An aura of controversy in the chase for the new

In its 25-year history, Britain's Turner Prize has redefined modern art

by Donald Eubank

Ever since 1917, when Marcel Duchamp submitted a urinal to the Society of Independent Artists’ exhibition, arguing that it was art, anything has become acceptable. Artist Chris Burden shot himself in the arm in a Los Angeles gallery in 1971; Piero Manzoni canned what was allegedly his own feces and sold it as “Merda d’artista (Artist’s Shit)” in 1961; Martin Creed had a light in a room flick on and off for the Turner Prize exhibition when he won in 2001. That work, “Lights Going On and Off,” is now at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo in a dim room at its latest exhibition, “History in the Making: A Retrospective of the Turner Prize.”

More than most awards given for art, the Turner prize has regularly shocked audiences. Sir Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate Gallery, believes it is necessary to inject radical ideas into mainstream culture.

“Most of culture is a counterbalance, so you never really need to create conservatism — it’s there in almost every institution,” says Serota, who guided the museum to the prominence it enjoys now and is a standing member of the Turner Prize’s jury. “What you need to do is create a platform in which the new can be seen relatively quickly.”

Awarded annually since 1984 by the Tate to a U.K.-based artist under 50, the Turner has opened itself to the strain of art that embraces the freedom Duchamp created. It has welcomed works that use things we are familiar with in our everyday lives to pose the eternal questions art asks about love, death and society. Damien Hirst displayed cows suspended in formaldehyde in 1995. Tracey Emin put her bed, dirty with a week’s worth of living, in the Tate Britain when she was nominated for the Turner in 1999 (won by Steve McQueen that year for a video that replicated a stunt from a Buster Keaton movie). Last year’s winner, Mark Wallinger, filled his exhibition for the prize with re-creations of the signs that a protester against the Iraq war had made and installed outside the British Parliament.

So the well-deserved aura of controversy that surrounds the Turner Prize is appropriate. Duchamp’s premise is hard to swallow because it confuses our everyday lives with art — either by taking what we know and showing it back to us in a museum, or by taking what we experience daily and forcing us to ask ourselves: Is it life? Or could it be art? Was that scene out the train window of an urban scape just a moment, or was it an opportunity to communicate some truth? Did that joke contain a universal message, a subtext or a Dadaist absurdity that could have made it more than just a joke?

Mostly, the question is: Could I put it — anything — in a museum? In many ways, the Turner says yes; but that’s the easy answer. A lot of the works in the retrospective at the Mori, while potentially challenging, are not so alienating in and of themselves — they may puzzle you aesthetically, but they don’t at this point in the game force you to question what is acceptable in art.

In fact, the fascinating thing about the exhibition is how accessible it all is. For those who have no more than chanced across the hubbub surrounding the Turner Prizes that bubbles up in the mainstream media most years, seeing all the pieces together probably will not cause some startling shock to the senses — or to one’s sense of taste. By this time, mainstream tastes have already arrived at the Turner Prize.

Compared with any other group exhibition of contemporary art based on some affiliation (national, social, artistic, etc.), or a survey of an era, the retrospective of the Turner settles right in. The quality of the art is superior. But the ideas — over the prize’s 25-year history — have been absorbed into the tides of contemporary practices and swept up by others. Also, the Mori and other museums, galleries and institutes in Japan have well prepared regular visitors for the prize. So the shock is off.

Is the exhibition good? Without the desire to be offended or outraged by what has been put in a museum and touted as the best there is in the contemporary world, then it is possible to look at these works as a history of ideas, artistic in nature, that have gone from unthought of to fairly commonplace.

Hirst is the easiest and best example. Part of the Young British Artists, a group of 1990s avant-garde provocateurs, the now 42-year-old became publicly known for his shark suspended in a large tank of formaldehyde, “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living” (1991), and a similar 1993 treatment of a cow and a calf, “Mother and Child Divided,” now showing at the Mori. He was back in the mainstream news with “For the Love of God” (2007), a platinum- and diamond-encrusted human skull that was recently sold to an unnamed “investment group” for $100 million.

How do you build a thriving contemporary scene? I have always argued that money follows energy, and that you have to find a way of creating a program that will generate interest and support. If you keep plowing your way, eventually the politicians will see the light. It takes a long time in my experience, but you can get there. And even then, it’s always with a degree of skepticism. There are very few politicians who have a real belief in and understanding of culture because hitherto, politicians have not thought that embracing culture was a way to ingratiate themselves with an electorate. But I think things are changing, and that people’s expectations in very general terms are changing, so there are an increasing number of politicians who do take interest.

Why do you think that is? The most obvious reasons are that compared to 30 or 40 years ago, people have much more leisure time, they have more disposable income and they spend time pursuing education beyond the age of 16 or 18. The development of the Internet has changed things quite dramatically: People are more informed than they used to be as there is easy access to all kinds of information.

Where do museums fit in? The museums undoubtedly play an important part in that they create a frame through which the work that is being produced by artists in the city can be seen. And if it presents that work in a very consistent way, it creates a climate and the basis for an understanding of what the contribution is that artists are making. In the absence of museums playing that kind of contemporary role, it’s difficult for the art scene to coalesce. I think you see the way that functions in New York, you see how it has begun to function more systematically in Paris, you see it in Berlin, and now in London.

How does Tokyo stack up? One of the difficulties in Tokyo is that there have not been museums presenting contemporary art in a very consistent way. The Hara Museum does a very good job on a small scale. Mori has made a big difference, I think, in terms of presenting not only international art but also Japanese art through “Roppongi Crossing.” You have to have that kind of base to create a climate in which people can start to have a discourse.