Turner Prize and Runa Islam

I am sorry to see that Runa Islam, who had been nominated for the Turner Prize last May, did not go on to win. The prizes were announced on Monday. I periodically read the British papers, particularly the art and architecture sections (those Brits seem to have a much more intimate cultural connection with their artists than we Americans do!), and the fuss and gossip over the awards – or, well, nearly anything they cover, really – is quite entertaining. I like that the Brits don’t hide their opinionated bias under a veneer of journalistic professionalism. No, no, no! News is mostly hearsay, afterall.

Anyway, reading the online coverage of the pre- and post-game coverage of the Turner Prize selection has seemed quite a propos of my own thoughts and musings lately. The winner was Mark Leckey, who has a background in film and special effects, and works with pop culture imagery; from what I gather, he is more interested in taking images of famous images…and then showing them again. What’s his message? Or his point? Nothing I found in my perusings this afternoon could really say. One article described him as “the magpie of the art world,” and headlines are proclaiming that as the only male on the lineup, he had it in the bag. There was Cathy Wilkes who, with her mannequins and toilets and “old porridge” and bits of string is right in line with my freecycling hipster artists; oh god, no wonder people were bored. Wilkes’ routine is out of the YBA artist handbook, but without any of the graphic sex or offensive content, and it’s 15 years out of date already. Next? Goshka Macuga, who was apparently the least well known of the group; she creates installations of glass and steel – very architectural. The more I looked at the photos, the more I liked them, because they suggest all the trappings of architectural spaces, but without being habitable. Her glass plays with light and density and three-dimensionality, but everything is constructed with flat planes.

The last is Runa Islam, whose video, Be the first to see when you see it (2004), was nominated and on display at the Tate Modern in London. This video is also – as I discovered to my delight – currently on exhibit at the Frye for their show Empire, which is running through January 4th. Go see it. The word from critics is that this piece, and Islam’s work generally, was the strongest of the Turner nominees, and that she should have received the award. I can’t say I know much about the politics around the selection of an art award recipient (and having been let down by more than one BAD Booker award-winning novel, I’m not sure than an award is actually an indicator of greatness), but I have found that the images from Islam’s film have remained with me. It is far more substantial than the scene of a pretty white girl in a pretty white dress drinking from pretty white teacups might suggest.

Be the first to see what you see as you see it (Runa Islam, 2004)

Be the first to see what you see as you see it (Runa Islam, 2004)

Islam, born in Bangladesh, has lived in London her entire life. The film opens with the ritual of British high society: tea. Beautiful tea cups, a lovely vase, a pitcher, and a beautiful girl, poshly dressed, quietly, silently, enjoying this refreshment. But, as all of this whiteness seems to suggest, this ritual — and the cultural expectations around it — are so confining. The young woman begins by clinking her spoon against a teacup, is it boredom? Annoyance? Testing boundaries? Tracing her finger around the rim of the cup, she tips it a bit, to see what happens. The cup settles back in the saucer with a clatter. She tries again, a little more boldly, this time inching the cup towards the edge of the table. The cup topples over the saucer and crashes to the floor, the fine white bone china shattering, hot tea splashing into a wide, brown stain. Islam is playing with many messages here: this film can be read as a rejection of the still-present stereotypes in Britain’s fossilized upper class, where women quietly sip their tea and dark-skinned foreigners exist only to provide goods and services. It is a powerful film; the crescendo of crashing china are a shattering rejection of those who refuse to let go of these narrow heirarchies. Islam’s film was more relevant than she knew; with three women and one man nominated for the Turner Prize, how much of the selection criteria was contingent upon the winning artist’s (racial or gender) insider status?

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~ by ecp on December 3, 2008.

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