Sharon Heal

A tale of two art prizes

Sharon Heal, 08.10.2012
The Turner Prize versus Artes Mundi
Last week the £50,000 Turner Prize exhibition opened at Tate Britain. It was almost immediately decreed the best Turner Prize show for decades by some critics.

No doubt the exhibition will be well attended but it's worth asking by whom? The show has been described as intellectually challenging, but a more accurate description for large chunks of it would be incomprehensible.

Spartacus Chetwynd's
Odd Man Out is populated by dancing tree people; it's enough to raise half a smile, but not much more than that.

Disappointingly, the inflatable slide, which could really have engaged audiences, is turned on its side to become a makeshift seating area. Who would have thought that the Turner Prize would be such a killjoy and so risk-averse.

Paul Noble’s Nobtown
drawings raise a smirk. You can't help thinking that the "life is shit" theme is a bit overdone, although maybe the fact that he's the favourite to win is a sign of the times.

The remaining two artists have video installations. I wonder how many people will sit through the full 90 minutes of Luke Fowler's All Divided Selves about the Scottish psychiatrist RD Laing. Elizabeth Price’s The Woolworths Choir highlights a tragic incident but feels inconclusive.

The Artes Mundi art prize hosted by Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales is, by contrast, unashamedly focused on international artists that tackle social issues. This broad theme helps – even if you're not quite sure what some of the works are meant to convey, at least you know they are trying to say something.

Tania Bruguera, for example, explores what it is to be an immigrant in Immigrant Movement International. Phil Collins deconstructs our love affair with TV in the genuinely amusing This Unfortunate Thing Between Us.

And the Mexican artist Teresa Margolles steals the show with her mortuary-based work examining drugs and death, which includes an installation of the floor tiles from the studio of a friend who was murdered.

Artes Mundi also has an impressive education and community programme, including Immigrant Superhero workshops for six to 12-year-olds. The Turner Prize feels vacuous by contrast. Visitors are left wondering around trying to make sense of the various installations, with little interpretation or explanation.

If art prizes are meant to stimulate interest in contemporary art (and surely that is one reason for holding them) then they need to work harder at getting new audiences through the door and making them feel welcome when they are there.