Video visions that turn modern life into art

This year's Turner Prize promises another scintillating round of controversy. And that's why it's so important, says Michael Glover
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The Independent Online

Five artists were named yesterday on a shortlist for the Turner Prize for modern art, which this year has a distinctly political feel. Two of the artists - a duo who will compete against three individual artists on a shortlist of four - have created a digital model of the "last official address" of Osama bin Laden. Another work is a filmed reconstruction of a battle between pickets and police during the miners' strike.

The shortlisted artists - Ben Langlands and Nikki Bell, Jeremy Deller, Kutlug Ataman and Yinka Shonibare - are vying for a prize doubled by the new sponsors, the gin-makers Gordon's, from £20,000 to £40,000. Their work will probably reignite the row over the quality of the Turner entries.

The prize has always lent itself to red-top headlines decrying the wackiness of modern art. In 1995, The Sun raged against that year's winner, Damien Hirst, for making art out of dead animals. In 1999, Tracey Emin's unmade bed got the red tops in a twist. The year before, it had been Chris Ofili and the elephant dung he used on his canvases. And last year, Grayson Perry hammed it up in his pretty blue frock, becoming the darling of the Daily Mail in the process.

But there's more to the prize than this. The Turner, for all its lapses of taste and judgement, has made many good decisions. Its winners have not, generally speaking, been outrageously undeserving - rather the opposite, in fact. And it has also helped to ensure that contemporary art is now a regular subject for heated debate among cab drivers, publicans and their clients, which would have been almost unthinkable 20 years ago.

The general public used to think art was something the so-called educated middle classes indulged in. The Turner has helped to prove that so much hogwash. There is no reason whatsoever why the man or woman in the street should not have a valid opinion about the worth or worthlessness of art. You don't need a law degree to serve on a jury, just a measure of common humanity. Likewise with art. And the fact that the Turner has actively encouraged participation in an ongoing national debate about what art does, what it is for, what it should be made from (if not dead animals, why not?) means more and more people have felt empowered to express their opinions. They have lost their fear of the idea of the exclusiveness of high culture and its attendant snobberies and cliquishness.

This year, for example, the public were invited to make their own nominations for the Turner shortlist. They made 350 suggestions in all. The judges took these suggestions into account and three of the names made it on to the final shortlist of four.

So who has it deservedly brought to the public's attention? Well, there is the sculptor Richard Deacon, for example, who won the prize in 1987, and has continued to craft often brilliant work from materials that would once have been thought inappropriate for sculpture. Deacon was one of a group of important young British sculptors who all went on either to win the prize or be shortlisted for it - including Tony Cragg (winner, 1988), Antony Gormley (winner, 1994), Anish Kapoor (winner, 1991), Richard Wentworth, Alison Wilding and Bill Woodrow - and who have between them re-forged the identity of British sculpture. One of the most important sculptures in the new Chicago Millennium Park, due to open in late July, was made by Anish Kapoor.

And then there are the painters - Howard Hodgkin (winner, 1985); Lucian Freud (shortlisted 1988 and 1989) - you may wonder, and rightly, why he didn't win on one or another of these occasions); Peter Doig (shortlisted, 1994).

So the Turner, contrary to some of those headlines, is not perversely anti-traditionalist either. This year there will be the usual outcry that the prize has ignored the traditional crafts of painting and sculpture. But what this year's shortlist makes evident - and this has become increasingly apparent - is that artists now tend to be multi-disciplinary, readily shifting from video to sculpture to drawing to painting and back again, and often creating hybrid works from several different disciplines at once.

That's the way art is now. Artists are no longer easily pigeon-holed. They're living, love it or hate it, in a ceaselessly restless, multimedia world. And the Turner has helped to make that clear.

Yinka Shonibare

Yinka Shonibare was born in London in 1962 and grew up in Nigeria. His art, which concerns itself with social hybridity and shifting racial identity, moves from photography to film, from sculptural installations to wallpaper.

He is best know for using batik and Dutch wax fabric. Much of the work looks traditionally African, but that is a careful and quietly destabilising deception. The iconography is much more complicated. Shonibare has referred to his dilemma: "Is there such a thing as pure origin? Because I was brought up in Lagos and London ... it is extremely difficult for me to have one view of culture." So the fabrics he uses are neither fake nor authentic - they are an often humorous mixture. And it is humour which helps to give his work its verve and power.

In a sculptural installation,Spacewalk (2002), spacemen who appear to be clothed in African costume float free of their capsule. Is his work an oblique display of anger at colonialism? "I'm not angry," he replies. "I have no authentic expression to offer."

Jeremy Deller

London-born Jeremy Deller's best-known project was a filmed reconstruction of The Battle of Orgreave (2000), a decisive moment in the miners' strike of 1984 when police clashed violently with pickets. It was directed by Mike Figgis. In general, Deller's art tends to scrutinise run-of-the mill social events in order to tease out their wider significance.

In his most recent project, an unnarrated film called Memory Bucket (2003) - which got him shortlisted for the Turner - he takes a tour through the American South.

This is no harsh social critique. It's all about small and relatively insignificant things, tiny poetic byways - a chance meeting in Waco with a survivor of the Branch Davidian sect; attending a Willie Nelson concert.

The most telling moment is at the end of the film when the screen is engulfed by millions of bats emerging from a cave at sunset.

Ben Langlands and Nikki Bell

Ben Langlands and Nikki Bell have been collaborating for a quarter of a century, their work characteristically based on architectural models - usually virginal white reliefs, sculptures, ground plans, clean, austere, unnervingly meticulous and cerebrally cool.

By concentrating their work on buildings reduced to scaled-down models, the pair attempt to provide a key to the mysteries of the built environment: what makes a chapel feel sacred, or promotes a sense of excited anticipation in a cinema.

Two years ago, they were invited by the Imperial War Museum to become official war artists in Afghanistan. The centrepiece of the show which emerged, which was shown in the museum in 2003, was an interactive digital model called The House of Osama Bin Laden. Each of its rooms could be visited - virtually - with the use of a joystick.

This was a model of the house which Bin Laden had lived in, albeit briefly, in the 1990s. The visitor could move through that empty, collapsing bunker, exploring some sense of his absence.

"We're totally surrounded by architecture," the pair says. "It is the most tangible record of the way we live because it describes how people relate socially, culturally and politically.

"It's the most persistent evidence of our aspirations and beliefs."

Kutlug Ataman

Born in Istanbul in 1961, Kutlug Ataman started out as a film-maker, but the kinds of ideas he wanted to explore lent themselves more readily to the hand-held video camera. His work was on show most recently in a major retrospective at the Serpentine Gallery in 2003.

Ataman's videos are painfully intimate engagements with the life stories of marginal and marginalised people - the opera diva, for example, who tells her life story straight to camera, and then re-tells it with embellishments of pure fantasy.

Ataman splices fragments from the two films together. The characters in Ataman's videos are extravagantly, grotesquely, made up.

They know themselves to be pure, tragic spectacle, and Ataman seems to connive with them in their wish to be transformed, set apart from themselves, by the dubious glamour of film.