Sun, Oct 07, 2012 - Page 12 News List

The best Turner yet?

The Turner Prize exhibition at Tate Britain showcases the work of the four British artists under 50 who were nominated for the annual award of US$40,000, and includes performance art, drawings, sculpture and video

By Adrian Searle  /  The Guardian, London

Elizabeth Price makes every second count in her 20-minute, high-definition video. She also makes much use of archive and Internet footage, and digital imagery. To begin with you think you are watching an animated Powerpoint lecture on church architecture. There are descriptions of nave and parclose, rood screen and choir, with animated 3D drawings and still black-and-white close-ups of choir stalls; there are ornaments, medieval beasts, foliage and people. Carved bodies writhe. Suddenly, the 1960s bad-girl band the Shangri-Las come crashing in, and we’re lifted by the beats and rhythms as they sing their hit Out on the Street.

Exhilaration suddenly turns to terror. Song becomes scream. The Shangri-Las’ finger-snapping is edited to singular effect, as sudden as gunfire. A synchronized dance move, with waving arms, becomes another arm flailing — news footage of a girl at a barred window trying to attract help, in a 1979 fire at a Woolworths department store in Manchester that killed 10 people.

Price’s work is controlled down to the last microsecond. She lifts you up and slams you flat. The turn of events becomes genuinely distressing. Throughout the film words and phrases erupt on the screen, or appear as graphic footnotes. There is no spoken commentary, but rather moments of blackness and silence, punchy slogans, and the fire service’s own filmed reconstruction of the fire, set among stacks of furniture in an abandoned factory. Pearly smoke fills the screen. This is almost a poem, with its repeated and evolving phrases, the counterpoint of sound, image and words. The texture of the work fits exactly — it is both hot and cold, brittle and brutal, an elegy and a power-pop dance. Price’s work has a violent lyricism and an incredibly deadpan restraint. It is so measured it might soon come to look mannered and dated. She is certainly doing something new -- but how do you tell the modish from the timely? Will it last? The question won’t go away.

Spartacus Chetwynd’s art is rumbustious, bonkers, daft and discombobulating. It is like being hit over the head with a pig’s bladder. Chetwynd has built two sets for performance in her space. They need her and her co-performers to animate them. On their own, they’re a bit dismal, as empty stages always are. Performance is the thing: a puppet show of Jesus and Barabbas, and a further work based on the sprawling Odd Man Out, which Chetwynd first performed last year.

There are living tree-people with root-like appendages, and a dance that teeters on the edge of “I am a tree” new age nonsense but also casts itself as a morality play. It’s all mummery and flummery, and conducted with a winning amateurishness. I lay on the floor and a mandrake-root puppet whispered something secret to me about teeth; then I was ushered out by a tree-man.

Chetwynd’s troupe remind me of the Austrian performance collective Gelitin. Both draw on the medieval and the carnivalesque. It’s a world turned upside down. You can watch further performances on monitors while seated on an overturned, inflatable slide. This galumphing object wheezes and squeaks, and so does Chatwynd’s art. Liberating though it is meant to be, there is no catharsis. She wants to free us up, audience and performers alike, but freedom’s a fleeting thing.

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