LONDON (Reuters) - British video artist Elizabeth Price won the coveted Turner Prize for contemporary art on Monday, delighting critics who had championed her film about a fatal fire in Manchester in 1979, describing it variously as “terrifying” and “exhilarating”.
The 46-year-old was the least familiar of four artists shortlisted for the annual prize, and she beat out the bookmakers’ favorite Paul Noble to win a cheque for 25,000 pounds ($40,000) and earn instant recognition and acclaim.
Price said that after the awards she intended to celebrate with her family and might find it easier to consider her feelings about winning the prize following a night’s reflection.
“I’ll probably know tomorrow, although I’ll probably have a hangover,” she told reporters. “But I might have a more lucid answer tomorrow. It certainly doesn’t feel bad.”
The artist was honoured for her show earlier this year at the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead, near Newcastle, where three video works were on display including one which traveled to London for the Turner Prize exhibition.
“The Woolworths Choir of 1979” brings together photographs of church architecture, internet clips of pop performances and news footage of a fire in Manchester in which 10 people died.
By weaving together apparently unrelated topics and visual styles as well as text and music, Price seeks to demonstrate that any kind of information, be it dry, catchy or macabre, can be transmitted in an arresting, memorable way.
“When I started making the work I didn’t know it would end up being about that subject in a way and I did take that very seriously,” she told Britain’s Channel 4, which broadcast the awards live on television. “But I’m very interested in those kinds of social, historical stories and think art is the way to remember them and think about them.”
Art critics, who were generally complimentary about this year’s shortlist, were fulsome in their praise of the film.
“It is 20 of the most exhilarating minutes I’ve ever spent in an art gallery,” said Richard Dorment of the Telegraph in his review of the Turner Prize show at Tate Britain in London in October. The exhibition runs until January 6.
“What is more, as I watched it with mounting excitement, I began to realize that I was in the presence of an artwork that has the potential fundamentally to change the way knowledge is transferred, the way we teach and the way we learn.”
The choice of an artist not immediately easy to unravel is likely to prove popular among those in the art establishment who believe the award needs to become more serious after several controversial choices had undermined its credibility.
The Turner Prize has a history of provoking broader debate about the role of art in contemporary life, but the more sober approach also risks seeing it sidelined by the public.
The state school-educated Price devoted the bulk of her acceptance speech to highlighting the importance of government funding for art in education and broader society, taking a swipe at cuts by Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron’s government, which is struggling to reduce its budget deficit.
“My career is unimaginable without public support for the arts from an excellent comprehensive (state) school education rich in art and music,” she said. “So it’s incredibly depressing...that a young girl going to comprehensive school in Luton might not be able to imagine being an artist.”
The Turner award to any artist under 50 living, working or born in Britain has helped establish the careers of artists like Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin.
It has also generated shrill headlines from a skeptical press, not least when Martin Creed won in 2001 with an empty room featuring a light that switched on and off.
The closest thing to controversy this year would have been victory for Spartacus Chetwynd, the first pure performance artist to make it to the shortlist who was selected for a show she put on at the Sadie Coles HQ gallery in London.
Best known for her folksy plays, Chetwynd invites visitors to the Tate show to prostrate themselves before a rag puppet “oracle” in the shape of a mandrake root held reverentially by men dressed in green.
“Craziness is everywhere in this year’s Turner Prize,” Guardian art critic Adrian Searle said in a video tour.
Noble produces less hectic, more studied art in the form of meticulous pencil drawings of a fictional metropolis called Nobson Newtown.
The fourth nominee was Luke Fowler, nominated for a solo exhibition at Inverleith House, Edinburgh, which showcased his new film exploring the life of Scottish psychiatrist, R.D. Laing.
The 93-minute film, screened in a mini-theatre at the Tate, divided the art establishment.
Reporting by Mike Collett-White, editing by Paul Casciato