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- The Winner Martin Creed for 'Lights Going off and on in an Empty Room'

Artwork© Carine Thomas
An exhibition of work by the shortlisted artists:
Richard Billingham
Martin Creed
Isaac Julien
Mike Nelson

review of the winners and losers by Robert Cooper

The Turner Prize was awarded at the Tate Britain on the 9th December 2001. The awardwas handed over by Madonna during a live broadcast on Channel 4 and went to the controversial British artist Martin Creed for his work entitled 'The lights going on an off'. He received £20,000
Martin trained at the Slade School of Art his is fascinated by the idea of nothingness and simple,direct works. 'I can see why some people take the piss out of me,' he said, "I quite like all that stuff in a way, It's true anyone can do it...It's just I'm better than anyone else at it.'

This years Turner Prize has arrived without the bustling disquiet of controversy that previous years have accustomed us to. No unmade beds or paintings made with elephant dung to get the wind up more conservative art lovers. However, it seems the shortlist selectors have made a token effect in this direction with the selection of Martin Creed, knowing his work would bring controversy.

The first artist in the show is Richard Billingham and in the opening room is a small selection of photographs. Anyone familiar with the work of Billingham will find the pieces on display quite a departure from the disturbing and candid scenes of family life that have won him acclaim. The subjects and techniques here are different, providing an eclectic mix that does not seem to provide a common thread. Billingham’s concerns have moved from the interior to the exterior and we are faced with landscapes, without the narrative and intimacy that was provided by his earlier work. Here is a landscape at sunrise, bathed in beautiful morning light and well composed, another of a well-clipped hedge, a carefully mowed lawn and tarmac path, reminiscent of a park. Another of a girl lying on a beach in the sunlight, we see her from behind and above and the sand around her potmarked with footprints. Billingham seems concerned with a sense of beauty in the landscape, and the brilliance of sunlight. Unfortunately they fail to affect and would better served in a larger more cohesive series. A triptych of video stills, that focus close up-on the body, presumably his fathers, who is the dominant subject of previous work, provide more interest. The blurred abstract nature of the stills alludes to the body as landscape, and pose more questions than the landscapes themselves.

There are two video pieces in the rooms adjacent, the first titled ‘Tony Smoking Backwards’. We see on the wall projection a young man smoking and laughing, with friends who are out of the picture. The camera focuses on a small area of his face bringing the mouth and cigarette into view, with the faint sound of music and laughter on the background. Just before the cigarette reaches his lips smoke appears drifting back into his open mouth, becoming thinker and more condensed until an almost solid aqueous form of white snakes its way inside and is stoppered by the cigarette. Like a snake returning to a charmer’s basket, it provides a fascinating sight the delights on each repetition.

‘Ray in Bed’ observes Ray waking reluctantly, an old man who wears his age and the kind of life he has lived on his wrinkled sunken features. He seems unaware or unfazed by the presence of a camera and we are left feeling like a ghostly presence on the room. Ray wakes mumbles and stares up the ceiling and soon returns to sleep. The camera watches him closely and listens to his breathing, and one is left feeling touched at such an intimate scene, the sense of age and time passing is heightened and I become uncomfortably aware of my own mortality.

Moving into the next large room one comes into the space of the work of Martin Creed. The room is bare and the light goes on illuminating the entire space, and a few seconds’ later the light goes off. One strolls around the space looking for something in the dullness and the light goes on once more. There is nothing in here but the visitors also strolling around and wondering. The lights go off again, and so on. The content of Creed’s work past and present is minimalist and conceptual; he is concerned with the paradox of wanting to make something and nothing. Through this piece he questions our ideas and notions of art, the tradition methods of museum display and what we would normally expect to find in a gallery. The viewer is invited to look again and examine their surroundings. The viewer is as much a part of the work as the work itself, although I am unsure as to how much the visitors will take up he challenge, and I feel many will regard the piece as the least strong and interesting in the show.

