Review: Turner Prize 2015, Glasgow Tramway

Some old chairs, a 24-minute opera, a ponderous, self-serving social studies project and a store of reformed rustic knick-knacks created in the name of the greater good. This year’s eclectic collection of Turner Prize nominees is varied, certainly.

But for the most part the collection of works is underwhelming, pandering to the modern art cliché of subverting social norms, framing them in such a way as to say ‘gosh, this is all a little silly, this life stuff, isn’t it?’ without passing much comment beyond the initial post-modern scratch of the head.

Glasgow’s wide-open Tramway arts centre has been filled with dropped-in whitewall corridors, dividing up works by three named artists and a single collective. The name of the game is variety, but at the cost of engaging works in all but one.

Nicole Wermers’ collection of Untitled Chairs is a comment on the societal habit of claiming chairs by placing jackets over them while out, at a cafe, for instance, or in a pub. A collection of women’s luxury coats are draped over retro Bauhaus-design Cesca chairs — the iconic wraparound metal frames and minimalist cushioning a gentle hint at Wermers’ own influences — in a wide-open white space that simply amplifies the dead-aired emptiness of the concept.

That the lining of the jackets is stitched into the cushioning, and that each matches the other, makes the temporary nature of the funny little societal behaviour of claiming chairs somewhat more permanent. But what’s the message behind this? Wermers’ piece doesn’t really elaborate.

Accompanying the chairs are a selection of ceramic sculptures imitating the tear-off paper strips found at the bottom of noticeboards and missing pet posters. Another societal norm, subverted by a more permanent ode to its temporary nature. Neither work compliments the other: both sit in the spaces, together but distinctly apart, telling in their emptiness.

Janice Kerbel’s DOUG is the latest in a long line of works which transcend typical mediums of art. An early work of hers, The Bank Job, saw her working at the prestigious Coutts & Co. bank in London for a year and a half and formulating a plan to rob it; later works include a map of a ghost town (Deadstar) and Kill The Workers, a play written entirely for stage lights to perform.

However, DOUG, an opera about the repeated near-misses and eventual death of the world’s unluckiest man, is a barrage of boisterous syllables and shrieking peaks in vocal range. Rather than represent the challenges to the body that Doug reputedly undergoes, it scratches and claws at your ears, straining at your patience and tolerance. Thankfully, the lyrics are printed in full on the other side of the performance area, and the bold, scattered screen print of the lyrics to the opera’s opener, Blast, captures the explosive nature of the performance without necessarily having to endure it.

Bonnie Camplin’s The Military Industrial Complex is a library-esque room comprised of a centre hub of televisions streaming YouTube interviews with believers who claim to have been abducted by aliens. The hub is surrounded by tables of additional reading material, presented as ‘evidence’ of the claims being played out on screen.

The piece has the feel of an end-of-year school project bibliography: books, comics, leaflets and Wikipedia printouts are laid out around the room, each leaving an ‘imprint’ behind on the table when the viewer lifts them, as if forbidding them to put them back elsewhere. Each ‘source’ is linked to the next, gently moving around the room from the paranormal and psychic energy to faith and yoga.

The links between the printed material and the videos playing in the middle of the room are vague, perhaps elicited from a brisk Google of the subjects in question. And much like the other works before it, while topics are raised by the videos, and the accompanying material, little is done to challenge the viewer — or, in this case, the participant, interactive as the piece is. Or perhaps it’s intentionally open-ended art, in which case it’s simply lazy.

Perhaps oddest of all is Granby Workshop, the latest work by the hands-on collective Assemble, last seen creating the Baltic Street Adventure Playground in the afterglow of the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. Rather than being an artwork in itself, Granby is something of a showroom for works created by Assemble as part of a community regeneration project in Liverpool.

Assemble have taken the crumbling ruins of a council house project, Granby Four Streets, and used it to craft slabs, hearths, sinks and tables, turning the old, the disused and the abandoned into something new. They are, in essence, builders, rather than artists, which makes their Turner Prize nomination all the more startling.

But the arrangement of works around the room — and accompanying catalogue, and a note that products can be ordered online — are perhaps the most pleasing aspects of this year’s Turner exhibition, because they encourage real thought on the part of the viewer. Not the empty, art-for-art’s-sake pondering which the other three exhibits barely cough up, but thoughts of craftsmanship, creativity, of reinventing and rescuing something that authority could not — or perhaps opted not to — presented in a faux-living environment, a marbled DIY IKEA with intentions beyond provoking the occasional, vacuous pretence of inspired thought without really providing a reason why. That the strongest nominee for this year’s Turner Prize isn’t really art speaks volumes — that, in looking for the year’s strongest pieces from artists under 50, the judging panel has perhaps been looking in the wrong places.

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