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Wednesday, October 20, 1999 Published at 14:05 GMT 15:05 UK


The Turner Prize draw

Tracey Emin hangs her dirty sheets out in public at the Tate

By BBC News Online's Ryan Dilley

It may not be British art's most lucrative award, but the £20,000 Turner Prize remains one of the few contemporary art events capable of inciting furious debate.

Previous winners are part of the art establishment
Although the short list for the prize was announced in June, the opening of an exhibition of the competing artists' works at London's Tate Gallery has fanned the flames of controversy.

One of the perennial grumbles about the prize is that it fails to recognise "traditional" artists.

[ image: Mad Tracey has long outraged traditionalists]
Mad Tracey has long outraged traditionalists
Indeed none of this year's participants - Tracey Emin, Steve McQueen, Steven Pippin and Jane and Louise Wilson - paint in oils or sculpt in marble.

Emin - the self-styled Mad Tracey from Margate - has further inflamed opinion by supplementing her reputedly autobiographical videos, embroideries and sketches with a bed.

Surrounded by personal detritus - vodka bottles, condoms, soiled underwear - the stained mattress, pillows and duvet arguably sum up a career in which Emin has made public her appetites for sex, alcohol and frankness.

Mad Tracey the star

The 35-year-old, with her Popeye-style anchor tattoo and famous drunken appearance on live television at a previous Turner Prize ceremony, has become one of art's biggest celebrities.

Bearing laments like "They all leave in the end baby" Emin's varied works are dismissed as trivial by some. Others argue the hedonistic teenage fury which they evoke is present in us all and is thus a fitting subject for fine art.

[ image: In a spin: Steven Pippin's laundry photos]
In a spin: Steven Pippin's laundry photos
Even those who disapprove of her open exploration of her personal life, right down to the state of her sheets, can appreciate that Emin shares this taste for self-examination with the likes of Rembrandt and Warhol.

There is a self-consciousness about many of the other works in this year's prize.

Steve Pippin and twins Jane and Louise Wilson are just as keen to show how their art is made as the art itself.

Squeaky clean art

Pippin, who turns objects such as washing machines into cameras in a strange homage to the pioneers of photography, displays his quirky gadgets alongside the photos.

[ image: Hoover Dam: The Wilson twins examine emptiness]
Hoover Dam: The Wilson twins examine emptiness
The Wilsons include storyboards of how their videos of empty Las Vegas casinos and the cavernous Hoover Dam are put together beside the projectors.

Even Steve McQueen's Deadpan - a video which sees the artist pass through the window of a falling wall à la Buster Keaton - incites the viewer to imagine how the stunt is achieved.

Stunt is perhaps a fitting word for the Turner Prize, many are suspicious that the jury pick not the best work by young British artists, but the most shocking.

A true reflection?

"The Turner Prize remains, for better or worse, an important event in the British contemporary art calendar," says The Art Newspaper's Tom Flynn.

"Opinion, however, remains divided as to whether it reflects the true state of contemporary art in Britain."

[ image: Steve McQueen: Artistic stunt or stunt artist?]
Steve McQueen: Artistic stunt or stunt artist?
With more than 120,000 people visiting last year's Turner exhibition and countless column inches devoted to it, the prize has certainly been successful in publicising young artists who would otherwise only be seen by a limited audience.

"The most dramatic effect it has on the profile of artists - if they are the type that can capture the public's imagination - is to make them public figures," says Nicholas Logsdail.

The director of the Lisson Gallery, which represents the Wilsons, points to notorious shark-pickler Damien Hirst as a prime example of this.

Gill Hedley, director of the Contemporary Art Society, reckons that far from demonising artists the controversy is good for art.

"On balance contemporary art probably benefits from the debate. The more people who look and the longer they look, the better for contemporary art."

Aside from the winner's £20,000, the prize has other has financial implications for all those concerned.

"Of course it helps to sell work," says Logsdail. "Some galleries double the prices immediately."

The 1999 Turner Prize Exhibition runs at the Tate Gallery until 6 February 2000

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