Turner selection may well be art – but is it modern?


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"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 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. Performances that include Chetwynd's friends and family will take place every afternoon from 12-5, continuing the craze for live art.

The mood changes 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, just under the Prize's age limit of 50, has created spacious, intricate worlds.

Luke Fowler's fascination with the anti-psychiatrist RD Laing has compelled him to produce a film and photographs. The 34-year-old Glasgow-based artist zooms in on Laing's furrowed, imperious brow. The atmosphere of a radical period is captured by oblique statements about "inside/outside". The final artist is London-based Elizabeth Price, 45, whose rousing, passionate music greets the visitor. Her video dramatises a fire in a Manchester branch of Woolworth's in 1979. Scenes of smoke pouring out of windows are spliced with lyrical text. It's 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. Fowler mirrors some of her themes of psychedelic liberation, but the range of work on display here is not always attention-grabbing. Noble's drawings are not yet stand out. There may be fewer "But is it art?" complaints this year.