Blink and you'll miss it, the light work that took the Turner prize

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The Independent Online

The most audacious and most criticised entry in this year's Turner prize competition won Martin Creed, a conceptual artist, the £20,000 winner's cheque last night.

Work 227: The lights going on and off was just that – an entirely white gallery at Tate Britain in London illuminated only by a handful of lightbulbs flickering on and off.

But while it failed to convince all the critics, the prize judges, headed by Sir Nicholas Serota, the Tate's director, decided the gesture was a worthy addition to the tradition of minimal and conceptual art and that it deserved the top prize.

In a joint statement, the jury said they "admired [Creed's] audacity in presenting a single work in the exhibition and noted its strength, rigour, wit and sensitivity to the site".

And lest anyone should believe he had not done enough to pocket one of the biggest prizes in British art, they pointed to two other works proving his art was "engaging, wide-ranging and fresh".

These were two neon signs, one entitled Work 203: Everything is going to be alright, which was exhibited over the entrance to a hospital, and the other, Work 232: The whole world+the work=the whole world, which was shown over the entrance to Tate Britain, in Pimlico, last year.

With not a crumpled bed or a sawn-up cow in sight, the biggest excitement surrounding last night's glitzy prize dinner at Tate Britain had been expected to be the appearance of the pop star and earnest art collector Madonna, who was to present the winner's cheque.

The singer has shown strong support for the Tate since making London her base. She attended a party at Tate Britain last year and lent a Frida Kahlo painting from her private collection to Tate Modern's current "Surrealism" show.

Last night she did her best to live up to expectations, deriding award ceremonies as "silly", pointing out the impossibility of defining a "best artist" and dropping in a swear word or two. Art was best when it had nothing to do with money and everything to do with love, she said. "Like love it can be inspiring, exhilarating and sometimes infuriating. Nevertheless you cannot live without it. But I want to support any artist who not only has something to say but has the balls to say it."

But the decision to spurn both the critics' favourite, Mike Nelson, who had represented Britain at the Venice Biennale this summer, and Isaac Julien, who was the original bookies' favourite, produced a frisson to rival the appearance of even the queen of pop. "I don't think it was what many people were expecting," confided one source close to the prize last night.

Yet surprise has been a feature of the contest ever since the Turner prize made its hesitant debut in 1984. While this year's shortlist raised questions over whether its moment had passed, it has undoubtedly contributed to the swell of interest in contemporary art by provoking years of heated debate.

Looking at the roll-call of past winners, it represents a credible history of British art in the past 20 years. Recipients have included many now regarded as grand old men, including Howard Hodgkin, Gilbert and George, Tony Cragg and Anish Kapoor.

Even more recent winners, such as Damien Hirst in 1995, look part of the arts establishment these days, though whether that is because the prize judges got it right or because winning the prize makes you part of the establishment may be hard to tell.

None the less, there was some surprise and disappointment when the 2001 shortlist was announced in May. Heavily touted possibles such as Michael Landy, who had grabbed headlines by destroying all his belongings in an empty Oxford Street department store, or the controversial Chapman brothers, Jake and Dinos, were absent.

None of the nominees was famous, none was a woman, and, less surprisingly, none was a painter. Even senior Tate curators admitted they had not heard of two of the contenders. The prize is open to any artist under the age of 50 who is British or who works in Britain.

The mutterings of discontent grew louder with the unveiling last month of the shortlisted works. "This year's exhibition is the weakest yet, its only remarkable achievement," one of the more damning critics said.

And if none of the exhibits quite produced the ire that beset Tracey Emin's crumpled bed (which failed to win) or Hirst's dead cows (which did), there was still criticism aplenty.

Some had believed, obviously erroneously, that Martin Creed's offering may not have been assisted by the explanation proffered by Simon Wilson, the Tate's curator of interpretation. "I think life is like that work. One minute it's on, the next minute it's off. It's emblematic of mortality. What Creed has done is really make minimal art minimal by dematerialising it – removing it from the hectic, commercialised world of capitalist culture," he said.

Mike Nelson, an installation artist, presented the grandly titled The Cosmic Legend of the Uroboros Serpent, a network of crumbling corridors. Isaac Julien, a film maker, presented two videos, one of gay cowboys and the other about the John Soane Museum in London. The photographer Richard Billingham surprised with some rather beautiful landscape pictures but also included a film called Ray in Bed, which returned to his best-known subject matter, his drunken father.

As has become the custom in recent years, the Stuckists, a group of traditional artists opposed to Sir Nicholas Serota and the Turner prize, were vicious in their criticism. Charles Thomson, the Stuckists' leader, said: "The Turner prize is a national joke. It promotes mindless conformist novelty and gimmick at the expense of real values. It's out of touch with society, life and the majority of artists."

Yesterday, they picketed the awards ceremony when it was broadcast live by Channel 4, with some members dressed as clowns to protest at what they call the Tate's "media circus". They named Sir Nicholas the Art Clown of the Year and said they would be inviting him to buy a custard pie and push it into his own face.

Yet for all the detractors' claims that the Turner is a classic example of the emperor's new clothes, the harshest critics of all, the public, are still keenly interested. More than 1,300 people a day have flocked to the exhibition at Tate Britain so far this year, exceeding numbers for Tate Modern's blockbuster "Surrealism" show and putting it ahead of last year's Turner. It runs until 20 January.