Getting to the next artists work is something of a chance happening, which is integral to the installation by Mike Nelson entiltled ’The Cosmic Legend of the Uroboros Serpent’. This way of approaching the piece works beautifully and suspends a disbelief, which binds the whole piece. There are two exits from Martin Creed’s room and the less obvious one is the right one to take. The unmarked door that looks as if it might lead to a storeroom does not give any clues, and sure enough an elderly lady in front passing through the door, asked the attendant if this corridor leads to the exit. She marched in and head down pursued her way along the corridor oblivious to the fact that she was already in Nelson’s installation. This is the wonder of his piece, where bare floorboards, grey walls and warehouse lights could be a back corridor of the Tate, but are a part of his created world. Even those who know they are in his world already are unsure of their surroundings, the space identity is unclear and ambiguous borrowing elements from other types of spaces that start to weave different narratives. These spaces borrow references from cultural film and literary sources creating an open-ended fiction with many possibilities.

The corridor leads to a cramped small room, with shelves and objects left around and upon them; there is dust and an old smell that evokes the past. I feel I am in a cabin on an old ship, although there is nothing to directly suggest as much, the environment plays with the imagination. There are two possible doors to exit from this room, one is unsure which to take and the viewers are disorientated; there is a sense of trespass and uneasiness in manoeuvring about the place. I take the right hand door and move into what looks like a storeroom, objects in racks are piled high and amongst these are frames for canvases and large display boards. The viewers ask themselves ‘am I in a storeroom for the Tate, have I taken a wrong turn?’

Upon leaving one is returned to a corridor that could be the first one entered, it’s so similar. With this technique Nelson keeps us guessing and delighting in the surprises and open-ended allegories that are present in the objects that are placed around the spaces. His work confronts societies notions and belief systems, and alludes to alternative truths and ways of thinking.

Finally one moves through to the two rooms housing the work of Isaac Julien. The first is a piece called ‘The Long Road to Mazatlan’ and is projected on to back lit screens. The screen is broken seamlessly into three different shots that play along side each other like a triptych. Each shot is from a different angle, sometimes in distance and perspective and also in time frame, with some shot just before or after the others. The work was produced in collaboration with Javier de Frutos a choreographer, and the spoken word is abandoned in favour of silent communication. The work explores ideas of homosexuality, longing and desire and places them in the hyper-masculine stereotypes of the American west. There is a great sense of humour and parody in the film reminding us of how these masculine figures have become gay icons. The sumptuous colours and settings of the scenes are a treat for the eyes and the shooting technique hints that more than one reading is possible of the same film, and another viewing beckons.

The last piece is called ‘Vagabondia’ and is staged in a luxurious red room with matching carpet and screen. The film is structured as two mirroring images, producing a kaleidoscope effect, and suggesting two alternative readings of the film. The film is set within the Soane Museum in London, which contains many cultural artefacts collected by Sir John Soane in the late 19th century. The film focuses on the black female curator and consequently the ambivalence of her position as custodian of establishment culture. Again the colour is sumptuous capitalising on the famous red and yellow rooms in the museum and juxtaposing this with the red and yellow dresses of the actresses; possibly a comment on the wealth of the aristocracy of the period and the poorer nations they may have exploited. There are elements of dance to the film and the narration is in, Creole a hybrid language born of slavery; key references that point to Julien's message? There seem to be many other symbolic signs and actions present, many of which are rather opaque, and I left the film feeling like it was trying to do too much. It does however provide thought provoking and delicious viewing.
And the winner is…?

All the artists work, with the exception of Martin Creed, are strong. Julien's films are slick and beautiful and would be equally at home in a cinema as an art gallery. They are loaded with meaning and reference, but whether they deliver all they set out to is debatable. Martin Creed's work feels like an old idea that’s a bit long in the tooth, and having seen some of his other work that is much better, I think he would have been wise to produce something else for this show. Billingham’s work is currently under change and as such seems unresolved and patchy. However he may win on the strength of his old work and recognition of that. This would be wrong but maybe not the first time in the prize's history. That leaves Nelson's installation, which provided the biggest surprise and enjoyment of the show. I left and entered with a smile and a sense of wonder and judging by the expressions of others present, I wasn’t the only one. Highly original and enjoyable, He would be my personal winner.

© Robert Cooper 2001
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