The Turner Prize 2012, Tate Britain

-This exhibition is now closed-

The Turner Prize 2012 exhibition at Tate Britain opened earlier this month, and I took the chance to explore the four finalists’ work ahead of the award ceremony on 3 December.

Only one of this year’s finalist entries is a work of still, visual art, Paul Noble’s Nobson Newtown drawings. The other entries are Spartacus Chetwynd’s performance art based on her Odd Man Out show, Elizabeth Price’s video installation The Woolworths Choir of 1979 and Luke Fowler’s whopping 90-minute film All Divided Selves.

Paul Noble‘s pencil drawings are part of a series which runs throughout his work; man-made landscapes forming the imaginary town of Nobson Newtown where, according to Noble, ‘there is no story or time’. Certainly, the combination of geometric discipline, symbolic detail, immense scale and flat perspective serves to draw the viewer into what quickly becomes a futile attempt at decryption. Noble has created in Nobson Newtown a curiously sad and eerie desert landscape, littered with dense and personal iconography, which appears inviting on the surface but is ultimately closed off to the viewer.

By contrast, Spartacus Chetwynd‘s performance art is invitingly jovial and embraces a slapdash sense of craftsmanship. The performance takes the form of what the artist has called a ‘confrontational play’; interactive scenarios involving mute characters in mandrake costumes, a series of puppets and a bizarre backdrop of torn printed paper and various props. The mandrakes perform a ritualistic, gyrating dance before inviting individual members of the audience to converse with one of their puppets, a rather menacing ‘oracle’. Enthralled though they are by their ‘oracle’, the mandrakes’ behaviour is not totally otherworldly (at one point one of the mandrakes taps his imaginary wristwatch frustratedly to hurry a spectator along) as though they are gate-keepers between the real world and the parallel universe of the play. Despite the obvious silliness, the mandrakes’ ceremonial observance serves as reminder of the inherent weirdness of real-world religious and cultural rituals in the eyes of the uninitiated.

Luke Fowler‘s film, All Divided Selves, takes as its subject Scottish psychiatrist RD Laing (1927-1989), inverting the traditional documentary film form. Instead of looking at Laing’s theories on schizophrenia as they evolved logically over time, Fowler has edited television interviews and other footage of Laing and his contemporaries out of sequence, obfuscated with cuts of abstract or seemingly unrelated images and footage of Fowler himself (he has called the film a self-portrait), creating a sense of unreality and confusion befitting the subject matter. The viewer is left in a position of doubt about Laing’s sanity, the validity of his theories and the reliability of the documentary medium in general. Fowler resists the traditional urge of the documentary film-maker to make retrospective sense of a contradictory reality and instead presents Laing in the form of a moving and anti-cathartic work of art.

Elizabeth Price‘s The Woolworths Choir of 1979 also explores ideas of documentary authority, but while Fowler’s work breaks chronological footage out of sequence, Price takes disparate, ostensibly unrelated pieces of digital footage and edits them together to create a compelling but unreliable single narrative. Through the homophones “choir” and “quire”, Price links expositional diagrams and photos of church architecture to the Shangri-Las’ music video Out in the Streets, which is then linked to grisly footage of the Manchester Woolworth’s fire of 1979 through rhythmic handclaps, clicks and visually similar hand gestures. The audience becomes emotionally implicated in the unfolding drama through the insistence of the authoritative on-screen titles that ‘we are choir’. The religious iconography, images of human suffering and dramatic, tense sounds feel like a call to action, although what sort of action is totally unclear. In this way Price exposes what she calls ‘rhetorics of propaganda’; the capacity for film and advertising to manipulate the viewer.

My favourite piece in the exhibition is Price’s video installation, which manages to be moving, clever and visually impressive. I am also a fan of Fowler’s work, although I think the ideas could have been crystallised into a shorter film. Chetwynd’s show was a fun experience but a bit anticlimactic, and I found Noble’s work too introverted.

The exhibition runs until 6 January and the winner will be announced on 3 December.