FIRST NIGHT / Avant-garde bows to commerce in bid for fame and fortune: The Turner Prize Exhibition at the Tate Gallery

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THIS WAS NOT just a private view; it was also an aperitif. Vong Phaophanit's installation Neon Rice Field - seven tons of rice interlaced with glowing strips of neon tubes - will be 'recycled', washed and sold by the Rice Bureau when this exhibition finishes at the end of the month.

Careful what you say about the Turner Prize this year. It could be your dinner.

Four artists in search of fame and ignominy, the certain effects of being on the Turner short-list, mingled with the champions and detractors of contemporary art at the Tate Gallery in London last night. Before the exhibition completes its four-week run, one of them will be pounds 20,000, and more than likely pounds 60,000, richer.

The winner of the prize receives pounds 20,000. And the pop group and self-styled arbiters of artistic taste, the KLF, have announced they will award a further pounds 40,000 to the artist they consider the worst on the Turner short-list.

Last night the four on the short-list showed a commendable sense of the struggling artist tradition. They agreed they would be happy to be labelled anything you like for an extra forty grand.

There were four short-listed artists with work at the exhibition where in past years the short-list has had six. But the avant-garde must bow to the intellectual rigours of commercial sponsorship. Channel 4, which sponsors the prize and will show a film about the short-listed artists, did not want to show a film long enough to accommodate six.

The four are Hannah Collins: an installation of photographs of refugees in Istanbul; Vong Phaophanit: also an installation - the play between the translucence of rice and the glow from neon tubes, good enough to eat; Sean Scully: three large abstract paintings in wide vertical and horizontal bands of resonant colour; Rachel Whiteread: a sculpture cast from a room constructed by the artist.

Over drinks and rice-free nibbles, Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate and chairman of the Turner Prize jury, was obliged to take on allcomers.

Why again were there no figurative paintings? 'The Turner Prize is intended to show the most exciting new developments in contemporary art in Britain. The jury says these are not happening in contemporary art in this country at the moment.'

A woman has never won the Turner Prize. Was the jury being politically correct in having two women? 'No. More women artists have been coming out of college and been able to maintain their careers. It's been a significant change.'

A newspaper photographer claimed that the photographs on exhibit would be criticised by a picture editor. 'They are more than just photographs,' replied Mr Serota.

Waldemar Januszczak, commissioning editor for arts for Channel 4, was voicing conspiracy theories. 'In some journalistic quarters in Britain the belief is still abroad that any art which is not traditional painting or sculpture is not real art at all.

'A whole generation of young, serious, ambivalent, inventive artists has come under repeated attack from a generation of tired critics who seem to have lost their enthusiasm for experiment and discovery.'

But who is to say that any of this is art? said one exasperated non-believer.

'You come with a set of prejudices I find hard to deal with,' Mr Serota replied.

But then what would the Turner Prize be without its annual battle of prejudices?

Leading article, page 17

(Photograph omitted)