Turner Prize 1997: Generating art debate

Featuring artwork by Gillian Wearing (winner), Christine Borland, Angela Bulloch, and Cornelia Parker.

M. Flannery , R. J. Preece
artdesigncafé - art | 28 July 2010
This article first appeared in World Sculpture News, 4(1), pages 28-30 in Winter (January) 1998.

Turner Prize 1997

The 1997 Turner Prize, Britain’s most prestigious and controversial art award, recently grabbed the headlines again. Firstly, for its all women shortlist; and secondly, for the notable absence of painting (only two painters have ever won the Prize—Malcolm Morley in 1984 and Howard Hodgkin in 1985). The 1997 winner of the £20,000 prize—sponsored by Channel 4 since 1991—was the 34-year-old video artist Gillian Wearing, whose video installation, 60 Minutes Silence (1996), turned the tables on police surveillance and raised tabloid-esque exposures to the status of works of art. It is the second consecutive year that a video artist has won the award following Douglas Gordon’s success in 1996.

The Turner Prize is awarded to a British artist under 50 for an outstanding exhibition or other presentation of their work over the preceding 12 months. While the jury changes from year to year, Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate Gallery, has been a regular throughout the 1990s. Serota was also the chairman of the jury. Also on the 1997 panel were Penelope Curtis, curator at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds, England; Lars Nittve, director of the Louisiana Museum in Denmark; Marina Vaizey, writer, art critic, and lecturer; and Jack Wendler, representative of the Patrons of New Art, the group who established the Prize in 1984 to promote public discussion of new developments in contemporary British Art. The Right Hon. Chris Smith, Secretary of State for Culture, Media, and Sport, presented the award live on national television on December 2, 1997.

Gillian Wearing : Turner Prize 1997 winner

In awarding the Prize to Gillian Wearing the jury praised the emotional force of her work and its complexity beneath an apparently simple surface. They are said to have admired the ways in which she has broadened both her working method and her subject matter, consistently producing unexpected insights into human behavior.

Known for photography and video, Gillian Wearing, who graduated from Goldsmith’s College in 1990, undoubtedly aims to make us feel uncomfortable. Influenced by British TV documentaries as a youth, she digs at the surface of the everyday and elicits all sorts of emotions and experiences from the personal underside of ordinary people. She offers the viewer sometimes awkward and voyeuristic exposures without the gloss and formula of tabloid TV.

Projected onto a wall at the Tate Gallery, 60 Minutes Silence appears at first to be a life-size group photograph of 26 uniformed police officers. Gradually the officers fidget making us realize that the portrait is in fact a video. According to Gillian Wearing, "The piece is about authority, restraint, and control." Displaying extreme unity in form, she creates tension on the part of the viewer as the tension of the subjects becomes apparent. One officer screams in relief as the tortuous hour ends.

For Sacha and Mum (1996), Gillian Wearing choreographed a mother and daughter in a quick succession of emotions, from hugging to struggling, to extreme movement with a near vicious edge. Played backwards, disorienting sounds accompany the visual intimacy of the piece that includes the daughter reduced to her underwear. "Playing it in reverse is part of the idea of cycle—forwards and backwards, and the idea of relationships and the intensity of love and hate," says Wearing. "There’s no way out really. Things can not be finalized—as far as emotions are concerned. They’re always in turmoil and can go to two polar opposites." The effect of the piece is unnerving, ordinary people not just talking but giving us the real thing.

Previously, Gillian Wearing has lipsynched children’s confessions onto adults and altered personal speech from a mother to her twin sons and vice-versa. The work offers a new way of thinking about people as individuals and as a unit, drawing revealing and difficult connections between youth and age. In 1994, she put an advertisement in London’s listings magazine Time Out which resulted in participants telling their detailed sexual fantasies to camera from behind exaggerated humor masks.

Gillian Wearing herself seems unsurprised at the choice of four female finalists. "We have so many women artists that are brilliant in this country at the moment so it’s not a shock," she says. "When the nomination was first announced, a lot of the argument about us being women was dropped as soon as people saw the show. No one actually relates the gender to the work. It only seemed a contentious issue if you didn’t see the art. At the end of the day, people who had seen the show talked about it in different terms."

