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The Turner Prize and the Internal Image

October 11, 2010

‘They [Angus and his dog, Cyril] had now come up to the traffic lights at the Open Eye Gallery, and this was the signal for Angus to invoke one of Cyril’s more unusual tricks. Knowing that Cyril might need to lift his leg at some point before lunch, he stopped aside the railings that ran along the gallery and gave the instruction for this to happen. “Turner Prize,” Angus commanded, and immediately Cyril moved to a suitable position against a railing and lifted his leg.’

In his Scotland Street series, Alexander McCall Smith presents a humorous anecdote that illustrates what perhaps a majority of Britons think about the Tate Turner Prize.  The Turner Prize is an annual art award for what is considered to the best in British art for the year and the nominees have recently been announced.  From the website: ‘The exhibition presents the very best of current British visual art with the intention of stimulating a lively exchange of opinions.’  While this is their intention, there are those who view it as another display of art full of pretension or perhaps less of a celebration of art and more a celebration of commercialization.

This year’s exhibition features four artists: Dexter Dalwood, Angela de la Cruz, The Otolith Group, and Susan Philipsz.  Dalwood offers colourful paintings, depicting famous people through forms that represent them or their circumstances.  De la Cruz’s work includes sculptural forms, a particularly poignant one that alludes to a self-portraiture of her (in)ability to work after a recently suffered stroke.  The Otolith Group presents art in video-format and through their work, challenges the nature of film and narrative. Phillipsz work includes three speakers and a bench from where the listener is surrounded by the singing of a Scottish folk song.  According to Guardian art critic, Adrian Searle, Phillipsz is the one worthy of the Turner Prize (to be awarded in December).

There a few things I find interesting regarding the inclusion of Phillipsz work and the determination by Searle of its worthiness as winner.  The first is that despite being an exhibition for ‘the very best of current British visual art’, Phillipsz’s work is auditory.  Phillipsz’ inspiration for ‘Lowlands’ was a homeless man that she observed lying on a bench in her native Glasgow. To an extent, she re-creates the scene as the participant listens to the Scottish folk song being sung. The idea is that the music surrounds the listener, making them aware of themselves in the space.

For Phillipsz, the idea for the work came from a striking situation she interpreted into an auditory and actual space.  For the viewer, while there is no visual from Phillipsz, what the artist offers is an opportunity to stop, listen, and allow a mental image to develop.  Perhaps the music reminds the viewer of a trip to Scotland, a walk along the river, a particularly poignant situation or feeling… or perhaps it reminds the viewer of another experience where a similar feeling was had – where the music came over the listener and surrounded one’s physical space, making one aware of oneself.  While Phillipsz’s work is not ‘visual’ in the traditional sense, the outcome is visual for the participant.  In some ways, the participant makes the ‘visual’ art, aided by Phillipsz’s work.

Is Phillipsz and the Turner Prize stretching the definition of ‘visual’ too far?  Does the internal visual provide something that the external visual cannot? Can Phillipsz work be realistically categorized as among the best in ‘visual’ art when that which is visual cannot be seen or judged? I find an interesting parallel in what Phillipsz seems to be doing and a concurrent intention in the early Reformers. With the Reformers, emphasis shifted away from external images that mediated God and shifted towards internal images that were mediated by the preaching of the word.  The auditory inspired the internal visual, creating what they saw as a more sanctified image.  For the Reformers, the image still existed, just not for everyone to see.

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