The only shock of this annual barometer of British contemporary art was that there was no shock. At best, some mild titillation was aroused by the nearly-not-there shopfloor installation of nude but detritus-bedecked mannequins by Scots-Irish contender Cathy Wilkes, whose agit-prop, additive sculptures foreshorten quotidian female existence to such painfully banal attributes as clothing, make-up and soul-sapping grocery shopping.
Instead of affronting the nation’s sensibilities with the usual sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll-suffused art, the Turner Prize show was criticized this time around for being too cerebral, too theory-laden and too quiet. While the mainstream press got a headache, others found that the bounty of contemplative work made up for the lack of immediate esthetic punch. Along with the contribution of Wilkes (the least publicly fancied of the four nominees, with bookmakers claiming she attracted bets no higher than $12 to win), there was the even more conceptual work of Goshka Macuga, who trawled the Tate’s photo archive as per her usual curatorial shtick, framing an exhibition that re-presented ideas of others. Her thematic glue was the work of Lilly Reich and Eileen Agar, both of whom were lovers and collaborators with their better known male partners, respectively Mies van der Rohe and Paul Nash. Macuga’s Haus der Frau I & II—re-creations of Reich’s glass-and-metal display cases for the 1929 International Exhibition in Barcelona (first shown at the 5th Berlin Biennial)—were the central element of an installation that also included new collages of photos of Agar’s and Nash’s work, lovingly combined and doctored by Macuga. The overly sanitized handrails of Haus der Frau and subtly surreal juxtapositions in the collaged work of the British couple, however, did not best serve the admirable subject matter of romantic and otherwise intimate working partnerships.
Like Macuga, Runa Islam tried to do too much in a small space, with three dazzlingly different variations on the art of filmmaking. Her 16mm slo-mo projection of crockery smashing errs on the side of the visceral and performative, while the languorous scenes of off-duty rickshaw drivers in a film of her birthplace, Dhaka, felt like a sleepy travelogue. The third piece was a technically thrilling bit of formalism, in which the camera pans up, down and across a studio spelling out the shapes of the letters of C I N E M A T O G R A P H Y (the work’s title) like a skywriting plane. The three leaps were impressive, but too abrupt.
The most intriguing installation came from the eventual winner of the £25,000 award (roughly $37,000) and the only man on the ticket: Mark Leckey. He, like Macuga, mines cultural history for material, albeit digging into recent popular phenomena from electronic music to youth fads and fashions. Leckey’s work as professor of film studies at the Städelschule in Frankfurt am Main informed his central piece, the 40-minute Cinema-in-the-Round, a montage of pseudo-educational lectures, peppered with movie clips and downloads, which he delivered at Tate Modern and other institutions between 2006 and 2008. Deftly interweaving James Cameron’s Titanic and Matt Groening’s The Simpsons with Philip Guston’s harrowed figuration, Leckey presented a strong case for seeing three-dimensionality and “meatiness” in much flat culture, be it painting or his favored medium, animation. Using Disney as a symbol for technology’s ability to build enchanting, believable worlds from fictional foundations, the artist also brings in a famous Honda ad that makes a reference to Duchamp’s Large Glass and concludes with a grand statement on the infinite possibilities of making art through appropriation.
Leckey’s rambling, evolving talk (split into four amusingly titled chapters such as “Meat and Potatoes” and “Warp and Weft”) recalls not only seminal lecture/performances by Joseph Beuys but also something of the missionary zeal of the Discourses given by Joshua Reynolds at the Royal Academy between 1769 and 1790. There’s almost a subgenre now of artists’ performance lectures, in which Leckey’s Cinema-in-the-Round should rank as a master class. Taking the temperature of British art this year on the evidence of the 2008 Turner Prize show, one might say that it feels cooler than ever—in fact, it may be in danger of getting too cold and conceptual, but at least it’s nourishing for the brain.