When the shortlist was announced in June 1997, some critics asserted that the all female line up was an act of overt political correctness in response to the 1996 all-male shortlist, which provoked fierce criticism. Meanwhile other claim that it is simply a reflection of the best new artists on the scene. Indeed, that is exactly how Nicholas Serota defended their final selection for the shortlist. In the catalogue forward he writes of the selection: "It answers the simple questions, what were the exhibitions, which were the artists whose work had the strongest and most enduring impact this year on this group of individuals, the jury?"

The three remaining artists who exhibited work at the Tate were Christine Borland, Angela Bulloch and Cornelia Parker.

Christine Borland

Christine Borland, 33, displayed three works that explore identity regarding medical research, mortality, and history. Originally displayed at the 1997 Munster Sculpture Project in Germany, The Dead Teach the Living (1997) is a group of computer-reconstructed heads cast in white plaster that show different racial stereotypes, which raises questions on how science has been used to dehumanize racial groups. After a True Story— Giant and Fairy Tales (1997), a new work, presented a negative impression of the skeletal remains of an 18th century dwarf and contrasted them with a 19th century giant. Strangely defined by dust on a glass shelf and cast as shadows on the wall beneath, they represent physical beginning and end. In Phantom Twins (1997), leather "dolls" containing real foetal skeletons, used to demonstrate childbirth to medical students in the 18th century, inspire delicate images of birth and death using plastic replica skulls. Exhibited between the two gallery spaces in softly lit, flanking niches, the Twins evoked a spatially tense and symbolic memorial.

Angela Bulloch

The youngest of the finalists, Angela Bulloch, 31, has previously exhibited work in Europe, the United States, and Japan, in addition to Britain. She offers color, playfulness, fun, and a rethink of behavior, roles, and our relationship to technology. Exhibiting a large-scale construction of primary-colored soft furnishings, she turned the gallery into an IKEA-like playroom seating area for children and adults. Bringing a much needed rethink on art and exhibition spaces, and indoctrinated adult behavior, the viewers’ inhibited reactions were as informative as the work itself. A sign informed viewers that they could touch, sit on, and, in essence, have fun with art—"However, please do not sit or climb on the vertical doughnuts due to electrical equipment inside." Videogame sounds were set off when walking around the piece. Fusing art and design, the work, at the same time, questions their division.

In her Rules Series, Angela Bulloch heightens our awareness of the wide variety of regulations affecting our lives, anything from those for bar strippers to those in the House of Commons, thereby questioning their role in society. Meanwhile, her sensor-triggered drawing machines illustrate movement, as a mechanically operated pen creates line drawings and shows the limitations of rule-governed options for the design, alluding to those within certain human constructions.

Cornelia Parker

Instead of mechanical movement, Cornelia Parker, 41, offers a fascination with materials and form, continued questions about art, and an occasional blast. In work comparable to cartoon death, Parker organized the charred remains of a church struck by lightning in Texas. Hung from the ceiling, Mass (Colder Darker Matter) (1997) appeared like a ghostly apparition in the implied form of a cube. Earlier, she convinced the British Army to blow up a garden shed and organized the debris around a light bulb with an awe-inspiring sense of space, movement, shadow, and positive/negative form with Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View (1991). "With the garden shed, I was the person who killed off the object, whereas the church was killed off by lightning—and the piece is resurrected in the gallery—like a cartoon character," says Parker. Thirty Pieces of Silver (1988-1989) resulted from approximately 1,000 silver objects steamrollered and hung on wire in their metamorphosis. In addition to Mass (Colder Darker Matter), Cornelia Parker exhibited other work from her recent show at the Chapter Gallery in Cardiff, Wales, including Colt-45 guns in an embryonic stage, incinerated cocaine, black lacquer residue from cutting the grooves in vinyl records, and hair clippings, presenting "the secret lives of objects and materials."

Previous winners of the Turner Prize have included Damien Hirst (1995) for Mother and Child Divided–a cow and a calf cut in half and preserved in formaldehyde— and Rachel Whiteread (1993), who was the first woman to win the Prize, for her conceptual and evocative work, House— the cast of the inside of a terrace house. In response to suggestions that the Turner Prize is deliberately controversial a Tate spokesperson claimed controversy is largely generated by the British media rather than the works themselves, but added, "The fact is it [the Turner Prize] generates debate, raises the public profile of the Tate, and brings more people to contemporary art."

In the light of this, is it significant that all the shortlisted artists were women? Perhaps not, but the Tate has already recorded record attendance figures for the 1997 exhibition.