The Turner Prize is the one contemporary art prize that everyone has heard of, even if they, like Brian Sewell, believe it's simply for ‘extremely contemporary rubbish – assemblies of rubbish masquerading under important names’ – or, as ex-Culture Minister Kim Howells once put it, 'cold, mechanical bullshit'. That's probably because over the years this prize has become synonymous with shock and controversy, causing all kinds of brouhaha and outrage in the pages of the tabloid press.
Yet given its racy history, this year's Turner Prize exhibition feels surprisingly tame. You won't find anything like a Tracy Emin bed, or the Chapman brothers' pornographic dolls, or Martin Creed's light-switches, or even an Ofili dung-encrusted canvas on this shortlist. But then, on the other hand, you could say that these works are everything that contemporary art clichés are made of: this year's selection offers us powerful, witty but ultimately rather ugly paintings by Dexter Dalwood; distorted sculptural objects by Angela de la Cruz – canvases lying ruptured and battered on the gallery floor, or smashed up against a wall; and a predictably obscure installation from The Otolith Group – a dark chamber filled with books, old TVs playing grainy subtitled films, and walls painted with obscure quotations.
Yet the final work in the exhibition, Lowlands by Susan Philipz, really does offer us something a little bit different. This three-channel sound installation of a sixteenth century Scottish lament sung by the artist was originally shown as part of her exhibition at the Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art, and has been reconfigured for the Turner Prize, where it fills the otherwise empty gallery with a haunting and mournful melody. Compared to what we might usually expect from a Turner shortlisted artwork, this is scarcely ground-breaking stuff - but is the shock-factor really what matters?
On the day I was there, the gallery housing Philipz’s installation was jam-packed with people, from Japanese tourists, to old ladies with their eyes shut, to students lying on the floor with sketchbooks – whilst the other galleries remained empty but for the occasional hushed footfall. For that reason alone, Philipsz would certainly get my vote for the overall prize. Controversial it’s absolutely not – but how refreshing to encounter a work so straightforwardly immersive, emotive and strangely beautiful in the context of a Turner exhibition. And who would have thought that the most unusual thing about this year's Turner Prize artwork would be that the public would actually like it?
[Image: Turner Prize 2010, via Tate]