Few occasions have so consistently served to whet the British press's talent for vitriol than the Turner Prize, the 29th winner of which is to be named Monday.
Awarded annually, with one exception, since 1984, the prize, now worth about $45,000, recognizes a British visual artist under the age of 50 who – take a deep breath here – has mounted what a five-member jury deems to have been an outstanding exhibition in the 12 months preceding the announcement of the shortlist in July. Because the finalists – they usually number four – tend to be young or young-ish and the art they produce unapologetically contemporary, a painting of mom and dad roasting chestnuts on an open fire or a sculpture of cherubs attending to the Virgin Mary stands no chance of making the cut.
Set up a rumpled bed with stained sheets, however, surround it with unwashed underwear, empty bottles, condoms, slippers and a cute plush puppy – Tracey Emin did just this in 1999 with her installation My Bed – and you're in like Flynn. Or so the press would have us believe. Ditto if one of your preferred media is elephant dung (as is the case for Christopher Ofili the 1998 Turner winner) or you're a happily married transvestite ceramicist making brightly decorated vases with titles such as We've Found the Body of Your Child (Grayson Perry, the 2003 laureate).
By now you'd think it pointless to ask, "Is it art?" But the genius of the Turner, which just may be the best-known visual art prize on the planet, has been its knack for prompting this hoariest of questions pretty much year in, year out. Moreover, because the prize ceremony is televised live, it has generated plenty of protests outside the hall and cheeky behaviour inside, including, in 2011, a streaker and, 10 years before that, an explosion of profanity from presenter Madonna.
This year, however, the ceremony is expected to be quite, well … calm. For the first time in Turner history, it is being hosted outside England, in Londonderry, the Northern Ireland city best known (infamously so) as the site of Bloody Sunday, the 1972 massacre of some 13 unarmed civilians by British armed forces.
Pretty much all the previous Turner galas and exhibitions have been held in the groovy artistic hot house that is London; in far-off Derry, the now-decommissioned barracks that once housed the soldiers responsible for Bloody Sunday have been converted into the exhibition space for the Turner finalists. This seems to have had a salutary effect: Yes, one critic has written, the Turner chronicles often have been "fraught" – but nothing in its annals "can possibly seem worth the bullfrog huffing and puffing that routinely accompanies the award when seen in the context of [Derry's] history" and Ireland's troubles.
Further, the art itself (or, more precisely, the art at the Ebrington Barracks as opposed to the presentations that got the artists – Laure Prouvost, 35; Tino Sehgal, 37; David Shrigley, 45; Lynette Yiadom-Boyake, 36 – nominated) hasn't sparked the invective or perplexity of previous Turners. Not that the work is tame.
Shrigley's Life Model, for example, is a wildly proportioned, jug-eared, two-metre-tall nude male animatron with a bucket conveniently placed on the floor between his legs to permit urination. Visitors are invited to sit and draw the model and apparently they have done so in droves, their creations then posted on the walls around the humanoid.
Sehgal's This is Exchange is more strenuously conceptual, a version of an earlier "constructed situation" in which a visitor, upon entering a room, is greeted by an attendant in a black T-shirt who offers the visitor 50 pence (it was originally two pounds) to engage in a conversation about market economics.
Previously either work likely would have writers vying to coin the most cutting putdown, le mot juste. But since the Derry showcase opened last month, the reviews have been mostly respectful.
Could it be that in the 112 years since Marcel Duchamp made his first ready-made, the 49 since Andy Warhol's Brillo box exhibition, the 20 since Damien Hirst put two halved cows in four formaldehyde-filled tanks, that audiences have become inured to the shocks of contemporary art? Has "Is it art?" been rendered an obsolete question, its words now better formulated in the declarative "Art it is?"
The 2013 Turner Prize exhibition runs at the Ebrington Barracks, Londonderry, Northern Ireland, through Jan. 5, 2014.