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Turner Prize Nominees

Here’s a piece, also appearing in today’s Sunday Herald, about the Turner Prize nominees, and the Modern Institute-represented Glaswegians in particular. It’s simultaneously a wee bit defensive and a wee bit tub-thumping. You know, just like Scotland. (I kid becuase I love!)

Anyway, I’ll hopefully be interviewing Jim Lambie and Simon Starling in the near future, for a calmer look at the shortlist. (In the meantime, here’s an old interview with Jim.)

Congratulations to both, and best of luck.

The Turner prize thrives on controversy, and this year the more shrill quarters of the press have been handed their annual excuse to browbeat contemporary artists gift-wrapped, in the form of nominee Gillian Carnegie. In a reversal of the usual fuss, Carnegie is the centre of attention not for being an artist of the ‘Call that art?’ variety, but for being a painter, and one who paints landscapes and still lifes to boot. Fellow nominee Darren Almond might reasonably feel a little peeved - in any other year, his cool examination of the Holocaust in the form of recreated Auschwitz bus stops would have drawn the tabloid fire.

In the midst of the brouhaha, you might be forgiven for missing a fact about the other two contenders, Jim Lambie and Simon Starling. Both are Glasgow-based - Lambie born and bred, Starling an adopted son after attending the city’s School of Art - and both are represented by the Modern Institute, the very Glasgow gallery that backs last year’s Turner Prize winner, Jeremy Deller.

So, should Scots put aside the usual qualms about contemporary art and, as they would in any other field, back their team? In a word, yes.

Simon Starling’s work is perhaps the more challenging. He has a tendency to make journey’s. In the past, he has driven from Italy to Poland in order to swap Italian-made parts of his Fiat car with Polish-made equivalents. For his widely-acclaimed solo outing at Dundee’s DCA, Djungel, he traced the process of transforming a West Indian cedar tree into the printing blocks to make a curtain bearing a 1920s botanical design. The work which earned Starling his Turner nomination, Tabernas Desert Run, takes this peripatetic poetry a stage further. After riding a motorbike, modified to run on hydrogen and emitting only water, across the Andalusian desert, Starling returned to Glasgow and used the water produced by his bike to paint a picture of a cactus, and the Spanish sun, collected by solar panels en route, to power an airbrush used to paint the Spanish sky. This elegiac bicycle cycle is pure Starling - convoluted concepts, environmental concerns and witty transformations, transubstantiations even, expressed with a deft, light touch as beautiful as any painter’s brush-mark on canvas.

As for Lambie, he is, first and foremost, a sculptor. This fact has not excited commentators as much as Carnegie’s status as a painter, perhaps because Lambie’s work is characterised by the use of familiar materials. He uses turntables, dousing them in glitter, transforms junk shop mirrors and, most famously, applies cheap vinyl tape to gallery floors in eye-bending geometric patterns. Lambie is, too, closely associated with music - he was in Glasgow band The Boy Hairdressers, and has designed an album cover for Primal Scream - but, the artist insists, the references to music in his work are almost incidental, the result of reaching out to the stuff around him to make work. Or, as he has put it in the past, ‘I make sculpture. I start the work from a sculptural point of view. I might use the stuff that’s lying around, but as pure material. As opposed to other artists who try to get away from objects, I’m trying to get into them.’ He might be being a little disingenuous there - many of his works are named after song titles, after all - but look past Lambie’s surface themes it becomes clear that his insistance on placing sculpture at the heart of his practice is honest. Those lines of tape aren’t an abstraction of seedy discoteque dancefloors, they’re an eloquent, beautiful attempt to engage with what a floor is. His glitter-drenched turntables aren’t just co-opting a bit of DJ glamour, they are objects transformed, as surely as a chisel transforms marble.

It is a shame to take such a defensive tack, but, year after year, the Turner is set up as a standard-bearer in a battle between the cynical traditionalists and arty cognoscenti. Look inside that art world, though, and few would deny that Lambie and Starling are major forces. For one, the pair have represented Scotland together before, exhibiting at Zenomap, the inaugural Scottish pavillion at the Venice Biennale, and both have worked prolifically over the last year to mount a slew of significant international solo shows, Lambie at Oxford’s MOMA, Dallas Museum of Art New York gallery Anton Kern, while Starling drew crowds at Barcelona’s Fundacio Juan Miro and earned a nomination for the prestigious Hugo Boss prize. They are not alone, either. Scottish artists, particularly those based in Glasgow, have dominated for some time, with Lambie and Starling bringing the total of Glasgow School of Art graduates to win Turner nominations to five since it’s inception in 1984, including outright winner Douglas Gordon. The Beck’s Futures award - a cheeky little brother to the middle-aged Turner - has been over-run by Scots too, with Toby Paterson (another Modern Institute artist) Rosalind Nashashabi and Roderick Buchanan all scooping that award, leading some to redub it Jock’s Futures.

You might think that this would be a source of pride, but, as the focus of British art continues its shift North of the border, it is the naysayers that shout the loudest. Julian Spalding, one-time director of Glasgow Museums and Galleries, responded to the latest sign of Scottish dominance by writing in the Scotsman that the Turner Prize ought to be scrapped, forgetting to mention in his rush to decry the selection process, that half the shortlist are based on his home turf.

Spalding was also quick to point out, quite rightly, that prizes that pit one artist against the other are, in the end, impossible to judge, and national pride is hardly the criteria by which to make any such judgement. But nor is an artist’s medium of choice, yet it is Gillian Carnegie’s liking for paint on canvas that has made the headlines.

So, we find ourselves faced with a rather undignified race between artists - with Lambie and Starling at the starting gates with odds of 4/1, for what it’s worth - for a prize that most choose to use as a peg on which to hang arguments as old as Duchamp’s Fountain. And something has gone missing in the midst of this tired response to the shortlist announcement: the art. As the world’s eyes turn to Scottish artists, artists who more than deserve that attention, isn’t it about time we looked to their work, instead of joining the chorus of skeptics?

Posted at 1pm on 03/06/05 by Jack Mottram to the art and culture category.
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