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Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Mark Wallinger Wins the Turner Prize - but then a rose by any other name...

Mark Wallinger's State Britain at Tate Britain in January

First the bare facts, though they must be known to all.

1. Mark Wallinger has won the Turner Prize for Art for his State Britain. (Okay,
we could argue about the technicalities of displayed work versus an artist's
output over a twelve month period, but State Britain is what he won it for.)
2. He won it for recreating 600 items from Brian Haw's peace camp protest in
Parliament Square.
3. Before that, Brian Haw won the Channel 4 prize for the most inspiring political
4. Then Parliament passed an act banning protests around the Houses of Parliament
- an area including part of Tate Britain, as it happens.
5. The police therefore raided the peace camp and confiscated every last item. It
took seventy eight politically compromised officers to carry them all off.
6. Enter Mark Wallinger to set about recreating the display, which he did, every
last item (600 of them) in faithful detail. The exercise took fourteen assistants
six months and cost a total of £90,000. The research effort must have been
7. N.B. What in Parliament Square had been a protest becomes, in the confines of
an art gallery, a work of art. We have heard something along those lines
somewhere before, have we not?

Last night on News 24 Wallinger struggled to explain his recreation in artistic
terms. No matter. There is no reason why an artist should be good at words - or
television. For the record, if it had been my decision, I would have handed the
prize to Mark Wallinger - and would have struggled to justify my decision in
artistic terms. But now is the time to sound corny, for it is not painting, is
it? Neither is it sculpture. It is not drawing or... or any recognized category
of art. If anything, it falls under one or both of those overworked umbrellas,
'Concept' and 'Installation' Art. Last night I did not hear Mark Wallinge,
talking about his success on News 24, mention either term. He spoke of his
work as an act of restoration. He spoke of preservation. Both laudable endeavours,
both having much to do with art, even requiring a degree of "art", but not
actually art. He has said that "art needs to engage the viewer and has to have a
hook that is not entirely cerebral." Fine, but it cannot be all hook.

It is the language that is inadequate, I think. The vocabulary is deficient.
Like our one word for the many forms of love. It is sometimes difficult to
draw distinctions and leads to many an unfortunate misunderstanding. It seems to
me that we might learn a lesson from the scientific community: whenever science
enters some new territory it coins a new word for a new area of activity. The
'concepts' behind some concept art are difficult indeed to determine. Others are
so superficial as to be laughable. Maybe we are looking in the wrong place. Like
looking for the wrong feeling when there is talk of love. It might facilitate
general understanding of what (some) art is about if we could expand the
vocabulary. When some new, broad area of activity (not just some new ism) becomes
the place to go, could we not enter it on our art map and grace it with a name all
its own?

see State Britain at The Tate

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