As the Turner Prize turns 30, journalist, broadcaster and Tate Member Miranda Sawyer shares her memories
I always enjoy the Turner Prize, even if I don’t always completely enjoy the art that is shown there. I like an event, a provocation, an argument, a display: and the Turner Prize is all of these. It helps those of us who aren’t directly involved in the art world to see how that world is developing, what it’s thinking about, who it’s excited by, what’s turning it on right now. I relish a cultural conversation, and the Turner Prize gives us all a starter for ten.
The Prize didn’t make much impression on me until 1991, when it began to have an accompanying show exhibiting the four nominees’ work. I made a point of going along to Tate Britain every year, of consciously engaging with the work, and it was worth it. Not only I was introduced to many artists that I hadn’t previously been aware of, but I started to understand what the fuss was about those artists that I did know. Rachel Whiteread’s House was properly memorable, amazing, its monumental nature made fragile by the fact that you knew it would be demolished, just like the real house that had spawned it. Damien Hirst’s Mother and Child Divided was fun-fair frivolous, appealing to kids, and yet underpinned by a serious death obsession. The drama and fun of Steve McQueen’s Buster Keaton film, where the barn wall fell over his head. I loved that.
I relished the winners, the artists in the sun. Gillian Wearing’s witty, human still-life of pretend police officers standing for a photo. Chris Ofili, whose jewel-like paintings were somehow exquisite and immediate, timeless and hip-hop, and very moving. When Jeremy Deller won, it felt like a triumph – his values and idols and life experiences were and are very close to mine. Grayson Perry’s pervy, touching pots. Elizabeth Price’s upsetting, painful film of a Manchester fire in a Woolworth’s store. Plus, I got to see those who didn’t win. I loved Mona Hatoum’s lit cage, Peter Doig’s weird dream landscapes, Vong Phaophanit’s undulating rice, Tracey Emin’s tragi-comic bed, Steven Pippin’s washing machine photographs. Mike Nelson’s back room installation in 2001 made a great impression on me, as did Spartacus Chetwynd’s mad interactions in 2012, even though I knew their work before. David Shrigley, always funny, always human… oh, all of them.
Art can do what it likes, as far as I’m concerned: it can be unashamedly beautiful, it can be about ideas, it can be funny, it can reference work I’ve never heard of, it can stand by itself and metaphorically – or literally, in the case of performance art – scratch its bum. I don’t care. Art is whatever its creator wants it to be. If that creator knows what he or she is doing, then the art will connect, will explode into a reaction from its viewers. If I’m honest, I’m not really bothered about who wins, because I’ve been on judging committees and I know how they work. In fact, I was on the judging panel that awarded Mark Wallinger the Turner Prize in 2007 (veerrry stressful, not at all fun, I don’t recommend it). What I felt – which is what I always feel about prizes – is that, although Mark is a great artist and a worthy winner, if the judging panel had been made up of different people, the prize might well have gone somewhere else.
Art is not sport. No one can properly win at art, create the fastest ever work, throw their ideas the furthest distance. There are no absolute art conquerers. Well, there may be, but only time will reveal who those are, and we’ll all be long gone by then. There are works that move you, and then there is all the rest. What the Turner Prize does is focus our butterfly minds on contemporary art for a short amount of time. And, whether we like what we see or we don’t, I think that is a commendable and proper – and fundamentally delightful – thing for us all to do.
The Turner Prize 2014 exhibition runs 30 September 2014 to 4 January 2015. The winner is announced Monday 1 December, live on Channel 4