Tate Britain

Seeing the artworks in this year’s Turner Prize is less a visual experience than a verbal one, in that it reminds you how words and sentences are not only printed but can also imprint themselves on your poor visual field like after-images from a flash bulb. They can even temporarily blind

enter the exhibition and are met by Goshka Macuga’s glass and metal constructions, then pictures on the walls, and some feint marks behind them. You dutifully walk around the room – sheets of glass arranged radially, steel hand rails, constructivist collages with names like Void / Possibilities and Target Area / Lake of Creation, graphite dashes on the walls that look like falling rain, a sense of industrial design – trying to see without knowledge, or at least the right knowledge. Then you give in to the text on the wall.

From the text you learn that Macuga deals with the archives of the institution in which she is exhibiting, and that the collages take elements from the archives in the Tate collection of two artists who were lovers. You go back and see the pictures in a new light: the images could abstractly insinuate scenes from the artists’ relationship. Now the collages resonate. But then you read that the glass and metal sculptures relate to German history and were made specifically for the Berlin Biennale. Two of them are recreations of exhibition stands made for the Third Reich. Interested, you wonder how much of their history the objects give away… but the combination of the sculptures and the collages in one space seems arbitrary and conceptually confused. What you learnt from the text on the wall seems to have intercepted your experience, simultaneously allowing, opening up and singularizing the work’s meaning. This is the problem: objects are awkwardly silent, we speak nervously in their stead; the curator’s words on the walls, the artist’s words, these words.

Then Cathy Wilkes’s installation: after the first, general, newly-arrived view you circle the arrangement, naming the parts like Adam[1]: the supermarket checkouts, mannequins, bare walls, eaten baby food, burnt wood, crucifixes roughly painted onto the sides of stacks of tiles, slight clumps of hairy dust, pram, oven, step ladder. Identification, recognition. A clear mentality and sense of purpose starts to rise off the objects, impelling you to narrative: decayed, excreted, burdened, trapped. Then you make a trajectory from front, vaulting over the check-outs, to back: heart, consummation, nurse, birth, bat and ball, childhood, burnt wood, carbon-based life, white beard, ladder, stairway to heaven…

The next three rooms contain films by Runa Islam. The first film (Be The First To See What You See As You See It, 2004) shows a woman in a gallery looking at, then touching the exhibits, felinely pawing them, then knocking them off their plinths in slow motion. She looks like an Oliver Sacks case, a person with renewed sight learning to see by touch. In the second film the movement of the camera spells the film’s name: CINEMATOGRAPHY. The interior of a film apparatus workshop (the text tells you) moves by but because nothing is framed and everything is autofocused-on, nothing is recognized. The identity is in the name spelled out by the mechanism: something like a pre-Kantian perceptual passivity constructed by the viewer, at the level of vision.

A similar sensation happens as you watch the last of Islam’s films (First Day of Spring, 2005) with the sound of Mark Leckey booming out from next door. The voice pervades, cartoon-god-like, and as you enter Leckey’s room, standing outside the ‘cinema-in-the-round’ construction from which it emanates, it inflects everything. Videos and objects look like experiments before the discovery of the persistence of vision: a strobe-lit slide show that fails to intimate motion; a video showing a figurine of Felix the cat rotating, inanimate, while flickering effects clatter around it. As well as movement and stasis, there is a terrific play of presence and absence, actual and virtual: in a feat of CGI (transferred to film) a video of Jeff Koons’s aluminum balloon rabbit shows no reflection of the camera that films it. You see all this with the voice pontificating about and around them. An A4 printout of evocative verbal images suggests that Leckey is in on this: like Janet Cardiff’s audio walks or Willie Doherty’s photo-text works, the rhetorical voice verbalizes experience at the point of first contact.


Benjamin saw photographs as having been attacked by words. In his view, as the medium’s potential to bear witness was realized verbal cues were instituted to circumscribe it. Magazine editors started to put captions in their pictures, giving them control over the pictures’ presumed significance. The finality of the wording inhibits the reader from ‘free-floating contemplation’ before the news image.[2] Roland Barthes agrees and goes further: ‘The text directs the reader through the signifieds of the image, causing him to avoid some and receive others; by means of often subtle dispatching, it remote-controls him towards a meaning chosen in advance … The text has thus a repressive value and we can see that it is at this level that the morality and ideology of a society are above all invested.’[3]

Implications for Mark Leckey abound. His speech governs form and content in a way that is descended directly from those works of the late ‘60s where language becomes a medium in place of paint and stone. It is also a natural extension of the project started at that time, to ‘demolish the distinctions between art practice, theory and criticism [through] … rigorous self-reflexivity [and] engagement with the issue of how language frames practice’[4]. In Leckey theoretical language (complete with cod-Derridean word play) soaks into practice, or rather, runs before it, laying guiding tracks for its (and other works in audible range) reception. Adam / Leckey takes ownership of the animals / experience by naming.

Macuga’s work is only explicable, or basically ascertainable, via a verbal narrative that is provided by and attached to the wall of the institution of which she is making a critique.[5] Thus it fulfils Nicolas Serrota’s twenty-year old ambition to ‘promote understanding and appreciation of the art of our time, as well as that of our past’ by ‘collaborating with artists in the presentation, acquisition and documentation of their work.’[6] He determined to rescue a Turner Prize floundering in esoteric obscurity and irrelevance; but when the explication melds with the artwork it explicates you have a repression of the critique; the institution’s meaning pre-empts the visitor’s, when all it wants to do is help. Such repression results in prize-winners giving “monosyllabic answers to the desperate journos”, as Grayson Perry has observed of Tomma Abts, who in his view wanted to “shut out the clamour of contemporary art.”[7] The clamour, that nervous noise made to fill the silence, itself causes another nomination: there is now ‘a high chance that someone on the street could name a living British artist’[8]. But after this owning they need to be allowed to see the art as well. You could look at Islam’s work as a model of how we can do this: how each individual can, on entering the gallery, have the chance to be the first to see what they see, as they see it.


[1] It’s interesting to think of the myth in terms of gender and Wilkes’s work and Leckey’s persona; it also points to the problems of the second person, hitherto used to emphasise the kind of coercive semiosis being discussed.

[2] Benjamin, Illuminations, 1970

[3] Barthes, Image-Music-Text, 1977 – he remakes the point in The Fashion System, 1983

[4] Jon Bird and Michael Newman, from the introduction to Re-writing Conceptual Art, 1999

[5]Alex Alberro has pointed out how Latin American conceptual artists refused to rely entirely on linguistic structures to theorize the construction of the subject, because of the fact that “the dominant language (Spanish or Portugese) was itself culturally and socially problematical, being symptomatic of the ruling class.” (ibid, p233)

[6] Quoted from The Aims of the Gallery: The Tate Biennial Report, 1988-90, p12, by Louisa Buck in The Tate, The Turner Prize and the Art World, in The Turner Prize and British Art, 2007)

[7] ibid, p35

[8] Anya Gallaccio (shortlisted 2003) in the same volume.