The Turner Prize is a controversial fixture of the autumn calendar, designed to bring new art to new audiences. Tom Morton asks what the event can tell us about art in Britain in the past 20 years.

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  • Turner Prize Exhibition, 1984, featuring work by (left to right) Gilbert & George, Richard Deacon, Richard Long and Malcom Morley
    Turner Prize Exhibition, 1984, featuring work by (left to right)
    Gilbert & George, Richard Deacon, Richard Long and Malcom Morley
  • Damien Hirst Mother & Child, Divided, 1993
    Damien Hirst
    Mother & Child, Divided 1993
  • Rachel Whiteread Ghost 1990
    Rachel Whiteread
    Ghost 1990
  • Douglas Gordon Confessions of a Justified Sinner (detail) 1996
    Douglas Gordon
    Confessions of a Justified Sinner (detail) 1996
  • Gillian Wearing 60 minutes of Silence 1997
    Gillian Wearing
    60 minutes of Silence 1997

It’s 1984 and you’re standing in the long beige space of the Tate’s Duveen gallery, looking at the first Turner Prize exhibition. On the far wall, Howard Hodgkin’s Son et Lumière 1983–4 flashes in its frame, a green pyramid caught in a snowstorm of scarlet blobs. To your right hangs a nautical painting by Malcolm Morley, its surface heavy with pigment. It faces a large photo piece by Gilbert & George, all Benetton colours and fearful symmetry. Richard Long’s Chalk Line 1984 occupies the centre of the room, a skinny minimalist oblong of crumbling, knobbly geology. Two of Richard Deacon’s sculptures squat in the foreground. One of them looks like a sombrero or a spinning top; the other resembles the skeleton of an abandoned spaceship. On the bus home you read the modest pamphlet that accompanies the show. It describes the Turner Prize as ‘an award for the person who, in the opinion of the Jury, has made the greatest contribution to art in Britain in the previous 12 months’.

It’s 1997 and you’re slumped on a sofa. There’s a television fizzing in the corner of the room. You’re watching Channel 4’s coverage of the Turner Prize and Matthew Collings is stalking through the Tate gallery wearing NHS specs and a sharp suede jacket. In the next 50 minutes, you see Cornelia Parker plucking feathers from Freud’s couch, Christine Borland unpacking a skeleton from a cardboard box, Gillian Wearing filming a couple of portly posh kids and Angela Bulloch jamming with her band Big Bottom. In between these clips, a columnist from The Daily Telegraph rages against contemporary art, proclaiming that any aspiring YBA might as well ‘go out and become a drug addict’. The camera cuts to the novelist Will Self, languidly smoking a cigarette. As the show nears its end, New Labour’s Chris Smith does his bit for Cool Britannia by delivering a speech about ‘the many, not the few’ and handing Gillian Wearing the winner’s cheque. Roni Size’s Brown Paper Bag plays over the closing credits, a slice of dinner party drum ‘n’ bass that won the 1997 Mercury Music Award. You stay tuned for ‘Is Painting Dead?’ in which a handful of pundits discuss the Royal Academy of Art’s current Sensation exhibition. Halfway through the show, an inebriated Tracey Emin walks out of the studio leaving her companions to endure the reactionary ramblings of the philosopher Roger Scruton. You switch off the TV and climb upstairs to bed, wondering what Emin meant when she asked, ‘Are there real people watching this programme?’

There are many ways to tell the story of the Turner Prize. Through its media coverage perhaps, or through the various protests it’s shrugged off, or through its transformation from an art award into something closer to a brand. But the story of the Turner is also a story about art. Over the past 19 years, it has left what Liam Gillick (nominated for this year’s award alongside Fiona Banner, Keith Tyson and Catherine Yass) described to me as ‘traces of specific moments that have been crucial to understanding what artists are trying to address now’. As the 2002 Turner Prize exhibition opens at Tate Britain, identifying some of these traces seems like a good idea.

