Do you want to know who has won the Turner prize this year? Well, I am going to tell you. I realise this is naughty of me, because, of course, the official announcement is to be made tonight, live on Channel 4, and some will consider me guilty of spoiling tactics. It is also true that the judges have not yet decided, or even met to decide, and will only be doing so this afternoon. But having given this thing far more serious consideration than I usually do, as the shortlist is such a good one, and after factoring in my understanding of the tortuous thought processes followed by the Tate director, Nick Serota — who chairs the judges’ meeting, and who cannot allow himself to sway the others, yet always does — I know the result. And it is my news- paper duty to share it with you. The Chapman brothers have won it. Congratulations to them.
So, how did I come by this insider information? Elementary, dear Watson. The facts speak for themselves. For the past five years, the Tate has been fobbing us off with B-list artists and also-rans. The results were dire. We gullible fools out here assumed that this catastrophic plummeting in Turner pertinence was the natural outcome of feeble selection procedures. But it now turns out that when they do wish to get a decent shortlist together, they can. This is the 20th year of the Turner prize. A significant birthday. Thus, by giving us five years of lousy shortlists before this very fine one, the sneaky Tate fixers have effectively ensured that their birthday Turner feels stronger, better, special. We are dealing here with masters of low cunning.
The certainty of these conclusions is confirmed by the show itself, which doesn’t so much display one contender after another as play with us and tease us with our own expectations. By offering one good thing after another, the 2003 Turner show raises the stakes as it progresses, then pulls off an excellent double bluff at the end by placing the Chapman brothers in the penultimate slot and following them with the exceptionally effective Grayson Perry. It is a dashed cunning move. The natural dynamics of the show force you into believing that Perry must win. He’s so good. And until now, the display has been getting better and better. However, reader, what do you do at the end of a show? You think back on it, naturally. And it is here, in the post-exhibition stages of rumination, that the contribution of the Chapmans elbows its way back to the front. The mind is their terrain. The double-back is their preferred strategy. They have it because, at first, they don’t seem to. It is a game played with fiendish brilliance.
But I may be being too forward here: letting the cat out of the bag before the bag has even been woven. Let us return to the head of the display and face up properly to what we are witnessing. Anya Gallaccio, the first exhibitor: a popular figure on the progressive-art circuit because she can be relied upon to cause a stir wherever she opens, with her rotting-fruit installations and mouldy-chocolate sculptures. Until now, I had done Gallaccio the disservice of assuming her to be a lesser artist than she is. Her Turner display is impeccable. Dominated by a perfectly illusionistic bronze fruit tree, to which are tied bunches of real apples that fall to the ground as they rot, it presents an artificial autumn of Japanese exquisiteness, featuring real changes in colour, smell and mood. Obviously, such art is intent on scrumping the symbolic melancholy from so many still lifes, by so many artists, concerned with the inevitable passage of time. But it doesn’t do a lot of that, and in the end, it is the delicate autumnal beauty of these arrangements that most affected me. It is like coming across a perfect face-lift, and feeling no pity whatsoever for the face-liftee. Superb, and a turn-up.
Willie Doherty, in the next room, doesn’t do beauty: never can, never will. He’s a video-maker from Derry whose subject now and for ever is, and will be, the Troubles. It is Doherty’s genetic legacy, the poor blighter. His piece here consists of two matching projections, one of which shows a man running across a bridge at night from the front, and the other from behind. Neither of them ever gets any closer to the other side. It’s a stark, sweaty and depressingly vivid evocation of the Northern Ireland nightmare. It won’t win, but it plonks you straight into the blackness that separates Ian Paisley from Gerry Adams, and encourages you to experience some of the anger and exhaustion and hopelessness that the denizens of this blackness must feel every day.
The Chapmans have been making great big art waves all year and have overtaken Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin as the most nakedly controversial artists in our firmament. This takes some doing. It is a toss-up here for which is the best of their exhibited works. The two blow-up sex dolls attempting the 69 position have oodles of immediate shock value but little inner meaning. They are the bouncer, not the nightclub. The nightclub is the set of hilariously defaced prints from Goya’s The Disasters of War arranged around the walls, and the full-size re-creation at their centre of the most famously horrific scene in Goya’s etchings, made from plastic maggots and skeletons. The true textures of war are being simultaneously evoked and laughed at. Anyone who has read Catch-22 will know exactly why acidic humour in such a grim situation achieves the fiercest form of accusation.
So then comes Grayson Perry, with his pots and his transvestism. To have made pots cool is in itself a gigantic achievement. But what really works for Perry is the clarity and quantity of the bile with which his pots are glazed. You may now know that Perry had an unhappy childhood, that he needed to get in touch with his feminine side and began wearing dresses, and that all his subsequent trans-skirted anger is now emerging in his pots. His things are flytraps. They are lovely from a distance. Very decorative. It is only when you bend forward and start reading them that they round on you in the round and explode into invective and accusation.
In any normal year, Perry might be expected to win. But he won’t this year. History will wish to have a say in the result of the 20th birthday of the Turner prize as well as the judges. The Chapmans’ main subject is the obscenity of war. Nothing could be more pertinent. They are every bit as pessimistic as Doherty, but unlike him, they appreciate the high contemporary value placed on a laugh. In this day and age, the age of Lenny Henry saving Africa and Dawn French defending Rubens, serious comedy is the house style. There is no option but to allow the Chapmans their victory.