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“Rosebud” should win

A critical look at this year’s Turner prize exhibition

Lucy Farmer | October 6th 2014

If you're planning to visit this year's Turner prize exhibition, you'll be glad there are plenty of padded seats. Like the two previous winners, Laure Prouvost and Elizabeth Price, three of the four artists have been nominated for audio-visual works. They're challenging pieces, but at least you get to sit down while watching them.

The show at Tate Britain in London opens with a vast television showing James Richards' "Rosebud". It's a 12-minute black-and-white collage of old blurry VHS recordings and new digital vignettes, set to audio that morphs between instrumental melodies, repetitive mechanical noises and industrial sounds—and it's the best of the lot. The images are disparate, but they share an intriguing eroticism and tactility. All filmed in close-up, there are photos of bodies with their genitals scratched out; flashing images of a budgerigar flapping on a person's hand; elderflowers rolling softly over someone's lips; entwined arms turning over on a floor; ripples easing across a pond. Richards' fluid edit has a sensuous pace, too. He has said that the film plays on "the act of looking", which is the kind of gauzy thing artists say. But by limiting what you can see he urges you to search and stare, and turns a passive experience into something visceral.

The three other works offer their messages more directly, but none of them is coherent. Tris Vonna-Michell is known for his engaging spoken-word performance art, but "Postscript IV Berlin" fails to connect. In a chatty, disjointed voice he narrates a nine-minute pre-recorded story about a trip to Berlin, as a dual slideshow clacks round showing his photographs of abandoned buildings, cobblestones and graffitied walls, all in the same shade of grey. So far, so predictable. He rambles on about his mother's memories of post-war Germany—an S-bahn station, "dog-walking wastelands", concrete and barbed wire—in an attempt to build a personal memoir, but it is a story without direction and the piece remains less than the sum of its parts.

Duncan Campbell's "It For Others" is the most didactic work, but at almost an hour long it feels self-indulgent. He describes it as an "essay film" about value. His montage combines archive footage, such as of the Troubles in Northern Ireland and a Chinese textile factory, with new material, ranging from hands passing a cigarette across a table to still photography of African masks, perfume and ketchup bottles, and a choreographed dance piece. He also manages to squeeze in an attack on the British Museum's appropriation of foreign works. His bugbear seems to be the commoditisation of art, but I gave up trying to join the dots.

The one burst of colour is Ciara Phillips' print-work installation, "Things Shared". Taking up a room of its own, the walls are pasted floor-to-ceiling with inkblot prints in pink and blue, bold compositions of geometric shapes, and black-and-white photographs cropped, inverted and superimposed on saturated backgrounds in a nod to Pop art. In the middle of the room two giant display cases form the letters "O" and "K"—which is more than can be said for this installation. The cases contain posters and prints made during workshops with fellow artists and community groups, but while the process of making them might have been a galvanising experience the result is jumbled and banal.

In the past the prize has been awarded for light bulbs flashing on and off and a pickled shark. This year, I hope the winning work is the one with the budgie flapping its wings.

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