Turner Prize 2013 | Declan Long Interview

Posted December 2, 2013 in Arts & Culture Features, Arts and Culture

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Declan Long is a lecturer and critic, writing mainly about the visual arts for a long list of publications that includes, but is not limited to, Artforum, Art Review, frieze, and Source Photographic Review. He is also a regular contributor to RTÉ Radio 1’s flagship arts and culture show, Arena. Totally Dublin met with Long to talk about his role as a member of the 2013 Turner Prize jury.

What does being a member of the Turner Prize jury entail exactly?

I was invited to do it in April 2012, at which point I joined the three other judges (Annie Fletcher, Susanne Gaensheimer, and Ralph Rugoff) and Penelope Curtis, the director of Tate Britain, who has chaired the jury this year. We each spent the next twelve months travelling mostly around the UK in search of eligible exhibitions: that is, work by artists under-50, either living in Britain or born in Britain. Six exhibitions are selected by each member of the jury. Then we bring those to a shortlisting meeting and try to reduce the list from twenty-four exhibitions to four.  This is all done within a relatively short period of time, so it’s a pleasurably demanding process. What happens is you begin to define your parameters for, say, ‘quality’ or ‘success’ in art much more methodically.

As a member of the jury, are you supposed to avoid being swayed by media comment on the event?

Well, it’s a funny thing really. The process of the Turner Prize is a slightly unusual one. As I said, the shortlist is selected on the basis of exhibitions we’ve seen. Then the shortlist is published and a few months later, the exhibition opens. There’s obviously a lot of media interest at that point, a lot of debate about the exhibition itself, about the various achievements of the contributing artists. But we’re not judging the exhibition. The exhibition is just an opportunity for the public to see a selection of work by the shortlisted artists. So it’s unlikely we would be swayed, because the media excitement is in fact quite separate from our own deliberations. It comes after the fact in a way.

Is there an element of ‘festivalism’ about the exhibition then?

Em, yeah… This is something the New Yorker writer, Peter Schjeldahl, has written about. He condemned certain aspects of the contemporary art world for what he calls ‘festivalism’, for the way that exhibitions have become all about spectacle, all about moving through things very quickly. But one of the ‘festivalist’ aspects of the current Turner Prize that we might spin more positively, perhaps, is the ways in which it involves the public. David Shrigley’s contribution to that exhibition, for instance, asks the public to sit down and take part in a rather eccentric life-drawing class. And then there’s Tino Sehgal’s work, which in this exhibition involves live and direct encounters between people; it involves conversation.  So, if there is a sense of festivalism about the exhibition, it is less about spectacle, I think, and more about actual interaction and participation.

So it’s not as superficial?

Well, let’s hope not.

All art is a commodity. That much seems inescapable at this point. But to what extent is any remaining artistic radicalism assimilated or neutralised by the Turner Prize and others like it? 

You’re right to say that all art is a commodity. Art has been based around its relationship to the market for a very long time. The role of banking was very important to the rise of Impressionism, for instance. But it goes much further back. The way art was commissioned was indeliably linked to certain power structures. Art is embedded in forms of market exchange. But if you look at this year’s Turner Prize shortlist, you see in Tino Sehgal an artist addressing this very point about the economic relationships underpinning art. So, instead of inviting people to pay to see a work of art, or even to buy it, ‘This Is Exchange’ pays people to participate in a conversation about economics. Since the 1960s, there have been artists attempting to flip these things by operating within what’s known as a ‘dematerialized mode’, where it’s not all about objects. Instead, the work is about some form of encounter or idea. Sehgal’s work certainly falls within that tradition.

There are a few other radical aspect to the exhibition. Lynette Yiadom-Boakye is creating paintings of a kind that would not have appeared in the Turner Prize before. She is the first black woman to be shortlisted for the prize too, which in itself is also pathbreaking. This is a prize for British art with a shortlist consisting of a Berlin-based artist born in London (Tino Sehgal), an artist from the Ghanaian tradition brought up in London (Lynette Yiadom-Boakye), a French artist living in London (Laure Prouvost), and an English artist who made his name in Scotland (David Shrigley). And this is all taking place in Derry, a city notoriously, inescapably defined by two names. There’s a complexity there that merits consideration in itself. It opens up a space for conversations about Britishness and British art that may not have happened before.

You have written several texts for exhibition catalogues. In what way does this differ from writing for magazines or within academia? Does the critic sign off on a degree of critical independence?

It would depend a lot on the artist. By and large, though, my experience has been one of complete control. That might not be the case if I were to write something on Anselm Kiefer for a major museum exhibition, but I’m of a similar generation to many of the artists I’ve written for. I’ve grown up with them in a way, and my critical relationship to them constitutes a rich and enjoyable conversation. That’s one reason I like this over the strictly academic or art historical world; there’s the ongoing possibility of live conversation. People are usually looking for a perspective on their work that isn’t their own. They want to know what it looks like from the outside. I didn’t have an art historical background. My original education was in English Literature. I tended not to place people within the canon of contemporary art. I tended to bounce the work off literary references.

