The Turner prize is often conceived of as a rather mandarin function of the art market, a self-serving language few understand, but it remains a space where magic can happen. This year the award of the spectacular, the sensational and the saleable has gone to the socially aware, the representational, and the critical. Elizabeth Price’s video installations have climbed to the top of a highly engaging and worthy shortlist of drawing, performance and video pieces by Paul Noble, Spartacus Chetwynd and Luke Fowler respectively, to claim the British art world’s most coveted accolade. Moreover, Price has used the ceremony’s platform at a critical moment to speak out against the marketisation of higher education and cuts to arts spending, on the back of an installation which foregrounds community.
Indeed this year’s prize was dominated by a spirit of world-building, each artist articulating a language that borders on the magical if not the mythical – from surreal landscapes to trash-clad performances. Yet it was Price’s lyrical and evocative meditation on the seams of history that finally swayed the judges. A rhythmic, moving work, The Woolworths Choir of 1979 is the product of a year of sampling and editing. In her piece Price blends tragedy, religion and music together in a dark and maternal installation space. These themes’ grand narrative implications are conveyed to the viewer on an intimate level, from viewing space to an emphasis on the local in its subject matter. The experience feels ritualistic and mesmeric, and the viewer becomes entranced before a dreamlike history in a language of snaps and breaks: smashing cups, clicking fingers, displaced fragments of film. Audibly, visually, thematically, this work is in love with disjunction while at the same time weaving disparate moments of time together in an immersive environment. The viewer is confronted, surrounded, by trauma and solidarity in an experience which is not just aesthetic spectacle, but also has human, as well as political, weight.
Price plays to the strengths of her Surrealist inheritance to rework the aesthetic space of the Tate, so often reduced through the prize to a reactionary showmanship of the ‘sublime’, into a critical rumination. Locating her video practice in a space of postindustrial obsolescence – a Woolworths at the heart of a community, brought down in flames – she opens up a space of resistance. A site of the marginalized and forgotten becomes a space of the magical.
In a time of austerity and alienation, confronting us through our government’s assault on public institutions and colored by grim economic ‘reality’, The Woolworths Choir of 1979 offers another world-view – one of intimacy during crisis. Like her approach to cricket, Price takes the language of trauma and film and reads them against the grain, magically. From the fragments of contemporary spectacular aesthetics and recessions of the past she has built a new world on the screen, and used her voice to suggest that there is indeed an alternative to the cult of austerity.
PHOTO / tate.org.uk