At the press preview for Britain's prestigious and ever controversial Turner Prize, a photographer began taking pictures of his knapsack on the floor. Pretty soon a crowd of shooters had joined him. Was it or was it not part of the installation "Different Sky" by Goshka Macuga, one of the four finalists for the £25,000 award? Some confusion is understandable. Macuga uses the Tate Britain's own archives to make collages of photos by the famous British surrealist Paul Nash with drawings by his less famous mistress, Eileen Agar. She also incorporates "sculptures" by Mies van der Rohe and his onetime lover that look like gallery barriers and display props. "It's about these romances being reimagined, intertwined histories," says Sophie O'Brien, one of the curators. As for the backpack the photographers were shooting? "They were only joking. There is nothing on the floor here."
The joke is on everyone at the perennial examination of contemporary British art at the Tate Britain. Outside the museum last week, a group of figurative artists—whose work never features on the Turner shortlist—held their annual protest, wearing black top hats and holding posters bearing such slogans as THE TURNER PRIZE IS CRAP. Their handouts, as well as videos of their protests, go straight into the Tate's archives, and its officials have thanked them for helping stir up publicity. "In a sense, that is the whole point of the prize: to encourage public debate," says Tate Britain director Stephen Deuchar, who chairs the Turner jury. (The winner will be announced Dec. 1.) "The prize is not there to award the most competent artist at work today, but to draw attention to what the jury considers new developments." Draw attention it does; most of the copious publicity is overwhelmingly negative, in the end-of-civilization-as-we-know-it vein. But former Turner winners like Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst, who debuted their unmade beds and pickled dead things there, have been laughing all the way to the bank.
Not that the Turner doesn't take itself seriously. Finalist Runa Islam, a native of Bangladesh, offers a film of rickshaw drivers sleeping as they await fares and another, slightly more exciting, of a woman slowly tipping china off a table, which we get to see shatter in slo-mo. Though there weren't any actual feces among the displays this year, Cathy Wilkes's installation, "I Give You All My Money," does include a naked mannequin sitting on a toilet (with a horseshoe hanging from her chin) next to a couple of supermarket checkout counters, all of it, in the words of the program notes, "composed using an eloquent and complex visual vocabulary." The work also includes a lot of trash on the floor, which is, says O'Brien, " precisely placed." (An ecominded child had to be restrained from helpfully trying to pick some of it up.)
Perhaps the most striking aspect of the entries is the degree to which the artists depend on more traditional artists, recycling their works in ways meant to be profound, but which many viewers just find pretentious. Thus Mark Leckey's "Cinema-in-the-Round 2006" features a film of the artist giving an illustrated lecture about his fascination with Felix the Cat, Homer Simpson, Garfield and other touchpoints of popular culture, including the Jeff Koons sculpture Leckey has in his own flat. He even throws in the film "Titanic," which prompts one of his more accessible exclamations: "Going from absolute horizontality to total verticality!" With unflinching honesty, the camera pans to show both artist and his audience—the latter sparse and unspeakably bored.
The Turner Prize is named after the great 19th-century British painter J.M.W. Turner, whose expressive seascapes gave way in later life to impressionistic, even abstract work. Still, nothing he ever did would today be considered innovative enough for a Turner Prize. "I do think Turner would be horrified," says Charles Thomson, one of the protesting painters outside. "To think that such a man's legacy should be given over to tins of excrement just beggars belief." Deuchar, the Tate Britain director, begs to differ. "Turner was highly experimental, especially in his last decade," he says. "They thought Turner had gone mad. He was ridiculed by the critics. New art is always controversial." And, sometimes, it is also ridiculous.