Do you find that your own criticism exists in the spaces between those references?

There was a time when it worked that way, when looking at the work was about connecting it to interesting things I’d read before. What I was writing was a sort of stream of association really. More recently, though, having talked a great deal with artists about the details and the depth of what they do, I find my work comes increasingly out of just attentiveness to the work and the things that are specific to it.

Do you believe in the value of the negative review?

Yes, I do – very much so. It’s not always easy to find the opportunity, though. I currently review exhibitions for Art Forum, for instance. It’s just not that easy to select something that, on the one hand, you think should be placed within Art Forum, a magazine that often presents itself as a sort of journal of record, and at the same time given a negative review. What I would like to think is that even within a notionally positive review, or a piece of writing reflecting on a particular work, that there’s room for you to negotiate the various qualities so that it doesn’t simply come down to, you know, a sort of marks-out-of-ten style review. There’s a way for a review to be reflective and revealing about the work, to bring to light something of that artist’s practice that is, for want of some better words, ‘progressive’ or ‘regressive’.  But I do believe in the negative review. I think argument is a good thing in and of itself. It’s just hard to know when it’s appropriate. I mean, another thing I do quite regularly is on the radio, for Arena on RTÉ. And it‘s very enjoyable. But you sometimes feel as though you have to be an ambassador for the visual arts generally. Because there isn’t much media coverage of it and you don’t want that media coverage to be sort of…

‘Nothing to see here.’

Exactly. I mean, obviously you have to be faithful to the best of your field and not merely advertise art in general. But it’s tricky terrain. As to the value of a negative review, though: yes, absolutely. There’ve been some wonderfully negative reviews recently in the American press of an American artist called Matthew Day Jackson. People like Jerry Saltz and Peter Peter Schjeldahl have come down hard on this spectacularly overblown work of his. The negative review is obviously most satisfying when there’s a great deal of money behind a massively egotistical project. It doesn’t always feel particularly good to give a hammering to some young artist who is still finding their voice.

In the piece you wrote remembering Melody Maker, you seem to be pushing for a new type of criticism – criticism-as-lateness, you said, quoting George Baker. Why is this necessary?

One of the things George Baker is saying in that piece is that curators currently enjoy a great deal of power and presence within the contemporary art world at the moment. The act of selecting is often the thing that decides what has value and what doesn’t have value. Baker points out that the cultural potency of the critic is somewhat diminished today. And then he says that, in the wake of the heroic stature of the critic, if we can even imagine that such a thing existed, maybe there’s room for criticism to just, you know, do things differently, to not behave itself.

To work as a sort of willed misunderstanding?

I think that’s a good line and a good idea. Certainly when I was starting to write about art, I was getting it wrong a lot. Getting the actual facts or practicalities wrong, but I hope there was some little spark in that wrongness. Someone who you wouldn’t necessarily want to look to as a model thinker because of his murky past, Paul de Man, one of the things he said was that reading is a form of misreading, and that that was generative. There is productive element to each incident of reading.

Are the critical conditions for this sort of critical misreading in place anywhere?

Maybe. I mean, it can certainly happen online. It also happens in things like exhibition catalogues. It’s harder for it to happen in academia, but yeah, I think there are opportunities for a kind of critical unruliness that might allow for writing to be done differently. In the thing you mentioned, the Melody Maker piece, I wrote about how enjoyable it was in the 1980s when certain writers started to write about music in a way that resisted the idea of the music critic as some kind of consumer-expert who told you what to buy and what not to buy. They wrote this crazy kind of writing – sometimes highly theorised, sometimes deeply silly. There’s something giddily pleasurable about that. Of course, they were building on the generation before them; people like Paul Morley, who wrote obsessively about what were, in some ways, the ‘wrong things’. They weren’t about building canons or respecting the past or whatever. There was spirit to it all that was to a degree self-indulgent. But it was also wild.

Do you think ‘criticism’ is misnamed?

No, I don’t. I think it’s the right thing to call it. I like the idea that ‘critique’ is in some ways the opposite of ‘dogma’. It’s a situation of questioning, exploration and analysis, rather than hectoring.

What are your intellectual insecurities?

There’s an inevitable insecurity that comes from having moved from one discipline to another. I used to play that aspect up, to relish to the role of amateur. Edward Said wrote that we should prize the amateur, the intellectual-as-amateur, as someone who’s not quite an academic, who doesn’t serve a particularly clear function in society. The amateur can roam more freely. The amateur can look at things he or she is not supposed to look at. Then I got a PhD in what is essentially Art History. Now my intellectual insecurity probably lies in not having the ability to be insecure as an amateur.

— Kevin Breathnach


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