Eyes on the Prize

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It seems that this year’s judges made a conscious attempt to avoid some of the usual tabloid furore surrounding the Turner Prize. The shortlist definitely doesn’t contain anything that will invite controversy as easily as the works of Martin Creed or Mark Wallinger. If this year’s prize makes many headlines at all, it will be if Mark Leckey, who is the bookmakers’ favourites and the only male nominee, wins the award. further fuelling the claims that Turner juries are biased against female artists.

I’m of the opinion that Leckey shouldn’t win. Most of the attention his nominated works have garnered has been focused on ‘Cinema in the Round’, a video of a lecture on contemporary art delivered by Leckey in evening dress.

The piece seems to sum up what is wrong with the rest of the nominees’ oeuvre. Leckey rambles around a huge amount of subjects, from James Cameron to Karl Marx, creating a sense that he is nothing but a sponge, into which a century of culture has been absorbed.

Ever since the Cubists first pasted newspaper clippings onto their paintings, the idea that an artist need not always comment on popular culture has become popular, especially when (s)he has the option of directly including actual, physical manifestations of it in his works. Yet the Cubists, or Duchamp with his ready-mades, or Tracey Emin with her bed, seized artefacts from the world around them and transformed them into new works of art. Leckey suggests it is enough to talk about popular culture within the frame of a video, playing on a screen in an art gallery. Leckey is an astonishing cultural archivist, and probably a horrific bore at parties, but nothing more.

Similar criticisms can be levelled at Cathy Wilkes. Her assemblages are made up of the debris of modern living, and represent a side of contemporary existence that Leckey does not seek to involve himself with. Wilkes’ installation is unconcerned with aesthetics – it is downright ugly. Yet though she does make something new from her toilets, naked mannequins, birdcages and leftover food, it is impossible to tell what that is, or what it means. Maybe this is the whole point; the apparently random and chaotic nature of the artefacts represents a lack of communication. Yet this lazy argument illustrates Wilkes’ failings – more arresting and eloquent attempts have been made to illustrate a breakdown in communication.

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Runa Islam’s films seem workmanlike rather than inspired, interesting rather than enrapturing. Given time and attention, their full significance and beauty could come to reveal itself but their immediate impact is limited. There’s nothing wrong with Islam’s work, but I like my art to be visceral as well as cerebral.

Goshka Macuga fulfils both of these criteria. Like the works of Leckey and Wilkes, her art is pervaded by cultural ephemera, but she has focus. Macuga’s cultural detritus comes in the form of letters and manifestos written by the members of Unit One, the 1930s Modernist group.

Where Wilkes uses random slices of the world around her and Leckey attempts to work with an entire cultural history, Macuga chooses to work with a tiny piece of forgotten history, dredged up from the Tate’s archives. She has taken sheaves of paper that contain hermetically sealed nuggets of the past and, in her free-ranging, mixed-media responses, brought them back into the world, alive and gloriously real. For this, she ought to win.

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