Seventeen years on, the dialogue between Malcolm Morley’s Farewell to Crete 1984 and Stephen McKenna’s Clio Observing the Fifth Style 1985 still feels pretty vital. In the centre of Morley’s painting, a nightmarish equine statue tramples across a busy beach with a Cretan war bonnet attached to its back. To the left, a bunch of bronzed sun-seekers shimmy away from a vast ceramic donkey, dodging the blood pouring from its stubby nose. Across the sands, a couple of Cycladic statues smile impassively, oblivious to the flabby tourists holidaying in the ruins of their civilisation. While Morley’s canvas is a playful response to the Disneyfication of classical culture, McKenna’s Clio Observing the Fifth Style is far more anxious. Overloaded with allegorical figures and art-historical allusions, it’s a desperate attempt to plug painting back into the Western tradition. Both works, however, probe the value of the past in a postmodern world. For Malcolm Morley, history is a holiday resort; for Stephen McKenna it looks likes the Promised Land.

Between 1984 and 1994, seven artists associated with ‘The New British Sculpture’ were nominated for the Turner Prize. Looking at Bill Woodrow’s Self Portrait in the Nuclear Age 1986 reveals something of their concerns. Fabricated from a shelving unit, a world map, a black blazer and a mask attached to a long spring, the work ponders personal identity in the shadow of the bomb. At first glance, Woodrow’s sombre jacket seems to be decorated with cheerful bits of bunting. On closer inspection we realise that these are cartographic fragments, blasted pieces of a dead planet. Lolling on the end of its attenuated neck, the mask resembles a despondent Jack-in-the-box. Combined with the shelving unit, it suggests a lumbering brontosaurus, a dinosaur awaiting atomic extinction. Richard Deacon’s For Those Who Have Ears No.1 1983 is a lot more hopeful. The sculpture’s curling form recalls the contours of a lyre or an open mouth. Perhaps it should be introduced to Woodrow’s Self Portrait in the Nuclear Age – after all, careful talk can save lives. Tony Cragg’s On the Savannah 1988 is similarly evocative. Three abstract hunks of bronze huddled together like beasts around a watering hole, they seem unable to decide whether to morph into hippopotami, pots or plumbers’ parts. They appear both organic and manufactured, perfectly adapted to some imminent cyborg era. In the work of Woodrow, Deacon and Cragg, allusive forms act as vehicles for iconography. The same is true of Alison Wilding’s Assembly 1991. The sculpture consists of two rhomboids: one a black steel monolith, the other a moist honeycomb of amber plastic. Meditating on life, death and the sweet hereafter, Wilding’s piece mines a similar spiritual seam to the work of Anish Kapoor, Shirazeh Houshiary and Antony Gormley, her fellow ‘New British Sculptors’ and Turner Prize nominees.

Categories like ‘New British Sculpture’ aren’t always helpful. Damien Hirst’s spot painting Amodiaquin 1993 and his iconic Mother and Child, Divided 1993 are more usefully read against the installations of 1988 nominee David Mach than the work of some ‘Young British Artists’ – Rachel Whiteread, say, or Fiona Rae – who have been shortlisted for the Prize. Mach’s 101 Dalmatians 1988 features a huge cast of dappled ceramic dogs sinking their teeth into cheap furniture, washing machines and VCRs. Swarming over their shoddy quarry, these pedigree pooches are easily the most valuable elements of the work, whether we read them as discrete objects or as representational devices. In fact they’re embodiments of consumer desire, our itch to buy our way to immortality. But as the bisected heifers of Mother and Child, Divided make clear, death comes to us all. Perhaps we should just enjoy things while they last, appreciate the druggy colours of Amodiaquin and the Dalmatians’ spotty pelts. Both Hirst’s painting and Mach’s dogs are commodities, but they’re also a form of medication – a little bit of beauty to take away the pain.

