A vote against sensationalism, Britart and public opinion
Wednesday 01 December 1999
It is not usual for the Turner Prize to generate a clear popular favourite. But this year it did. You only had to visit the shortlist show at the Tate Gallery to see that. The Tracey Emin Experience section attracted far and away the largest and most lingering audiences. Add to that the extravagant media attention generated by her messy bed installation, and one might say that Emin had won de facto, whatever the jury decided.
And - as far as the prize matters at all, and just for the glee of it - I would have liked Emin to win too. Besides, amid all her general me- splurge, she occasionally makes a work that touches a nerve.
I am not sure that can be said for the films and videos of Steve McQueen. It is work that "works" but does not much grip. It tends to make the viewer wonder whether it will be all right to leave quite soon; to wonder also whether one has actually seen a piece of work, or simply read a comprehensive description of it.
I am not sure, for instance, whether or not I have see McQueen's Drumroll, made in 1998. For this, he fitted out a barrel with three cameras and rolled it - filming - through the streets of Manhattan. Pedestrians, traffic, buildings, the artist, appear turning and revolving. Nice idea. Works.
McQueen's main piece in the Turner Prize show is Deadpan (1997). This is a re-staging of a famous bit of Buster Keaton slapstick from Steamboat Bill Jnr. You know the drill: the front of a house tips forward and should fall straight on him, but he is standing just where an open window is, so he escapes unflattened, untouched.
The artist stands in for Keaton, stock still and with an expression that I think is meant to be "impassive", but ends up more "self-important". And the house front falls, over and over, shot from different angles, in silence.
The point, and, indeed, the effect, is to do the joke so that it ceases to be a joke, to bring out its spatial qualities, and to give the sequence a darker sense of danger and survival. But (a) the gag had these spatial qualities anyway and (b) the idea is inherently funny, so to redo it unfunny is gratuitously arty.
And the jury's choice is probably more interesting for the message it sends. You have had your kicks. But remember that contemporary art has also a perennial strain of dullness. Time it had its due.
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