Straight to the top

By Mark Brown  /  The Guardian, London

Sun, Oct 07, 2012 - Page 12

It may never be entirely clear why the performance artist Spartacus Chetwynd chose to wear a bushy black beard for the opening of her Turner prize show, but she tried to explain. “I couldn’t find time and money to go and buy a nice dress so I thought if I wear one of my old dresses and a beard then the combination would be totally scintillating and I’d get away with it.”

The artist is one of four competing for this year’s prize and their work went on display at Tate Britain in London before the winner is announced on Dec. 3.

Penelope Curtis, director of Tate Britain and chair of judges, said this year’s artists represented a range of practices including drawing, photography, film and performance.

Unlike some years there were no big surprises or controversies, but Curtis said: “As far as possible we tried to make sure what we showed in London is representative of the shows and presentations for which they were nominated.”

That means Elizabeth Price is showing the same video installation, The Woolworths Choir of 1979, as she did at the Baltic in Gateshead; Luke Fowler is exhibiting his 93-minute film All Divided Selves, exploring the controversial psychiatrist RD Laing, which was first shown in Edinburgh; and Chetwynd is restaging key moments from a month of performance madness that she organized at Sadie Coles Gallery in London.

The one exception is Paul Noble who is showing five new pencil drawings and marble sculptures from a long-running project in which he depicts the fictional place Nobson Newtown.

But Curtis said they were “very representative of the works for which he was nominated.”

Noble was immediately made four-fifths favorite to win the US$40,000 prize by bookmaker William Hill. A spokesman said: “Paul has attracted over 90 percent of the early money and if this trend continues he could well become the shortest priced favorite in the history of Turner prize betting.”

Chetwynd, who lives in a nudist commune in southeast London, is the first performance artist to be shortlisted for the prize and is juggling the demands of the exhibition with the demands of a three-month-old baby.

Every Saturday afternoon visitors will be able to see full performances. One involves dancing people-trees and an oracle dispensing individual predictions — “you are developing a nasty itch” — and the other is a puppet show of the story of Jesus and Barabbas.

On other days two performers will be doing “more relaxed and improvised” performance and more scaled down versions of the main action. “I want them to have a good time, for it not to be too tortured,” Chetwynd said.

This year’s show is undoubtedly intellectually challenging — one of the first visitor comment cards had simply a big question mark — and it might well baffle and delight in equal measure.

Chetwynd said: “I always assume the audience is intelligent and there’s huge amounts of referencing for people to get and pick up on and be interested in.” But she added: “It is definitely meant to be enjoyable.”

Sadly visitors will not be able to slide down a big inflatable like they did at Sadie Coles, but she has installed it on its side to be used, perhaps, as a sofa.

Chetwynd said she was not unhappy at that. “I want there to be wheelchair access. I’m amazed we’re even allowed the slide in the building — it is stupidly in the way and they’ve allowed it to be in the way.”