Steven Pippin: still from documentary on Laundromat-Locomotion

Turner Prize Exhibition 1999

It's 10.30am on a cold Sunday morning in January, and I'm standing outside the Tate Gallery gouging a hole in the top of my head and pouring McDonalds coffee directly onto my exposed brain in a desperate attempt to wake myself up.

What am I doing here?

I'm not really a gallery type of person, as the more observant visitor to this site may have noticed. A few of Spank's Pals are, however, and make a date about once a month to visit one or more of London's art collections of a Sunday morning. Old Lag, Christine, Rob D and the rest try to drag me along, of course: but for the most part I tend to leave them to it, for the sake of a few extra hours in bed and the opportunity to watch Sunday lunchtime repeats of Mystery Science Theater 3000 in my dressing gown. Unfortunately, the UK version of the Sci-Fi Channel only has the rights to one series of MST3K, and if I have to sit through Hobgoblins one more time I'll go friggin' spare. So a Sunday morning out of the house seemed like a reasonable idea.

Besides, it's the Turner Prize we're talking about here, for God's sake. Britain's best-known award to its young artists, pissing off the malign forces of tabloid criticism since 1990. Considering that as a nation the British aren't supposed to care about art very much, the Turner certainly achieves its aim of getting it onto the front pages of newspapers, as each year's shortlist of four artists invariably causes controversy and debate. And I do like a bit of controversy.

Coverage of the Turner tends to fall into two camps: studious dull analysis by art critics, and knee-jerk it's-all-rubbish why-can't-anybody-paint-any-more bitching by the self-proclaimed voices of the people. I think there's room for a middle ground between the two. So with my bullshit detector set as high as it'll go, here's the Tate Gallery's exhibition of the 1999 Turner Prize finalists - as seen from the viewpoint of someone who thinks he's reasonably visually literate, but has no real preconceptions about what art is or isn't, and truth be told would rather be at home watching MST3K anyway.

Let's get the least interesting one out of the way first. Steven Pippin is displaying a series of photographs from his series Laundromat-Locomotion. Pippin's main interest is in finding new ways of taking pictures: so here we have photos taken by a row of 12 washing machines in a launderette. Pippin converted each of them into a camera, taking photos through the glass door in the front, and using the assorted wash mechanisms to develop them. As well as the photos, we also get to see some of the equipment used to convert the machines into cameras, and diagrams of how they work.

Unfortunately, the problem with Pippin's work is that the process is infinitely more interesting than the results. Limited in subject matter to anything that can pass in front of 12 washing machines at a regulated speed, we end up with sequences of the artist himself, walking (clothed or otherwise) or riding a horse. The pictures are interesting the first time you see one - round, fish-eyed, black and white, pock-marked with smudges and defects, reminiscent of Muybridge's early experiments in capturing motion through photography. But 48 of them is just taking the piss. Even the sequence featuring the horse loses its potential surreal impact, because the photos are so blurry it's almost impossible to tell the horse is in a launderette. (The still above, taken from a documentary, is much more intriguing than anything in Pippin's exhibit.)

Steve McQueen: still from DeadpanBut Steven Pippin's display isn't what the punters have paid to see: generally they're either here for Tracey Emin, the most famous artist on this year's shortlist, or Steve McQueen, the one who actually won the prize when it was presented late in 1999. McQueen's work is film-based, which is at least a medium I know I've got some sort of grasp of. In effect he's an experimental film-maker who's given up on the traditional methods of theatrically presenting his work, preferring to use it as the basis for installation pieces instead. You've got to be intrigued by the approach of someone who apparently dropped out of film school because "they wouldn't let you throw the camera around".

McQueen's showcase film here is Deadpan. Filmed in silent black and white, it shows McQueen himself re-creating the classic stunt from Buster Keaton's Steamboat Bill Jr. In the original, Keaton is trying to escape the ravages of a hurricane, and is seen standing in the street as the entire front of a house collapses directly on top of him. He remains totally oblivious to this as a small window's open in the house front, which passes directly over him leaving him untouched. It's a two-second gag, but an absolutely indelible image: I have a vivid childhood memory of seeing it on telly, closely followed by Michael Bentine explaining how the stunt was done with the aid of a scale model. McQueen experiments with the moment by stretching it over five minutes, obsessively repeating it over and over again from a variety of angles. A tiny gag becomes a virtuoso exercise in suspense, as we wait for the wall to fall one more time.

McQueen's other works aren't as interesting. A second film called Prey features a lengthily held shot of a tape recorder that admittedly comes with a delightfully surprising payoff, while the slide projection Current moves so slowly that I just couldn't be arsed with it. Some thought's obviously been put into the way the different works are exhibited: Deadpan fills an entire wall to emphasise the scale and the sense of danger, while Prey is shown high up the wall like it's half-airborne already. However, the films have already been shown on TV as part of Channel 4's Turner coverage, and don't really gain all that much from the installation context. McQueen's got some nice ideas, but I'd like to see him use more than one idea per film in the future.

Tracey Emin: My BedTracey Emin, meanwhile, has been getting the lion's share of the publicity at this show, with That Bed causing a controversy on the nature of art to rival the equivalent rows over That Shark and Those Bricks in previous years. Emin's installation My Bed is conveniently placed at the entrance of the exhibition so that twat reporters can stick their heads around the door, rant at it and run away again without having to engage with anything else on display. But as you concentrate on the detritus of Emin's life scattered around her bedside table - booze, fags, underwear, the odd condom - it's surprising how little impact it all has. Paul Johnson of the Daily Mail raged about the sheer physical stench of the piece, but even that's a wild overexaggeration. (Mind you, given the amount of shit that pours out of Johnson's mouth on a regular basis, it's a wonder he can smell anything.)

