How to shock an unshockable crowd
In the midst of Turner Prize season, an attack in London tests the limits of provocation
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LONDON — On a sunny Saturday afternoon earlier this month, a young woman stood in a gallery at Tate Britain, running her fingertips over a small marble sculpture that represented—how to put this?—a piece of poop.
This “Plop Art,” as one tabloid called it, is by Paul Noble, the hot favorite to win this year’s $40,000 Turner Prize, the UK’s most prestigious contemporary art award, whose winner will be announced Dec. 3. Other nominees at the Tate show include a woman named Spartacus Chetwynd, whose rustic, post-apocalyptic performance piece culminates in a human oracle whispering non sequiturs into people’s ears (mine was: “Eat more than meat”).
Once a year, every year, the Turner Prize finds new and creative ways to raise a single question: “You call that art?” During its 28-year run, the prize has given us pickled farmyard animals, unmade beds, pornographic statues, and more excretions than you can shake a stick at. And, in what has also become an annual ritual in Britain, the public rises up in a collective bout of indignation.
The head shaking arises in part because awarding an artist whose primary medium is elephant dung (Chris Ofili, 1998) feels like an attack on the very idea of art. But there’s also a sneaking suspicion that the Turner is some kind of elaborate practical joke, played by a smug elite on the tea-drinking masses.
Critics, too, have made a sport of lambasting the Prize. “The Turner is based on the misapprehension that modern art, if it’s any good, will shock people,” says retired gallerist Julian Spalding, who has gained notoriety here for his spirited denunciations of the Turner and the artists it anoints. “In time, the winners of the award will be seen as the nadir of British art. The judges have revealed an instinct for selecting the absolute rock bottom.”
This year, however, the nominee-bashing has felt a little half-hearted. There have been no rowdy demonstrations outside the Tate. Nobody’s pelted any of the exhibits with eggs, as the artist Jacqueline Crofton did to “The Lights Going On and Off” (an empty space in which the lights went on and off) in 2001. Banksy hasn’t stencilled “Mind the Cr*p” on the museum’s front steps. Even Spalding, asked what he thinks of this year’s nominees, gives a little verbal shrug. “Eh.” If you’re going to get the Great British Public frothing these days, you’re going to have to do a lot better than a poop-shaped piece of marble.
But then a funny thing happened: The day after that young woman had fondled Paul Noble’s “Small Three Prone” at the Tate Britain, a young Russian guy walked into the Tate Modern, a few miles west, and created the biggest art-related stink this country has seen in years. Suddenly, important questions were being asked about ownership, aesthetic value, and the limits of artistic freedom. And the man who shook things up did so with little more than a permanent marker and a burning desire for people to look at his blog.
PIECE OF YELLOWIS
When Vladimir Umanets scrawled this message on the bottom right-hand corner of Mark Rothko’s revered abstract painting “Black on Maroon” on Oct. 7, he wasn’t only launching an assault on this particular piece; he was attacking the mighty Tate itself, and by association the Turner Prize. In this regard, he was hitting at the heart of British contemporary art, even if he wasn’t aware that the Turner was going on at the time, nor that he would encounter a Rothko when he walked in.
In the days after the incident, the media denounced him as a vandal, an attention seeker, and a nut. Posters on his website called him worse. “You should get your [expletive] hands severed for touching that painting,” wrote one. “It would have been a better statement to have blown your [expletive] brains out on the canvas.”
Sitting with his friend and collaborator Marcin Lodyga at a Shoreditch coffee shop, the 26-year-old art school grad doesn’t come across as a mad anarchist. Slight of build, crop-headed, and sporting a pair of chunky-framed glasses, he looks like a guy who has found himself in a deep pile of trouble, which is understandable given that he’s just been bailed out of a high-security prison.
The Yellowists, as the two friends describe themselves, have an online manifesto, a dense, absurdist-sounding treatise that Umanets summarizes thus: “Art has become useless; Yellowism and art are both useless.” For all their revolutionary bluster, though, there is something endearingly naive about these guys. Explaining the finer points of the marginal (“there are two of us”) intellectual movement they founded a couple of years back, they come across as being so serious, so earnest, that you find yourself wanting to pinch their cheeks.Continued...