Visual Arts: Every one's a winner

For the first time in its history, the Turner Prize feels like a proper show. Even if they do still pretend it's an art award.
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If you're interested in who actually wins the Turner Prize, as opposed to who's up for it, then bear in mind that the Turner Prize exhibition, which opened at the Tate Gallery last week, may well make a difference to the final decision on 1 December.

The show isn't there just to display the goods to the public. For the jury, too, it'll be the first time they get to see the four shortlisted artists' work side by side. For some of the judges, perhaps, it'll be the first time they see some of it at all.

Odd, but possible. The jury's brief is inherently preposterous. Every British artist under 50 is eligible, for work exhibited anywhere in the world, at any time during the previous year, from June 1997 to May 1998. It would be impossible to get the five judges along to even a fraction of it. There's no Booker-style long-list. I'm not even sure that all the judges are appointed by the start of the competition year in question.

So, presumably, they do what most of us in the art world do: rely heavily on hearsay, slides, catalogues and art magazines. And this is partly why - unlike this year's Booker, for instance - the Turner shortlist never includes a candidate out of nowhere. The shortlisted are always known quantities. Meanwhile, the recommendations invited and received from the public are, I suppose, quietly binned.

Whenever I think about the Turner Prize - ie once a year, around now - more of these little anomalies become evident. But they're all really only symptoms of the prize's fundamental contradiction. Which is this: while it pretends to be a general annual art award (with jury, open submission etc), its true and narrower purpose is to publicise the work of four upcoming artists (which of course the Tate could perfectly well choose and exhibit off its own bat). But still the pretend competition stuff can't be junked, because without it, no big publicity, and that's the bottom line. So they keep up the pretence, but not too rigorously.

Anyway, back to the show. I don't think it's ever looked better. The four artists are Cathy de Monchaux, Tacita Dean, Chris Ofili and Sam Taylor- Wood, all in their thirties.

For the first time, it feels like a proper exhibition rather than a sampling of work - in fact, like four exhibitions; four separate, convincing, small- gallery-sized, one-person shows. If the publicity does its usual trick, then the crowds will be well served. I'm sorry that the Tate, having bagged this wider audience, still treats it to a leaflet written in the most dreary contemporary art officialise, and citations - "her versatility in the use of a wide range of media" - that are like school reports on pupils plodding along quite nicely. They should sound more delighted.

And, if the show does influence the jury's decision, there may be a surprise there. This is a Turner Prize with a hot favourite - Chris Ofili. But the Tate exhibition itself doesn't indicate such a foregone conclusion. I think I know who I'd give it to. But there's no one whom it would be completely mad to choose, not completely. Here's the run-down. I mention the relevant recent British showings.

Cathy de Monchaux had a show at the Whitechapel Gallery last year, and I didn't much like it then either. She makes little thingummies from metal and reddish leather, intricately clamped, pleated, twisted and bound, acquiring multiple resemblances: trap, gadget, gew-gaw, reliquary, fossil, crustacean, mammal viscera and human genital orifice. The main hit is the fusion of sharp metal work and (seemingly) live tissue, as in Cogent Shuddering, which looks like flayed rabbits, crucified-cum-crystallising upon a spiky lattice.

But it's too twee in its craftiness. These are surrealist topics done precious and pretty. It's limited to miniaturism - her large-scale works just repeat the thingummies in rows, or pad them out with wads of lead and glass. The titles - Never Forget the Power of Tears, Fretting Around on the Brink of Indolence, Assuaging Doubt Through Others' Eyes - are real shockers.

Sam Taylor-Wood had some work in Sensation; otherwise it's only been seen abroad. Her main piece here is Atlantic, a three-screen projection. A couple are having a dreadful crunch-meal in a restaurant. The screens show this from three angles: her face close up, crying and recovering itself; a wide shot of the busy restaurant with them obscure in the middle distance; his hands close-up, fiddling anxiously. On the sound-track, you can't quite make out their talk. The shots don't flinch or cut. There's no denouement. It goes on, then it stops.

It's the most Young British Artists thing in the show: it stages a slice of sticky reality in an alienated way and asks, "what about that then?" This scene - we've all been there, as participant or voyeur, haven't we? Huh? Sure we have. But maybe we've seen some Godard films too (the close- up held too long, the establishing shot refused, the narration by side- effect, the wandering soundtrack); we've seen the interplay of life and cinema convention done in an enormously more agile, vivid, witty and intelligent way. Nice to be reminded, but the comparison leaves Atlantic looking stolidly arty.

Chris Ofili's super-encrusted, entertainment-packed, open-house paintings hardly need introducing now. They were in Sensation; he had a show in Southampton early this year, and another at the Serpentine which has only just closed.

Perhaps that's why he's done some brand-new pictures for this show, though competition-wise it seems a bit odd, no?

Or is it assumed that an artist's work will all be of uniform quality? That wouldn't be far wrong here. The dung is still doing its business, the decorating is still in wild overdrive, and Ofili has done two more Captain Shit pictures. They don't add a lot to the previous three - but then, his large-scale image-making is always his weak point, and the Captain is the strongest image he's coined so far.

Tacita Dean is the least famous candidate. She's not owned by Saatchi, and she hasn't had a solo show in a top public gallery. There was one at a private West End spot, Frith Street Gallery, mostly film work. It had its moments, but it didn't have what I take to be the most impressive thing in this Tate exhibition - a series of seven big, square, chalk-on- blackboard drawings called The Roaring Forties: Seven Boards in Seven Days.

It evokes an imaginary "epic 19th-century sea movie". Dean does a lot of work about water and movement and time.

The subject, as such, doesn't specially grab me. But these pictures of seas and ships have a remarkable presence, which seems to come from the show, the use of chalk and board - a medium for marking symbols on a surface - as a medium for tonal drawing, chiaroscuro depiction.

This precipitates a wealth of clashes and echoes. White chalk and black board are equated with light and dark (an obvious, but weird equation). What normally count as chalk rubbing and smearing now become half-tones and mists. A surface normally used for clear info - letters, figures, diagrams - is made to depict a rolling, fluid surface. But it's just right to do sea pictures in this transient, erasable medium. The images flash out of darkness. They lie on the verge of being wiped. The surrounding unmarked blackboard feels like an abyss of nothing. It's very good.

The Turner Prize 1998: Tate Gallery, Millbank, London SW1; every day, until 10 January; admission free