My Bed fails because of the existence of Emin's other work. The main reason for interest in something like this is the voyeuristic need to find out the hidden secrets of the artist by catching her at an unguarded moment. And the truth is, Tracey doesn't have any hidden secrets any more: her entire oeuvre is dedicated to raking over her personal life and exposing it as honestly as possible. If anything, you end up approaching the bed from the other way round: you know what an inveterate boozer Emin is, so you're looking out for bottles to see what brands she favours nowadays. Anyone who can present 70 minutes of confessional video at this exhibition doesn't have too much left to be discovered about herself.

It's the less hyped work that's the most interesting part of Emin's exhibit. Assorted sketches and drawings (a little ho-hum, but they include a curious repeating motif of a monkey in a spacesuit): four tiny and rather lovely watercolours: and a series of pieces consisting of collected emphera and an accompanying handwritten essay. Uncle Colin 1963-93, featuring a copy of the newspaper reporting his death in a car crash and the crushed packet of Bensons he was holding at the time, is particularly moving as Emin notes how little of her uncle she can recall now. Best of all is one of her huge tapestries, No Chance, vividly documenting how school, work and sex conspired to make her life a living hell at age thirteen, using pictures and a number of short text pieces. Curiously, it's her written work that really stands out, leading you to suspect that Emin's really a poet trapped in the body of an artist - and an artist who doesn't really have the technique to fully express what she wants to say. But it's obvious she does all this because she's compelled to, and is incapable of doing it any other way: which may be the closest to a definition of a true artist you'll get here.

Jane and Louise Wilson: still from Las Vegas, Graveyard Time Washing machine cameras, Keaton rip-offs, soiled bedsheets: plenty of stuff here for the detractors of contemporary art to get their teeth into. As a result, the work of Jane and Louise Wilson has gone curiously unreported. And surprisingly (or not, depending on how you view these things), it's the best exhibit of the four in my book.

The Wilson twins are represented by their installation Las Vegas, Graveyard Time. Films of a Vegas casino are projected on the four walls of a room, from floor to ceiling. Visually, it's an awkward thing to do: just the logistics of getting people in and out of the room mean that you can't use the entire wall space, yet the huge surface area makes it impossible to see everything that's going on. But combined with quadrophonic sound, it gives you the opportunity to immerse yourself in its atmosphere.

The key element here is that all the footage was taken late at night (the "graveyard time" of the title), when almost all the punters had gone home. The rooms are virtually deserted except for the odd cleaner: all we can hear is the distant murmur of the few remaining gamblers and the endlessly looped tunes of the slot machines. It's a quietly eerie environment, emphasised at one point by a brief detour as the camera prowls through the equally deserted Hoover Dam. Despite all this, Vegas is a vividly dynamic piece. The huge images are continuously panning, tracking or otherwise moving, sometimes to disorienting effect. Some images are mirrored on opposite walls, others counterpointed by reverse motion, while others flip quickly from one wall to the next. (The edit boards for Vegas are also on display, and give a fascinating breakdown of how all the visual and aural counterpoint was planned out to the nearest frame.) It's a simple, unpretentious attempt at recreating a space in time that few of us will ever see - prove me wrong if you like, Carole - and I loved it to bits.

The Turner Prize Exhibition runs until February 6th at the Tate Gallery, London. Sure, not all of it works, but for a mere 2-50 entry fee you've got very little to lose. If the idea of art scares you, bear in mind the vast majority of work here is basically film or photography: ignore the petty arguments as to whether that constitutes 'real' art, and dive in. I was certainly intrigued enough to consider going to the 2000 Turner exhibition when it opens. But don't blame me if I end up in bed instead, trying to watch MST3K's version of I Was A Teenage Werewolf from under the covers. I can't help it. Being a monkey, and all.

Links

The Tate Gallery homepage is good for information on the gallery and current exhibitions, but surprisingly low on images of what's on display. Still, worth a visit for their description of the Turner Prize exhibition, a transcript of a webchat with Steve McQueen just after he won the prize, and news on the Tate's forthcoming big move.

London Art Magazine reports on exhibitions and analyses current trends in contemporary art. Their Turner coverage is an intriguing attempt to spark a debate, although it hasn't produced much of a response so far.

ARTnewspaper is an American site dedicated to worldwide art news, but it's incredibly conservative in its approach - whenever they cover a modern exhibition, it's all somehow reminiscent of a Daily Mail reader writing in capitals in green biro. Check their Turner coverage to see what I mean.

Modern Culture is a contemporary art agency with a quite nice Tracey Emin page, along with info on the other artists on their books.

Instructions for making a pinhole camera are available for those of you looking to recreate Steven Pippin's experiments in your own home - he's cited as a reference on this page. (Apologies to Steve McQueen and the Wilsons, but there's bugger all about them on the Internet that I could track down.)

The Mystery Science Theater 3000 homepage is listed here for those of you who have no idea what the hell I'm talking about. Visit the Sci-Fi Channel UK site to find out when you can see it and which of their meagre collection of 12 episodes they'll be showing this week.

January 29th 2000

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