This year’s winner of the Turner prize has been a polemical decision, and posed significant questions to the contemporary art world. Susan Philipsz recorded three versions of herself singing “Lowlands Away” – a folk tale about a woman losing her lover at sea – and then played the poignant recordings to an empty room in the Tate Britain. Philipsz’s victory is not in question, her raw creativity undoubtedly overshadowing that of the other nominations, the works of Dexter Dalwood and Angela de la Cruz in particular, but it is her place in the context of the prize that is open to discourse.
Can a sound installation really be capable of winning what the Tate itself describes as “a prize for contemporary visual art”? And of course, how would Turner – the painter who saw visual experience as all and only weeks before his death would still steal away daily to watch the sun rise and set over the Thames – react to his name being attached to a vocal performance?
It has been posited by some that the visual aspect of the installation, or lack thereof, is part of the sombre effect of the work, the vacuous space being coupled with the sparse interpretation of the folk-song, yet this doesn’t dissolve the discrepancy between the outlines of the prize and Philipsz’s work, and this issue seems to be really grinding the gears of some.
But such people are missing part of the issue. Art has always held, and shall remain to indefinitely, an organic existence, growing and mutating with time, and when the works of Dalwood and the like seem almost out-dated and fall to impact the viewer, while the solemn rendering of a folk-song is able to make the viewer momentarily stop and falter, sound installations must be welcomed into the mainstream. After all, the varying mediums that constitute the art world are not absolute or self-sufficient, and the fusion of them has the ability to produce the effective results in question.
And for those that maintain that Philipsz is in conflict with Turner’s heritage, they in fact share more in common than their maritime subject.Turner played with capturing the extremes of movement, ferocious storms or tranquillity, and the latter is overwhelming employed in Philipsz’s singing, while her phrasing and inflections could parallel the way in which Turner would capture the most minute refractions of light. So despite different mediums, it is too dismissive to proclaim Turner would have rejected Philipsz winning the prize.
It is clear therefore that this could potentially be a new epoch in the history of the Turner prize. Alongside Ai Weiwei’s Turbine hall project, it may be that conceptual and installation art is steadily on the rise. It may frustrate some, but for others it shall be a be a true breath of fresh air.