The 2012 Turner prize exhibition, which opened on Tuesday at Tate Britain, is one of the most demanding and thoughtful in the award’s history. High seriousness and scatological humor, ribald performance, death and despair all play their part.
It also takes the longest to see. Glasgow-based Luke Fowler’s 2011 film All Divided Selves, about Scottish psychiatrist, analyst and writer RD Laing, clocks in at 90 minutes. The live and recorded performances by Spartacus Chetwynd and her troupe of collaborators can spin out the day. Elizabeth Price’s 20-minute video, The Woolworths Choir of 1979, invites repeat viewing. Paul Noble’s drawings are so full of detail and incident they can make you forget lunch. As it is, they can put you off food entirely.
Noble opens the show, with a selection of drawings spanning 16 years. He has created an entire fictive world, based on the imaginary town and environs of Nobson. There are parks, palaces, desert dwellings and gardens, all precisely rendered in pencil, and peopled by perky little turds, pointed at both ends. The world he has created — last shown in an extensive show at London’s Gagosian Gallery — is peculiar and original. His humor drives him, and has kept him locked in his studio for nearly two decades. I love the litter of rocks retreating to a far horizon, the filigree railings and wonky modernist buildings, the rain on the water — though all the excrement gets wearying.
Recently Noble announced he was done with Nobson and the years of obsessive graft with a hard pencil. This show is a further recapitulation of this extensive body of work. The interesting thing now is less what he has already achieved, substantial though it is, than what comes next. Noble’s recent small and exquisitely carved marble sculptures replay Henry Moore’s mother-and-child theme: baby turd sits on Mummy poo’s lap. These sculptures aren’t nearly so good as Sarah Lucas’s writhing, involuted plays on intestinal form, never mind Louise Bourgeois’s carvings or, dare I say, the works of Moore himself. Noble’s sculptures are just going through the motions.
All Divided Selves is Luke Fowler’s third film in a decade about RD Laing. It concerns madness and sanity, among whose cast of troubled minds Laing is revealed as another pursued by demons, and it pithily observes that the definitions of schizophrenia are so all-encompassing — and such a mish-mash — that anyone might be sectioned should a psychiatrist be of a mind to commit them. Along the way we meet distressed schizophrenics, old-school psychiatrists of the drug-’em-and-electroshock-’em regime — Laing’s anti-psychiatry colleague David Cooper (who himself went on to have his own crisis) — and Gay Byrne, the Irish TV presenter, who accuses Laing on his chatshow of being drunk. Even Janet Street-Porter gets a fatuous soundbite.
You have to know a bit about Laing, his circle and his times, to follow this. The film is beautifully edited, though you want it to move on. It is the cleverly used archive footage that really fascinates — though not nearly so effectively as similar material did in John Amkomfrah’s moving film about the social thinker Stuart Hall, showing at the current Liverpool Biennial. Both works are studies of the construction of identity and the self. Fowler uses his art, and Laing’s evident flaws, as a hedge against a more thoroughgoing critique. We keep drifting off into the landscape. There’s no doubt Laing was an important and passionate figure, and Fowler casts him as flawed hero. Perhaps he was, but Fowler’s work studiously avoids the analytical. Laing’s sexual politics, for a start, are never examined.