At last, Sarah and I made it to the Turner Prize 2013 exhibition, albeit on its last day, in 2014.
Now, last year I went on a guided tour of the Ebrington site and let me tell you, inside those ex-army buildings it was damp, peeling, and not conducive to an appreciation of art. What they've done to the old barracks to make it such a fantastic gallery space is sheer brilliance. Hopefully we get to keep it beyond City of Culture year.
Gallery 1 first. David Shrigley thought the piece for which he was nominated didn't actually work in the gallery, so he exhibited another. He seems a playful guy who can laugh at himself and tease his critics. Apparently, he has a rep for not being very good. So, for the Derry exhibit, he set up a rather roughshod model in the middle of the room, surrounded by chairs, artist's materials at the back. Yes, it was a life drawing class! Shrigley's model is designed in deliberately strange proportions - trailing arms, paunch, gaping ears. The 'finish' isn't elegant. A mediocre high school art student could have produced the visual.
But of course the 'art' was the experience, the challenge. The most technically brilliant sketcher would inevitably produce a drawing reminiscent of a novice with no feel for perspective, thus levelling out participants and making it accessible, perhaps humbling the artistically proud at the same time.
More fun than attempting my own piece was looking at the ones posted around the gallery. It wasn't just perspective that bore on individual results, but people seemed to see the same thing albeit from various angles, and yet see something entirely different: some dressed him, coloured him, bent him completely out of shape, in order to represent what they saw, or felt.
Gallery 2 housed the winning installation, Wantee by Laure Prouvost, a French artist resident in North West England. We entered Grandma's kitchen, full of teapots and dirt. On the screen we viewed a docu-film about ... well, several strands of narrative, enriched (fragmented?) by interruptions, overlaid voices and captions, noises. Crucially, we were viewing the film from within the set. The boundary between fact and fiction, observer and observed, was blurry and in flux as the film rolled.
Entering an adjacent room, sloping carpeted floor, pink walls on one of which was a small screen with abstract images, another layer was added. What was real, and what was art? What was mistake and what was deliberate?
We left that one wondering. Would anyone else have attached the same meanings to things as we had? Talking that one out, tying up any ends, would have defeated the purpose. It just felt that disorientation was intended, not as an impetus to understanding, but for its own sake.
In some ways, the whole Turner Prize thing can seem quite didactic. Postmodern values are hammered home quite clearly. The expert is brought low and participation widened. The line between art and observer is erased, and any notion of correct interpretation is made impossible, even ridiculed. The whole experience is permeated with a sense of playfulness. But it comes across as a bit preachy nonetheless. We are clearly being taught, told; and our questions are left hanging, like they are impertinent attempts to violate and domesticate.
We discerned a gentler approach in Lynette Yiakom-Boakye's portraits in Gallery 3. The subjects of her paintings look alive, idiosyncratically enjoying a moment, too real to be representations. Cloaked in darkness, some in grass, or their own shoulders, there are few clues to their lives and times. All black, the viewer's suppositions are challenged. Not daring to stereotype, I found myself readjusting my initial interpretation. Was I responding to deliberate cues or was I just bringing my own preconceived frames?
Each portrait hung with no title, no blurb, no date or biography. Just a painting of a person, and an interpreter, with a space in between to fill. It was a bit disconcerting to be made so aware of what space there is between reader and text to be filled, and to consider the power of the reader.
The big question always is, 'but is it art?' Of course it is. Not the kind you want hanging above your mantelpiece.
But it got us to react. Tick.