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Monday, 9 December, 2002, 17:59 GMT
Turner Prize: You asked an arts critic
Turner Prize winner Keith Tyson
  Click here to watch the forum.

  • Click here to read the transcript

    The painter Keith Tyson has won the controversial Turner Prize for art.

    The artist - originally from Ulverston in Cumbria - picked up a cheque for 20,000 at last night's awards ceremony in central London.

    His entry featured 39 paintings surrounding a twelve foot high, black column filled with whirring computers.

    Tyson, the bookmakers' favourite at 5/4 on to win, beat Catherine Yass, Liam Gillick and Fiona Banner to the award.

    The shortlist was called "conceptual bullshit" by Labour minister Kim Howells and Tracey Emin, a former Turner nominee, described the prize as undemocratic.

    Arts critic Rachel Campbell-Johnston answered your questions about the Turner Prize in a LIVE interactive forum.



    Hello and welcome to this BBC News Online interactive forum. This year's 20,000 Turner Prize for modern art has been won by Keith Tyson, who trained as a shipyard engineer but has been a practising artist for the past 10 years.

    His winning entry features 39 paintings surrounding a 12 ft. high black column filled with whirring computers and entitled "The Thinker" after Rodin.

    He says his work mixes art and science. The critics called it playful, inventive and quirky if the liked it; pompous, infantile and cartoon doodles if they didn't.

    The Culture Minister, Kim Howells called the exhibition all of all four Turner finalists, "cold, mechanical, conceptual bullshit".

    Nothing new there then. The Turner Prize has always been a machine for generating controversy and getting modern art talked about and this year is no exception.

    With me to answer you questions is The Times arts critic, Rachel Campbell-Johnston, who was at the award ceremony last night.

    Rachel, thank you for joining us. I've quoted a few other people's views, what was yours?

    Rachel Campbell-Johnston:

    I don't think it was the most scintillating Turner Prize ever this year. But then art can't keep at one level all the way through. Ten years have been dominated by the young British artists - now the middle-aged British artists. There's been Tracey Emin and her bed and Damien Hirst and his shark and that's all caused a lot of attention.

    This year there's a great sense, I think, that they were searching for something else. They were looking to other medium, they were looking to science to the text, they were looking to architecture and I think there was more a sense that they were struggling to look for something and that what we saw is in no way enshrining a new political or artistic ethos, it's just - looking.


    There was quite a lot of criticism too from within the art world. I quoted Kim Howells, who's a politician and may have his own agenda. But Charles Saatchi, the collector, said something rather similar. He called the exhibition, "pseudo controversial, rehashed claptrap". And Tracey Emin, who won three years ago, said it was all a fix and the voting was rigged. How damaging is that kind of criticism from within the art establishment itself?

    Rachel Campbell-Johnston:

    I think that sort of criticism comes up year after year - it's a perennial voice. Charles Saatchi may not have liked it because none of his artists were on it and previously several of the artist he collected, dominated it. Tracey Emin may have said it was fix in people have always said, it's all set up amongst certain galleries - possibly it was when Tracey Emin won it.

    There's always been that accusation but I don't think there's anything more corrupt, if you like, about it this year than any other year. How do you make a decision? Artists can't be judged like a pot of jam at a garden fete. It's inevitably going to be impossible to say which is the better artist.


    Let me ask you that question because Rob O'Connor, UK asked: The question is really "Can any piece of art be voted better than anything else"?

    Rachel Campbell-Johnston:

    It has to be taken with a pinch of salt. But the point of this exercise is to get people talking and thinking. I think it's probably less the point as to who the jury think are the best but who the public think are the best. What it introduces them to, what new ideas they're encountering to thinking about it.

    Of course it's great there's one artist who gets the 20,000 and that's going to be a great help in their struggling careers - though I think all the ones this year are pretty established anyway so they probably didn't need the money that much.


    John, UK: How can there even be a Turner prize - isn't it so discredited that, like thousands of others art lovers like myself, do not regard anyone likely to be on the shortlist as worth a second glance?

    Is the whole thing discredited?

    Rachel Campbell-Johnston:

    It's not discredited at all - it's a show and if you look at the careers of the past Turner Prize winners, they go on. We follow art which we know the names of - it's a brand name. It's a stamp that goes onto certain artists so that they're guaranteed a degree of attention - whether they live up to that - well then you get the other test - time will tell.

