes both a church choir and the Pussycat Dolls and meets its end in a burning shop in Manchester. It is like a movie short of Frazer's Golden Bough, a stylish, clever work, but it suffers from being in the same show as Fowler's bigger and better film.

Which just leaves Spartacus Chetwynd, of whom I can say little. Critics have blind spots, and mine is performance; particularly the kind that involves audience participation, particularly when I am in the audience. In The Oracle, actors dressed like Stingray characters drag viewers from their seats and whisper predictions in their ears. A colleague on another paper, an amiable man well on in years, was told he would start a new outbreak of avian flu. Not very cheering. Chetwynd's submission also includes an inflatable vinyl bench, which is comfortable if a little wobbly.

Critic's choice

The Liverpool Biennial is in full flow; with work by 60 international artists on show around the city, there’s plenty to see, such as The Lift by Oded Hirsch. The theme this year is hospitality – so do drop in before 25 November.

In London, the Frieze Art Fair descends on Regent’s Park: browse the best of contemporary art, head to the Frieze Masters tent for the long view, or just enjoy the sculpture park, selected by Clare Lilley (11 to 14 Oct).

Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
    Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

    Marian Keyes

    The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

    Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

    Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
    Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

    Rodgers fights for his reputation

    Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
    Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

    Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

    'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
    Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick