Selectors and Selectees: What We Can Learn from the Turner Prize and Bloomberg New Contemporaries

Duncan Campbell, It for Others 2013, 16mm film transferred to digital video. Courtesy of the artist and Rodeo Gallery.
Late fall in the United Kingdom affords the opportunity to take stock of the current art climate, and 2014 marks two significant anniversaries for two annual exhibitions that offer concise but different perspectives on the state of contemporary British art: the Turner Prize, and New Contemporaries. Celebrating its 30th anniversary, the highly anticipated, sometimes infamous Turner Prize is awarded for recent work by a British artist under 50, chosen from a shortlist of four artists. The New Contemporaries exhibition, sponsored by Bloomberg and now in its 65th year, bestows recognition and exhibition opportunities to a select group of artists recently graduated from or attending UK art schools. So what can we learn about the state of British art in 2014 from these two presentations?
Both the Turner Prize, now on view at the Tate Modern, and Bloomberg New Contemporaries, currently showing at the ICA London, can be seen as important bellwethers pointing to trends in the contemporary art scene from artists at different stages in their careers. Because they are seen as indicators of wider tendencies within the arts, the Turner Prize and New Contemporaries often produce polarizing debates with each yearly iteration, not only within the arts community but with the wider public as well.
The tone of this year’s New Contemporaries was described by Artlyst as “pensive and inward-looking,” and “marked by austerity and low generational confidence.” The Turner Prize, on the other hand, was dismissed by critics this year as “a weak year,” as BBC's Arts Editor Will Gompertz put it, saying, "All that fun and games has gone, and it's a much more sober, respectful, polite, middle-aged prize." Known for polarizing the nation, this year’s reception to the Turner Prize has been lukewarm, which is possibly worse than a hostile and controversial one. Is art in the UK at a low point?
Turner Prize installation shot - James Richards, The Screens 2013. Copyright the artist. Courtesy Tate Photography.
Turner Prize installation shot - Tris Vonna-Michell, Addendum I (Finding Chopin: Dans l’Essex) 2014. Copyright the artist. Courtesy Tate Photography.
Turner Prize installation shot - Ciara Phillips Things Shared 2014. Copyright the artist. Courtesy Tate Photography
The Turner Prize this year was awarded on December 1st to Duncan Campbell, who was chosen from among his shortlisted contemporaries Ciara Phillips, Tris Vonna-Michell, and James Richards. While the selection process for the Turner Prize is rather conventional—a committee of arts professionals surveys major exhibitions contributed by British or UK-based artists within the past year, nominates a shortlist of four artists, and then chooses a winner—New Contemporaries, on the other hand, employs a unique process for selecting work from among the thousands of entries from art school graduates each year. In order to ensure a level playing field, the committee, comprised of three practicing artists, participates in a blind selection process, judging the works submitted solely on their merit without taking into account the background or resumes of the submitting artists. This year’s Bloomberg New Contemporaries panel is composed of Marvin Gaye Chetwynd, Enrico David, and Goshka Macuga, who have all previously been nominees of the Turner Prize. Chetwynd, additionally, participated in New Contemporaries the year she graduated from the Royal College of Art in 2004. All in all, it appears as though the Turner Prize committee, comprised exclusively of directors of art institutions (Stefan Kalmár of Artists Space, Helen Legg of SpikeIsland, Sarah McCrory of Glasgow International, and Dirk Snauwaert of Wiels, and chaired by Penelope Curtis of the Tate Britain), tended toward a more sober and refined perspective, while the New Contemporaries panel (Chetwynd in particular is known as a rather cheeky provocateur) made some stronger statements about the current art climate with their selections of students’ work.
One remarkable shared characteristic between this year’s Turner Prize and the Bloomberg New Contemporaries is the prevalence of moving image art. Three of the four Turner Prize nominees work in video or other moving image media: the Turner Prize was awarded to Duncan Campbell for his film It For Others (2013), an open-ended “essay film” composed of archival footage and new material that explores histories through objects and includes a dance sequence choreographed by Michael Clark. James Richards’ Rosebud (2013) features found VHS footage along with new imagery, while Tris Vonna-Michell’s contribution is comprised of spoken word, live performances, and audio recordings accompanied by a slide projection. Ciara Phillips, on the other hand, works primarily in printmaking, and for her Turner Prize nominated exhibition she created a participatory print workshop.
Yi Dai, Nocturne No. 4, 2014
The works in this year’s Bloomberg New Contemporaries is overwhelmingly video-based—of the 55 works selected, 24 are videos. At the World Museum in Liverpool, where New Contemporaries was shown before moving to the ICA, the 24 videos were shown on identical televisions in a row of plinths, and at the ICA they are mostly grouped together in one room—a potentially repetitive format, and what Ben Luke of the Evening Standard called “an unwieldy heart of the show.” This emphasis on video, however, may well be a reflection of a climate of austerity: video and performance being some of the cheapest materials for art making. Likewise, many of the sculptures and paintings featured in New Contemporaries are composed of impoverished materials—for instance Yi Dai’s Nocturne No. 4, which is elegantly constructed out of canvas, hair and a single nylon stocking.
Emily Motto, A Bodily Capacity, 2014.
Matthew Humphreys, Goodbye, 2014. Still from video.
Simon Senn, Just Let Go, 2012. Still from video.
It seems both the students’ work as well as the Turner Prize nominees demonstrate a tendency toward materials, methods and subjects appropriate in tough times: recycling (using found footage or objects), community and sharing (such as Phillips print workshop), “low” materials (Ruskin student Emily Motto’s sculptures made of playdough for instance), available consumer technologies (Central Saint Martins graduate Matthew Humphreys use of iPhone footage), and a feeling of frustration and angst (like Goldsmiths graduate Simon Senn’s video evoking riot and unrest). The centerpiece and most unforgettable statement of Bloomberg New Contemporaries is undoubtedly Royal College graduate Alice Hartley’s enormous and imposing screen print We're All Very Disappointed (2013), which seems to succinctly express the attitude of this generation. Matt Copson of the Slade School of Art further underscores the sentiment with his work centering on the archetypal anti-hero of Reynard the Fox. Copson sums the work up thus, “Reynard is really, really, really angry and very, very, very dissatisfied. And you’ve only got yourselves to blame.” Reynard the Fox dies at the end of every piece.
Alice Hartley, We're All Very Disappointed, 2013.    
Matt Copson, Reynard, 2013. Installation
It seems the students’ works aptly and concisely reflect their dissatisfaction with the status quo, the disappointing current state of budget cuts and economic austerity, yet with a tone of optimism and perseverance regardless. The Turner Prize artworks, in particular Duncan Campbell’s contribution, on the other hand, were viewed by critics as insular, obscure, and, at worst, boring. Yet while the public and critics may look to the Turner Prize for a yearly circus provoking rile and indignation at the art world, this year’s selections may well simply be reflecting a more subdued, wintry outlook on art. It causes one to wonder whether an economic upturn, increases in funding, or total political upheaval could be the thing to revive the bombast to the UK art scene. Or perhaps we should just wait for the New Contemporaries to reach Turner Prize stature?