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Issue 43, November 1999

Art Ache

The 1999 Turner Prize Exhibition
Supported by Channel 4
20 October 1999 to 6 February 2000
Tate Gallery, London
Admission: £2.50
Reviewed by Manny Thain

LAS VEGAS, GRAVEYARD TIME scans the plush interiors of the Desert Inn and Caesar's Palace casinos - places designed to make people spend and lose money: 'A pleasure dome devoted to entrapment'. The images in Jane and Louise Wilson's 16mm film are presented on two sets of double corner projections placed opposite each other in the same room, and fill the space from floor to ceiling. These twin projections show similar perspectives, sometimes slightly out of sync. The viewer is in the middle and has to keep turning round to check what's going on in the other half of the room.

Shot in the early hours of the morning, there are no public present. You are taken past high-roller tables and slot machines. You can see half of someone vacuum cleaning. You see the hands of card dealers, dealing hands. But there's no real game going on. Chips are stacked, the roulette wheel spins, but there's no background noise - no commotion, no real motion. Just the sound of the roulette wheel. Eerie.

Then there's an abrupt cut to the interior of the Hoover Dam. There's an awesome sense of scale as you go through chrome corridors, passing whirring turbines. It's a great feat of civil engineering which supplies water to Las Vegas - the life support system of the city. Juxtaposed are the power of money - the casinos - and their dependence on a different kind of power provided by the Hoover Dam.


This film is the latest in a series by the Wilsons centred around architecture and power. Parallel themes were explored in Stasi City (1997), Gamma (1999), and Parliament (1999) - not in this exhibition. Stasi City explores the labyrinthine corridors of the abandoned headquarters of the Staats-sicherheitsdienst (East German Intelligence Service), catching occasional glimpses of shadowy figures in interrogation rooms and offices. Cameras click and doors slam. Menacing. Gamma is filmed at the decommissioned US Army base at Greenham Common, through command centres and decontamination chambers. Cold War paranoia. These are inaccessible places full of secrets. Sinister: 'Buildings where there is a pathology attached'. Parliament gives similar treatment to the Houses of Commons and Lords.

But it is My Bed which has grabbed the media's attention. This installation by Tracey Emin, based on bed-ridden days of depression and physical illness, has provoked shock and derision. The viewer is compelled to examine crumpled sheets, torn pillows, blood-stained knickers, screwed-up tissues, a used condom, empty vodka bottles and cigarette packets, a pair of slippers. It's personal. We've all been there. Oh, I almost forgot to mention the suitcases in chains.

But on the walls hang other works. Emin's neon handwriting: Every Part of Me's Bleeding. A collection of items make up Uncle Colin. The left side of this is a page of writing describing Emin's feelings on hearing of the death of her uncle in a car accident. On the right, the front page of a newspaper reports the crash. In the middle, personal effects include a crumpled packet of Benson and Hedges which was gripped in the dead man's hand.


Another work, No Chance, is an appliqué blanket, half of which is a Union Jack, with more words: 'Sometimes nothing makes sense and everything seems so far away. No chance. 1977. Fuck school, why go somewhere everyday to be told you're late... At the age of thirteen why the hell should I trust anyone. No fucking way. No. I said No'.

Emin was raped aged 13. In 1977. There's anger and alienation. It screams out. Emotion. Betrayal. A series of pen and ink drawings and words sprawl across another wall. In the next room, a number of short films give further insights into Emin's life and attitudes.

It is all uncompromising, explicit and loud. Evidently, some sections of the 'art establishment' have grown bored of Emin's use of personal trauma and pain. But this sounds more like contrived outrage to an assertive, aggressive woman. This is no comfort zone. This art will to move you whether you like it or not.

But, if Tracey Emin manages to deal with some of the symptoms of class society, Jane and Louise Wilson hit a higher level. The Wilsons' works are broad and general. They make you consider the superstructure of society, wealth and control. Ultimately, there is a questioning of the nature of society itself. They come nearer to identifying the disease.

Steven Pippin's work is a mix of engineering and imagination: photographs of a horse and rider, and of himself walking and running. The photographs are the same size as the front of washing machines - he adapted machines in a New Jersey laundromat into cameras, chemicals in the powder dispenser, the lot.


Called Laundromat-Locomotion, the result is a load of large, unclear photographs taken by the machines. The machine becomes the watcher - a cleaner version of Big Brother? There's a play between people watching washing and watching TV. A link is made between the washing cycle and film processing. The horse is Pippin's nod in the direction of Edweard Muybridge, who photographed a horse to prove that all its feet left the ground when it ran - though not all the time (that's flying) - in the 1870s.

Pippin is going back to the pioneering days of photography. But, hang on. How can you go back to pioneering days? Sounds more like nostalgia for crap quality photos. Pioneering is all about being one of the first in a new field of work. So you have to say: been there, done that and - as far as TV is concerned - Andy Warhol screen-printed the T-shirt years ago.

Finally, Steve McQueen presents two films. In Deadpan, he copies the scene of a building falling on Buster Keaton. Due to the fortuitous placement of an open window, Keaton walks away unscathed. This scene is shot from various angles. As the building falls, shadows and contrasts of light and dark change abruptly. As the building end hits the ground, dust flies into the air. Shot in black and white, it is visually striking. That's all.

Prey shows a tape recorder on the ground playing the sound of tap dancing. The recorder is suddenly carried up into the air on a white balloon. Now this is irony! Tap dancing requires contact with the ground. But here it loses contact with the earth, yet the sound continues, fading into the distance. Well, it's a bright idea that could amuse you for a minute or two. Did McQueen ever get his tape recorder back, I wonder?


So that's the 15th Turner Prize exhibition. On 30 November, a jury of five will pick a winner who will receive £20,000. It is anybody's guess who that will be. The Turner Prize is intended to promote public discussion of new developments in contemporary British art. The real goal seems to be to stir up a bit of controversy while putting on a half-decent exhibition at an affordable price. Anyway, I enjoyed it.

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