Curators of a contest that stirs debate over the nature of art have a prime shortlist for 2006
If not for the exhibition labels, visitors to Tate Britain’s latest show would never know that the nondescript office tucked away at the rear of a series of galleries was a work of art. Nor would they realise that a cherry stone, a dirty cottonwool ball and other bits of debris in a display case were a sculpture.
But these are exhibits in the Turner Prize 2006 exhibition, and curators are once again courting controversy.
The Tate has allowed one of the four contenders for the £25,000 award to re-create a real office – complete with a staff of three, filing cabinets, desks and computers.
It is an installation and performance work that curators hailed yesterday as worthy of Holbein, the revered 16th-century master who has his own exhibition in the same building. The artist is Phil Collins, 36, whose Shady Lane Productions is a “fully functioning office” with a real-life receptionist and researchers who are trying to trace people who have been scarred by their 15 minutes of fame on television reality and talk shows. They will be there from Monday to Friday only, as they get the weekend off.
Yesterday morning, they appeared not to be doing much beyond sitting around, reading newspapers and chatting – a typical office, it might be said. Their conversation cannot be heard as the room is sound-proofed.
“It is the first time we have had live work as part of an exhibit,” said Katherine Stout, a curator. “This project investigates the relationship between the production of art and its wider social context.” As critics peered through the windows of the office, observing the researchers as if they were animals in a zoo, she insisted that it was art.
Gair Boase, her fellow curator, drew parallels between Collins and Holbein, noting how each produced “challenging” work in their day. “Holbein was about history and understanding what happened in the past,” she said. “Collins makes us think of the world today.”
Asked whether he would prefer to own a Holbein paintings or Collins’s office, Stephen Deuchar, director of Tate Britain, said: “I’d have the office – with a Holbein on the wall.”
When the winner is announced on December 4, Collins could face tough competition from a neon-lit glass cabinet with rubbish – including a cherry stone, a cherry stalk and a ball of cottonwool – which another artist found on the floor of her studio in London. It is one of the prime exhibits by Rebecca Warren, 41, who specialises in producing large and lumpy female clay figures with huge breasts and genitalia.
Yesterday, Tate curators were comparing her to Degas and Rodin.
For those who might be confused by the artistic skill required to place found objects in a cabinet, Lizzie Carey-Thomas, another curator, said: “She spent a long time putting it together. Despite the abject nature of the material, and the fact it is rubbish, there is a mini-drama going on. The objects are active within the box itself. They have emotional and associative resonance, and can communicate meaning.”
The other shortlisted works are abstract paintings by the German-born artist Tomma Abts, 39, and whirling kinetic sculptures and other abstract constructions by Mark Titch-ner, 33, which are said to explore “the tensions between the different belief systems that inform society, be they religious, scientific or political.”
The Turner Prize is no stranger to controversy. In 2001, Martin Creed won with a bare room containing a light that flickered on and off, and in 1998, Chris Ofili took the prize for attaching blobs of elephant dung to a Virgin Mary figure.
Tomma Abts, from London: intricate abstract paintings in acrylic and oil
Phil Collins, from Glasgow: office with staff who can be observed at work through glass windows
Mark Titchner, from London: whirling kinetic sculptures on the theme of knowledge and communication
Rebecca Warren, from London: clay figures of females, bronzes inspired by Degas’s Little Dancer and cabinets of discarded objects