    But while we haven't got time on our side, while we're working on the present, while we're looking at what's happening now in the British art world or in a sector of the British art world, all we have are things like the Turner to go by and why not - it's just part of the sifting process.


    Matt, London: Are you sick of people saying "I could have done that" or it's all "bad"?

    Rachel Campbell-Johnston:

    It used to be the press who sat and said those things and the public were quieter and it's now become the press who are supporting it because it is so tedious. There are millions of prizes around for other people - the Turner being conceptual or having conceptual bias, doesn't mean there aren't painting prizes - there are loads of painting prizes, there are loads of traditional sculptures - our city streets are littered with them. It's just one small area. It's not even the biggest money art prize at the moment. It's only because everyone rises to the bait that it goes on. If everyone really didn't care, it would fizzle out of existence. But people do care, they enjoy it, it's fun.


    Jane, England: Isn't "conceptual" art, as is celebrated by the Turner prize, merely the deliberate blurring of what art is? It is designed purposely to be obscure and confusing, in an effort to create a supposed intellectual elite, who pretend to understand it?

    Rachel Campbell-Johnston:

    It think the question of the elitism has actually been going on since Modernism started - since right back with the beginning of the 20th century. There was the established art form and once Modernist came along and starting chopping up texts and playing games with traditional concepts, everything became elite because if you weren't alerted to the traditional concept, how were you going to know what games had been played with it, so it did become difficult.

    Although I now think that we've become so familiar with it after almost 100 years of it that it scarcely elitist - everyone can talk about - every cabbie has a view on it, everyone's seen it and vaguely aware of what's going. Whether they like or not - that's up to them, personal taste.


    Let's talk about Keith Tyson, the winner, and his work. It's entertaining - it does make you laugh. I quite liked a couple of his pictures. There one entitled "29th December 2001, somewhere near the edge of the visible universe". It's a picture of the night sky and if you look closely you can just see that some of the stars are spelling out the words "turn back now".

    And another one entitled "25th June 2002 - Miracle of the Conservationists" it's called. A sort of gold background with purple splodges and at the bottom it says - "a picture restorer accidentally removes a layer of paint, revealing the face of God".

    Sue from Oxford has e-mailed us to say: I think Keith Tyson's work reflects the fact that designers nowadays tend to use and rely on a lot of technology in order to produce something creative. To what extent, would you agree?

    Rachel Campbell-Johnston:

    In one sense not all because a large part of that show - particularly those pieces you were referring to - are actually torn out pages of a vast scrapbook that he keeps daily. A sort of journal of his life as an artist and his ideas and they work like huge flowcharts of ideas and concepts that he's working with.


    They do betray his background as an engineer don't they? They do look like engineer's drawings.

    Rachel Campbell-Johnston:

    They do, yes. He trained as an engineer and he's also terribly interested in science and always has been. The elision of art and science is something that has been evermore prominent over the last decade and we are always more interested because science of course is a huge source of abstract ideas and an imaginative resource which is far stronger than self-referential art work.

    Post-Modernism got very caught in talking about what had gone before - making comments on comments, on comments, on comments. This scientific, technological way is a way of opening the art world out and making it more interesting. You could say that's very shallow - he's certainly not a great scientist. I think pseudo-science is the word usually applied to him - mad professor is what he's dubbed.


    He's also interested in time. Last night apparently he said of his work - "It's about time passing by daily. Everything relates to the passing moment and our trajectory through it" and then he said, "I've never really told anyone that before". Are you surprised to hear him say that?

    Rachel Campbell-Johnston:

    No because I think the whole point of his work is that he wants it to be on work on all sorts of levels and if he had said my piece is about "nowness" at the beginning then everyone would have written about nothing about that. He left people room to discuss it.

    But it is very much about time. There's a mirror which opens out and one side is black and the other side is a mirror and there's a countdown clock registered every hundredth of a second which is apparently the maximum time which we can register the difference between one image and another and that will countdown everything that is reflected within that mirror until it is closed.

