There are many things about the Turner prize that are irritating, and everyone will have their own countdown of complaints, but what annoys me most about it is its teasing unreliability. If it were always bad, you’d always know where you were with it. Ditto if it were always good. But the way it manages to be worthless for a couple of years, then good for a couple, then worthless again, then good again, would test the compass of Vasco da Gama, let alone a mere art critic seeking proper conclusions for The Sunday Times.
This year, the 22nd incarnation of the event, is one of the bad ones. Not only because the shortlist of artists is so dull, but also because the exhibition at which we are encouraged to judge them – usually the best component of any Turner prize – is such a poky event. To make it all worse, the prize has decamped from London to Liverpool. Right now, Liverpool is a ghastly place to visit. Roadworks at every crossing. Gaping holes in every clearing. Scaffolding at every vista. Being selected as European Capital of Culture 2008 is proving to be a tragedy for this fascinating and spiky city. What’s more – what’s worse – there is absolutely no chance of this brutal refashioning being finished in time for next year. It’s impossible.
With the rape of Liverpool as its dismal backcloth, and the impending Capital of Culture brouhaha as its tinny excuse for moving here (temporarily) from London, the 2007 Turner has lots of cards stacked against it. The shortlist would not have caused the pulse to race wherever the prize was housed, but ending up at Tate Liverpool is particularly unfortunate. There simply isn’t the space here to house the event properly. The good thing about a Turner show is that it gives us a chance to see significant quantities of contemporary art in a grand and meaningful setting, to catch up with the zeitgeist, to witness what our era is up to. But this Turner needs also to succeed in some petty local politics by ingratiating itself with the people of Liverpool and preparing them for its arrival, so half – yes, half- of the potential exhibition space has been given over to a rainforest’s worth of leaflets and placards, a roomful of unctuous television screens, a cafe and, most outrageous of all, a pretend local taxi hoisted into the gallery, inside which a video of former passengers shares with us their casual opinion of the Turner prize.
Thus, a tipsy-looking lass with a Lucozade bottle thinks it’s a good thing. But a middle-aged vet and her husband aren’t sure, because they don’t like “Damien Hirst and his pickled animals”. Their opinions are worthless, because they are not actually opinions. This is low-grade super-market chitchat that will have as much impact on Turner-prize reality as voting by telephone has on an ITV show. We’re watching cosmetic democracy in action, again.
I feel sorry for the four shortlisted artists crammed ingloriously into the petite portions of the gallery that remain once the taxis and the leaflets and the cafes have been catered for so generously. That said, they constitute a below-average bunching. Two of the four – Mark Wallinger and Mike Nelson – have been shortlisted before and can fairly be described as substantial artists with international reputations. The others – Zarina Bhimji and Nathan Coley – can just as fairly be described as makeweights.
Bhimji was born in Uganda, and her work remains addicted to the East African experience. Her large colour photographs of faded and decrepit interiors present us with a kind of African Pompeii: a melancholy world empty of people, yet filled with their presence; dead, but unburied; ruined, yet lovely. A crumbling green wall inside a mosque is made pretty by a shaft of afternoon light falling across it. A scruffy river bank with boats on it is made mythic by what camera-men call the golden hour, that photogenic light condition at the end of the day when the low sun in the sky turns everything the colour of amber.
That famous old muscleman of a painter Julian Schnabel used to have a phrase for the feeling that this kind of art searches out. He called it “the texture of poverty”. And I once worked with a camera-man who termed such effects “Gettys”, because he knew he could always sell a photograph in which poverty is combined with beauty in an exotic location to Getty photo agency. My point is not that Bhimji’s work is shoddy, but that it is unoriginal. The photographs are lovelier, though, than her next contribution, a tremulous film set inside a cavernous sisal factory, in which agonisingly slow pans and soporific tracking shots of moody white sisal fluttering in the wind, all set to slowed-down Doctor Who music, left me feeling as if I’d been slipped a sleeping pill.
Coley is interested in architecture too, but where Bhimji’s interest is warm, instinctive and poetic, Coley’s is harsh, theoretical and dull. He is one of those tedious installation-makers who seems at some point to have attended a polytechnic course on the signalling of authority in public spaces, and has been making models ever since, charting the arrangement of power structures on a typical housing estate. Or some such enthusiasm-crushing thematic twaddle. To enter his display, you need to step over a barrier. Inside is a model house with “Hope” written on one wall and “Glory” on the other, as well as a scaffolding platform on which is picked out in bright white lights the motto: There Will Be No Miracles Here. It’s intended, I imagine, as a comment on art’s relationship with authority. But the announcement is wrong. A miracle has indeed taken place at the 2007 Turner prize. Coley has somehow made it onto the shortlist.
Mike Nelson, a labyrinth builder who has done marvellous things in the past, and who ought surely to have won the Turner in the year that it went to Martin Creed for giving us a light bulb that turned on and off, is not at his best either. Tired, perhaps, of the dark, dangerous-feeling corridors he usually sends us through, Nelson has reached here for the white paint and created a new-age journey past four minimalist cubes with tiny openings in them. When you peep inside, you see countless pinpricks of light stretching magically in all directions, a pretty topographic effect that miniaturises the sensation of landing in LA at night. To enter this minimal shrine, you need first to pass a fake bonfire created with plastic and wood. As I tried to think of a description that might suit this weird mix of temple atmospheres, machine architecture and Los Angeles, the word “Scientology” popped into my head. Shame it’s already in use.
Which brings us to Mark Wallinger, nominated for that presumptuous installation he produced earlier this year at Tate Britain, in which he recreated the protest against Tony Blair and the Iraq war mounted in Parliament Square by the heroic Brian Haw. The last time I expressed some doubts about that particular work, Wallinger set Rumpole of the Bailey onto me, so I still don’t know if the dramatic line that fell through the middle of the Tate installation really did trace the limits of the exclusion zone set up around Parliament Square to keep protesters out. What is certain is that Wallinger’s contribution to the 2007 Turner is boring and unworthy.
Instead of making something new, he is showing again a two-hour film shot in 2004 in which he dresses up as a bear and wanders about the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin at night. Called Sleeper, an expression that of course denotes an inactive local spy, it’s a piece that does what all Wallinger’s art seems to do: almost touches on some salient political points, almost does so inventively and subversively, and is almost worth staying with, but not quite. Two and a half hours is too long to watch a bear wandering about a foyer. But because Nelson has not really given him a run for his money, I still expect Wallinger to win.