The changing style of the Turner Prize

Gair Rhydd creative director and avid art enthusiast Luke Slade gives a brief insight into one Turner prize nominee: Spartacus Chetwynd and how her work perhaps indicates a change in style for what the Turner prize encompasses

By now, I’ve managed to peer into the world of the new Turner Prize nominees, even if it is only through the pixels of the interweb, and I must say that I am at a loss.

One of our leading art critics, Adrian Searle, has said that this is one of the closest prizes to call, but that is not necessarily predicated on this year’s nominees being any good – but maybe this is a surface impression.

Now, I am not going to slate our Y.B.A.’s (Young British Artists) because I think there is so much to be said for British art and the Turner Prize itself (one of my favourite artists, Grayson Perry, being a winner of said Prize in 2003), but my fear is that the movement of our modern art has simply abated.

There is a clear focus on performance and film this year, with only Paul Noble exhibiting more ‘traditional’ forms of art. But it is one artist that I find of most interest: Miss Spartacus Chetwynd.

Not the name she grew up with (which was Lali), but a reworking of an historic name and re-appropriating it with herself – and so begins the understanding of Chetwynd’s work.

Her name is analogous with her work. By this, I mean that her work is to enact moments from history in a whimsical and what has been dubbed “deliberately amateurish” way and her name is an example of this. That said, however, in a recent interview, Chetwynd commented that this style was not conscious but something that comes naturally; just as a craftsman would talk about their innate ability to carve or mould a material – this is what interests me about Chetwynd.

I am aware, however, that so far I haven’t mentioned the actual art: Chetwynd is a performance artist, and one with a team behind her. I must confess that I have only seen the full performance of one of the installations at the Tate at the moment and I cannot help but feel as though the style was ‘familiar’ in an odd way. That is, it reminds me of the surreal comedy duo The Mighty Boosh.

This is not to enter the ‘high’ and ‘low’ art debate, mainly because it is futile and unnecessary.

Chetwynd is never overt about the meaning behind her performances, but there is clearly a political element; an element that you see in many works of modern dramatists like Arthur Miller. Reappropriation of history is not a new idea, but it is the form that Chetwynd adopts that draws an audience in.

The interaction between the performance and the audience places the history literally within our time and space, invading and permeating the modern day under the guise of something harmless and amateur while still appearing pagan and haunting. She draws attention to our involvement because it seems she wants to bring together the time-old tension between old and new.

Therefore I come back the to the notion of the craftsman. Chetwynd is a dramatist who has been taken into the art world – but a master of her craft. I think this is grounded in where we are with contemporary art – in a world where an idea is art, the concept of ‘craft’ has become a new aesthetic.

Craft: it is easy to go down the damp and well-trodden path of “is this art?” But I think our concept of art has evolved enough now to not think of it in such destructive binary terms. The best way to think about Chetwynd’s performance pieces, it seems, is that the art world has welcomed them into their circle and therefore it belongs to that world – and a deserving place it has.


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