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Thursday, 2 December, 1999, 19:23 GMT
Head to Head: Turner Prize - is it art?

The Turner prize - presented to the film-maker Steve McQueen - had attracted controversy long before the coveted prize was awarded.

Much to everyone's surprise - and the relief of many - Tracey Emin's dishevelled My Bed didn't capture the judges imagination, this time.

The Times' Richard Cork and Art Review's David Lee explain what they believe to be art.

Although Steve McQueen has recently started experimenting with sculpture and still photography, his first allegiance lies with film.

Deadpan, the most widely admired of his exhibits in the 1999 Turner Prize exhibition, takes, as its starting-point, a Buster Keaton stunt from a 1928 film called Steamboat Bill Jr.

McQueen uses himself as the absurd yet resilient figure who makes no attempt to escape from a falling house.

He fills the end wall with Deadpan, making viewers feel that the house is descending on them as well.

It pitches forward with frightening speed and heaviness, accentuated by McQueen's decision to film the event from several different vantages.

Repeating the fall serves to increase our respect for the man who defies it.

He knows that the blank window will save him, by passing neatly over his head and crashing at his feet.

But his refusal to do anything except blink still seems laudable, and the film terminates with McQueen's steady, impassive face staring out stoically from the screen.

Without indulging in Hollywood heroics, he seems braced to endure adversity with calm, stubborn resolve.

The relentless downward movement of Deadpan is reversed in his new film, Prey.

It looks earthbound at first, as an anonymous hand switches on a two-spool tape machine resting in the grass.

After Deadpan's arresting silence, the sound of tap dancing comes as a shock.

And just as we begin to wonder why McQueen fastens up the tape, the entire machine is suddenly hoisted into the air by a white balloon.

With dizzying speed the grass becomes open fields, and then we find ourselves surrounded by sky as the balloon takes its strange cargo higher and higher.

The unlikely sound of airborne tap dancing grows faint, as the machine threatens to vanish in the void.

But it never quite disappears, and in the end plummets back to the ground with an inconsequential bump.

We should be left with a feeling of bathos. Against the odds, though, Prey generates a lasting sense of suspended exhilaration.

Just as Emin asserts her undaunted determination to keep on dancing, McQueen affirms the artist's insistence on letting the imagination take flight.

Richard Cork, art critic for The Times

The Turner Prize could not have been won by a nicer fellow than film-maker Steve McQueen.

Given the blanket coverage roused by beaten front-runner Tracey Emin's in-yer-face stubborn stains, it is an irony that the prize should have gone to an artist who avoided publicity and let his work speak for itself...but that is where the problem starts.

McQueen is neither better nor worse than many artists who try their hand at a spot of video, which means that his films are laughably pretentious and even more typical of the genre in that they take an eternity to impart nothing worth hearing.

His much discussed and praised piece based on Buster Keaton is as flagrant an example of plagiarism as you will find in any art gallery and succeeds only in polluting the memory of a comic masterpiece.

McQueen's two other entries are unwatchable for those raised on the efforts of professional filmmakers, to the extent that one wonders what qualities the adjudicators perceived in them.

Artistic licence
Last year's Turner Prize winner, Chris Ofili, used elephant dung in his painting
Damien Hirst won the prize in 1997 for displaying the severed halves of a cow and calf in formaldehyde
Artist Tony Kaye tried to submit a homeless steel worker for the prize
The judges' bluster about Epoetry and the other all-purpose drivel they trotted out in defence of their choice is unhelpful to those of us who remain bewildered.

It would have been educative for the entire nation to have been flies on the wall of the Tate director's office when the judges were deliberating.

We would have learned the criteria used for judging such work and not have had to take on trust the mindles paeans uttered by those snake oil salesmen from the Tate's Department of Interpretation.

As it is we are none the wiser.

Is it art? It might be but it does not look like it to me because McQueen's work is so visually unexacting and fails to add up to more than the sum of its parts, which surely always plays a prominent part in good art.

It is in no sense visually alluring, beautiful or memorable and, in the end, we must take it on trust, like the blind faith of starry-eyed disciples, that the experts are right in proclaiming his films to be the acme of accomplishment in contemporary British art.

Unless, of course, we choose to be impertinent and ask for a second opinion.

David Lee, editor of Art Review
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See also:
01 Dec 99 |  UK
Steve McQueen: Profile
01 Dec 99 |  UK
The silent stars on today's cutting edge
30 Nov 99 |  UK
McQueen wins Turner Prize
24 Oct 99 |  UK
Feathers fly at art show
01 Dec 99 |  UK
Steve McQueen: A critique

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