Watching Gillian Wearing’s 60 minutes of Silence 1996 is something of an endurance test. The video shows a group of about 30 police officers seated on stepped benches, as though they’re posing for a school photo. As Wearing’s title suggests, they have been instructed to sit still and seal their lips for the duration of the shoot. As time wears on some of them wrinkle their noses or scratch their bums, lost in their own thoughts. You find yourself wondering what’s on their minds, and it’s not long before you’re spinning stories around their fidgety fingers. When 60 minutes have elapsed, one of the officers lets out a scream of anger and relief. Somehow, I doubt he’d sit through Douglas Gordon’s 24-Hour Psycho 1993 – a tape of Alfred Hitchcock’s movie played in slow motion over the course of an entire day. The piece discredits your memory of the original, spawning fresh narratives and tensions, frustrating Hitchcock’s sharp editing and your eager anticipation of key scenes. Both Wearing’s 60 minutes of Silence and Gordon’s 24-Hour Psycho subvert the rhetoric of the moving image, letting us get a purchase on the slippery surface of the screen. Similarly, in Deadpan 1997 Steve McQueen restages a stunt from the film Steamboat Bill Jr. 1928, in which Buster Keaton remains standing as a timber house collapses around him. The original scene was a disposable gag, but McQueen’s version is no laughing matter. The artist takes Keaton’s role, remaining utterly expressionless as the wooden walls fall. Shot from several different angles, this cinematic clich is played out again and again until its humour is bled dry and it starts to feel oddly uncomfortable.

History, geopolitics, spirituality, commodity capitalism, mortality and the spectacle – these are important themes, perhaps the important themes. But they’ve sometimes become lost in the miasma that surrounds the Turner Prize, the fog of celebrity, simulated scandal and pret-a-porter bohemian cool. Equally, it’s difficult to square the nominees’ achievements with the idea of winning or ‘losing’. Shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 1996, Simon Patterson used his allotted exhibition space to display Untitled (1996), a modest flotilla of white sails inscribed with the names and dates of three literary figures: Laurence Sterne, Raymond Chandler and Charlotte Brontë (preserving her modesty beneath the pseudonym Currer Bell). Untitled initially suggests a race, but these triangles of fabric are marooned on dry land, more like a bunch of blank canvases awaiting inspiration than billowing swathes of cloth speeding someone to shame or glory. Considering its context, we can read Patterson’s piece as a comment on the Turner Prize, a visual articulation of the late critic Stuart Morgan’s take on the award: ‘Art is not a competition. Artists are not in competition with each other, but with themselves and the past.’ Few people who think hard about contemporary art would disagree with Morgan’s statement, but our age of light entertainment loves the drama of victory and a welter of art prizes (including the Duchamp in France, the Van Gogh in Holland and Britain’s Becks Futures) have emerged in the Turner’s wake. Discussing this trend with Liam Gillick, the artist told me that ‘the proliferation of similar prizes is a potential indication of a return to a fin-de-siècle focus upon the notion of the prize as an important indicator of things. Think of those gold medals on beer bottles. It is interesting to note that most of the communications I have had about [the Turner Prize] from non-English-speaking friends have referred to it as the ‘Turner Price’. I quite like this Faustian slip’.

Perhaps the Turner Prize really is a pact. But if Gillick’s friends are right, the role of Mephistopheles is played by popular culture, and most of us have at least a little sympathy for that particular devil. The abiding purpose of the award is to bring new art to new audiences, and it is hard to deny it achieves this. I was 16 when I first visited the Turner Prize exhibition, had Blur’s Modern Life is Rubbish on my Walkman and knew almost nothing about contemporary British art. It was 1993 and the nominees were Hannah Collins, Vong Phaophanit, Sean Scully and Rachel Whiteread. I can’t recall really caring which of them won, or whether the Turner Prize was a kitschy media circus. But I can still remember the glow of Phaophanit’s Neon Rice Field (1993) and the elegiac presence of Whiteread’s Untitled (Room) 1993. Good art endures. The trappings don’t matter.