    His work is very much about the impossibility of actually experiencing the present and how the present inter-shot with memories and hopes and that we can never actually quite be in the present. Which actually goes to the core of his work, which is this dynamism. That he wants everything moving and changing and our ideas zoom off along impossible lines of thinking. We can draw to a halt, panting - we haven't a clue what's going on. Some people feel frustrated and angry and in the hands of a charlatan and other people feel delighted because in a way his work is just about the power of creation. I think that was one of the things he wants to portray.


    Barry P, England: As someone who thinks that Picasso was one of the greatest con artists going, I was pleasantly surprised by this year's winner. Do you agree that his work appears not only to have thought but creativity?

    He's obviously delighted. But let me ask you a couple of more general questions though about the Turner Prize.

    Ian has e-mailed us to say: The Turner Prize is as much about art as it is about getting people talk about modern art. It works as this discussion is had every year when the winner is announced. I haven't seen the entries yet, but they sound interesting.

    Andrew Jones, UK: Do you think the thing which devalues modern art the most is the lack of art used to create it? Maybe some of today's artists should expend more time crafting their pieces and less time thinking about what they mean.

    That's a familiar complaint isn't it? Not enough craft goes into these modern works.

    Rachel Campbell-Johnston:

    That is a very familiar complaint. In this show, some high technology has been used and technology is at a very grasping stage. Artists are trying to keep up with the cutting edge of new things which have really transcended the old craftsmen-like forms.

    A certain type of cutting edge art is looking to endlessly test out new technology and it is going to be sometimes clumsy doing it and a lot of it is seen as a sort of prototype or plan because we're looking for the new. So the finished state isn't quite as important as the ideas. I think this is a phase. I think we mustn't think we're stuck forever in this and it's enshrined.

    When you look back on art history, as we look back to the Renaissance, this is just going to be a mere blink of an eye in history - this last two decades. What are we going to distil out of it? Probably very, very little - just a tiny few paragraphs.


    Chris Gledhill, Loughborough, UK: Many famous historical artists weren't appreciated in their own time. Perhaps we should wait and see where Turner Prize winning art pieces are in 50 years time?

    How much of this do you think will last?

    Rachel Campbell-Johnston:

    I don't know. We do have to remember that Turner himself, who the prize is named after, was howled at in his life for the paintings we now think are the finest.

    What will last? Well an awful lot of it will probably decay because it's not well enough made - which may be one very nice way of time-sifting it out.


    Jonathan, UK: There is often far more art involved in advertising - just as it is said Shakespeare would be thinking up advertising slogans if he were around today.

    Do you think that's fair to lump these Turner Prize winning artists in with graphic designers and the kind of people who produce commercial advertising?

    Rachel Campbell-Johnston:

    I think what's fairer is that art is a reflection of a times and our times are very, very influenced - our cultural mindset is very dictated to by advertising and media. So if art bears any relation to that then it is reflecting the times and I think that's quite telling in itself.


    Ingrid Stone, London, UK: Isn't the Turner Prize annual winner's obligatory controversy becoming the new "ho-hum"?

    Is it time that we moved on a bit and did something different?

    Rachel Campbell-Johnston:

    I think it was proved this year it is becoming "ho-hum". Without a very kindly intervention by Kim Howells to say the whole lot was "bullshit", I think it would scarcely have raised an eyelid. No one really cared about the porn film being written because I think we've grown so used to rude things that we're not going to titter behind our hands about sex anymore. So as Culture Minister, Kim Howells, has probably performed a rather valuable service in actually getting a little flicker of debate going. Next year perhaps we won't debate it at all and that will be the new debate.


    Do you think that the right artist won?

    Rachel Campbell-Johnston:

    I wanted him to win because I think he's energetic and above all enthusiastic. I've had a bit much of laid-back cool. I liked his vibrancy, he's exuberance, his energy. Enthusiasm seems like an old-fashioned concept now and I think it's great.


    Rachel thank you very much. For what it's worth, I rather wanted Catherine Yass to win because she put a video camera on a little radio controlled helicopter and flew it around the BBC's Broadcasting House where I used to work and you've never ever seen Broadcasting House looking anything like it.

    That's all we have time for on this interactive forum. My thanks to our guest, Rachel Campbell-Johnston, and to you for your questions. Goodbye.

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