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Tate Britain: Three Shows

November 7, 2010

To Tate Britain, initially to be confronted by Fiona Banner’s work for the Duveen commission (for which works are placed in the large thoroughfare hallway of the building). Banner has put two decommissioned jets in the space: Harrier is a Harrier Hawk, its wings and body winningly painted with feathers, which hangs by its tail from an overhead skylight, its nose almost touching the floor. Somehow it seems small in the space, as though it’s a scaled-down reproduction. Behind it, a second, more elegant jet plane — Jaguar — lies upside down on the floor like a puppy wanting its tummy tickled. Every inch of its surface has been polished to mirror-sharp reflectiveness: it’s a massive shining trophy, a beatified war machine. It made me rather wish I was there on a school trip to draw these massive machines beautifully adapted and placed into such an incongruous yet pleasing space.

This year’s Turner Prize show is far less impressive than last year. First of this year’s four artists is painter Dexter Dalwood — the Turner is often lambasted by the idiot press for its not featuring ‘proper painting’: the paintings here amply demonstrate that it’s not as easy as all that. Sections of seemingly different paintings sit in strata atop each other, like a collage seen sideways. The most affecting painting, The Death of David Kelly 2006 is a beautiful and subtle collaged image which recalls a Pink Floyd record cover (in a good way); Burroughs in Tangiers 2005 meanwhile, is a more straightforward collage which nonetheless lacks much in the way of the emotive. The invocation of a celebrity or public figure (you can’t call Dr Kelly a celebrity) in each title is at odds with the pictures (none of which feature a figurative representation of said person), reminiscent in some way an ad agency might secure celebrity endorsement to try and shift unremarkable stock.

Sound artist Susan Philipsz’s voice is heard in Lowlands 2008/2010, in which her rendering of a traditional Scottish ballad of the same name is played through three speakers. When I visited babies were cackling and a toddler was running about between the speakers, which made me yearn for more sensitive curatorial presence (and indeed more sensible visitors) but didn’t do much to detract from an already fairly pallid sound work. The great contemporary Scottish folk singer Alasdair Roberts has recorded a version of the same song: is Philipsz’s take on it more or less a work of art because she doesn’t (presumably) identify primarily as a singer? For that matter, if Duffy has her song ‘Mercy’ piped through three speakers in a gallery, has it become art?

I was uninspired to ask even this depth of question by the next gallery in which sit objects constructed by Angela de la Cruz, who fuses objects and paintings together into contorted sculptural figures. A swathe of pink fabric droops onto a broken-backed wooden pallet, or maybe erupts out from it, in Super Clutter XXL (Pink and Brown) 2006; for Upright 2004 two chairs have got together and spawned an impractical third. In the middle of the floor a large frame, like a bedframe, is draped in paint-bespattered canvas. I like the notion of paintings that somehow pull themselves apart, and actually typing descriptions of the works makes me like the ideas behind them a lot more. But then one looks at Hold 2005, two small black cabinets bolted together at odd angles, and the whole selection seems as dull and uninspired as those two matt cuboids sharing space.

Best of the Turner quartet is the entry by the Otolith Collective, aka Kodwo Ehsun and Anjalika Sagar. One video installation plays on thirteen screens, showing the thirteen episodes of a BBC television series about the influence on modern culture of Greek art and myth, a different episode on each monitor. Another, 49-minute, video entitled Otolith III plays every hour on the big screen. This was my favourite piece in the prize show: a film based on an unmade movie, The Alien, which uses old and new footage and voiceovers purporting to represent characters from The Alien who collar their director and demand to be given life beyond the cancelled project they were involved in. It’s a cheeky, Pirandello-esque conceit and a visually very attractive film. If I’d mustered the wherewithal to pick up one of those badges with the contestants’ names on them, by which presumably Tate visitors can form themselves into four supporters’ groups and battle on behalf of the artists involved — perhaps a better way to choose a winner — it’s the Otoliths’ I would have chosen.

Far better in almost every way than any of the Turner entries — not to say far more terrifying — is Mike Nelson’s The Coral Reef, installed in Tate ten years after Nelson first made it. Accessed through an unremarkable door adjacent to the Turner Prize exhibit, Coral Reef comprises a series of rooms, some locked, some open, leading off a winding central hallway. The lighting is greasily fluorescent, and the rooms are tiny cramped spaces furnished with counters, tables, slashed sofas, and various isolated, emotive objects: defunct fans, a shotgun, a clown mask. Holes have been sawn through doors, any paintwork is inevitably gouged and scored as though someone or something has tried to claw their way out (or in?). On the walls are posters for travel agencies and minicab companies. The rooms, cells really, seem variously domestic, commercial and jail-like. I couldn’t count how many rooms there in fact are, but there’s certainly a sense that an awful lot too many have somehow been crammed into the Tate, as though you’re in some sort of interstitial zero place. This may also contribute to the feeling of horror that gripped me as soon as I’d entered the first room, a whitewalled space in which sits the aforementioned slashed sofa and a highly vandalised visitors’ book that itself seems in some way disturbing. You wander through the labyrinth expecting to open a door onto criminal deals being struck, or some unimaginable scene of domestic horror. I was reminded of Roger Hiorns’s terrific Seizure 2008 in which a disused bedsit is possessed and transformed by a coating of royal-blue copper sulphate crystals. Here a similarly rundown space is given over to a more theoretical, disturbing kind of haunting. It’s a highly effective, disorientating and dreamlike exhibit, a triumph.

Mike Nelson discusses The Coral Reef on the Tate’s video channel here.

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