The changing nature of work shotlisted for the Turner Prize

This diagram below (click here for enlarged version) uses a new set of categories to define different types of works of art. Terms such as painting, sculpture, installation and so on have become increasingly ambiguous, and are replaced here by new categories that can accommodate any work of art. Note the sudden appearance in 1994 of film and video in the Turner Prize exhibition (ie 2-dimensional with movement).

Diagram of different types of art in the Turner Prize
Diagram of different types of art in the Turner Prize

The Turner Prize stripped bare

Art critic and former Turner Prize jurist Richard Cork introduces the graphics reproduced on these pages, by communication design partnership Rebecca and Mike.

I’ll begin with a confession: when I served on the Turner Prize jury in 1988, we decided to jettison the shortlist altogether. Nick Serota had just taken over as Tate’s director, and we were in the mood for radical change. Unhappy about treating artists like horses in a peculiarly bruising race, we declared that only the winner would be announced. We duly awarded the prize to Tony Cragg, and he was given a celebratory show at Tate. It was an outstanding exhibition, and we felt the Prize had gained in dignity. Everyone disagreed. ‘You’ve spoiled all the fun,’ we were told by the people who dote on endless speculation about the winner.

The experiment was never repeated. Through the 1990s, the Prize gained in notoriety, becoming the cultural equivalent of a sporting fixture, like Wimbledon or the Cup Final. No sooner has one Prize finished than people start bandying names for the next: predictions abound, gossip burgeons. So I find it refreshing, as well as salutary, to be confronted by a different way of looking at Turner shenanigans: the studies on these pages by Rebecca and Mike, commissioned by Tate magazine. They reveal a great deal about the event as it approaches its 20th year.

Rebecca and Mike take an overall view: intrigued by the number of times certain artists have been shortlisted, they noted that Richard Long was included no fewer than four times between 1984, when he appeared in the first line-up, and his eventual win in 1989. He must have wondered if he was doomed always to be fancied, never crowned. Alison Wilding, shortlisted in the 1980s and the early 1990s, never won; now, at 54, she is deemed too old to be a contender, irrespective of how her work may have matured.

Rebecca and Mike reveal that, since 1995, nobody has been shortlisted more than once. With a reduction in the age limit, and increasing media hysterics, the unwritten rules of the game make reappearance unlikely. The demand for new names each year is intense, even if no jury members are conscious of such a pressure.

Click here to see a diagram of the shortlisted artists from 1984–2001.

And what about connections between jury members and the artists they select? Rebecca and Mike have come up with some provocative answers to this question: in 1989, three artists were shortlisted for exhibitions held at the Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol. The Arnolfini’s director was a juror that year. More recently, successive directors of Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery have been jurors in years when artists showing at the Ikon were shortlisted. Other institutions with similar links range from the Henry Moore Foundation to the Reina Sofia in Madrid.

Click here to see diagram of the links between galleries and shortlisted artists.

In a visually arresting move to produce all-embracing definitions for Turner-nominated works, Rebecca and Mike have dispensed with the usual categories and created intriguing replacements such as ‘three-dimensional with movement’, in conjunction with accompanying diagrams. I doubt whether these will be embraced by the hard-nosed tabloid reporters who stir up instant outrage over Turner Prize exhibitions. Each year, they deplore the prevalence of so-called ‘conceptual’ practitioners, cry out for more painters and repeat the overriding question:

‘But is is art?’ Their knee-jerk response has become increasingly wearisome, uninformed by any attempt to visit or respond properly to the show. The truth is that there will never be a substitute for approaching new art with an open mind, unencumbered by rancid clichés. As long as the Turner Prize facilitates such engagement, the buzz surrounding it will remain a minor distraction.

Click here to see a diagram of number of appearances on the jury.

This article was originally published in Tate Magazine issue 2.