The bookies’ favourite in this year’s Turner Prize is Northumberland-born Paul Noble (on at 11/8 with William Hill the last time I looked). The artist’s highly intricate and eccentric graphite drawings of his fictional metropolis – Nobson Newton – are a triumph of painstaking labour and Hieronymus Bosch-like imagination.
Paul Noble, 'Villa Joe' (Front View), 2005-6. Private Collection, courtesy the Gagosian Gallery.
The works on paper are enjoyably large in landscape scale. A composite of smaller sheets of paper, they often have modernist architectural structures at their centre that spell out words and phrases. The letters all face the sky, as if, like the Nazca Lines in Peru, they are addressing a spirit above: several of Noble’s buildings form the word ‘Trev’, a memorial to a childhood friend who passed away two decades ago.
Architecture is a central theme of Elizabeth Price’s twenty-minute film, The Woolworths Choir of 1979 (2012), which for me was the most formally interesting work on view in the show – my tip for an outsider bet. It starts by explaining the internal architecture of Gothic churches, splicing together black and white photographs with digital software-style drawings.
The narration is provided by well-timed subtitles in TV advertising style, and the abiding audio is the hypnotic repetition of hand-claps that marks each change of image.
Elizabeth Price, 'The Woolworths Choir of 1979'. Courtesy the artist and MOTInternational, London.
A twist in a tomb effigy becomes a jumping off point from the church imagery to archive footage of twisting singers and dancers from the 1960s and ’70s. The dancers’ movements then slowly segue into the movements of flames, as footage shows a fire that decimated Woolworths in Manchester in 1979. And at the end the architecture of that department store is mapped in a similar way to the church, turning us full circle. The artist’s exquisite editing manages to conjoin very disparate elements into something strangely involving.
Luke Fowler’s feature-length All Divided Selves (2011) is the Scottish artist’s third film in a trilogy on the Glasgow-born psychiatrist R.D. Laing, whose first book The Divided Self (1960) had sold 700,000 copies in English by the time of his death in 1989. Laing was influential in a new approach to psychiatry – often bracketed as anti-psychiatry – which urged therapists to understand psychotic behavior in social rather than biological terms, and as a legitimate reaction to patients’ lived experiences.
Luke Fowler, 'All Divided Selves', 2011. Installation view Inverleith House, Edinburgh, 2012. Courtesy of the artist, The Modern Institute/Toby Webster Ltd, Glasgow and Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne. Photo Alan Dimmick.
Fowler interweaves archive footage of Laing, interviews with patients and the artist’s own recent rushes that feature images of landscapes, his friends and incidental details of objects. Rather than a portrait of Laing, the experimental ebb and flow of footage is a subjective portrait of wider society’s understanding of sanity. Its 93 minutes is at a pace that, while never too slow, allows the viewer plenty of time to reflect on their own ideas of mental health and consciousness.
The fourth nominee is female performance artist Spartacus Chetwynd who, in league with her friends, produces anarchic, intentionally amateur, normally nonsensical performance pieces. As well as a puppet show retelling of the biblical story of Jesus and Barabbas, there is a pagan-ish ceremony in which some men dressed up like forest elves throw a bean-bag into the air to summon an oracle spirit. This deity transpires to be a mandrake-root puppet, who acts as an oracle, instructing the elves to tell audience members about some secret in their future or past.
Spartacus Chetwynd, 'Odd Man out', 2011. Courtesy the artist and Sadie Coles HQ, London.
The fact that the man next to me was told he had unresolved an oyster card journey gives you an idea of how silly this work was. But some simultaneously serious intentions could be discerned by the stage set, which featured black and white printouts of mass assemblies and a sign saying ‘Vote’. Was this performance a strange satire on politics? For me Chetwynd’s performance was fun but insubstantial in comparison to the other artists’ work on view.
Sam Phillips is a London-based arts journalist and contributor to RA Magazine