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Living in the ‘Real World’ with Turner Prize Winner Elizabeth Price

TurnerWinnerTateFig 1: Elizabeth Price in front of her video projection, for The Turner Prize 2012, at Tate Britain
I) Introducing & Setting the Scene 
From those eventually nominated for this year’s Turner Prize, the decision as to who should be granted the award appeared to be a ‘no brainer’. Elizabeth Price won. Although this is of course a subjective choice. My first statement is drawn from the simple conclusion that only half of the nominees for the Prize have made work which comments on society now. Therefore only two works seemed at all relevant to the ‘Western World’, in this moment. Works from Spartacus Chetwynd, Luke Fowler, Paul Noble and Price were all nominated for the 2012 Prize. Examining and making a judgement on the works from this quad, in terms of quality; innovation; relevance and intrigue - which are pretty much at the core of all ‘good art’ - on this criteria alone, only Price and Fowler deserved to win in my view. The rest of my article will discuss Price’s winning work and some of my reasons for this judgement.
II) My Reasons
As a result of my conclusion here, the choice was made even easier in the respect that:
a). Although riveting, thought provoking and without doubt innovative - Fowler’s piece: a film entitled Divided Self about the renown Scottish psychiatrist R. D. Lang – is probably as much a cinematic documentary as it is a conventional artwork made specifically for being shown in an art gallery context. This I feel is a detail which should be taken into account. Whether it was or not, clearly I could not say.
b). I personally deem Price’s work gives more relevance to the austere, economically uncertain times we find ourselves’ in, than Fowler’s film does. I consider this an important factor with regards this Prize; without it being a criticism of Divide Self in any way. Fowler’s film simply deals with other matters.
c). If this decision had been at any point too close to call (which I don’t think it was actually). The fact that only 4 winners up until Price, of the now 29 awarded, have been women. This makes her merely the 5th women to win The Turner Prize. By my own judgement this is a fairly woeful statistic. Taking that into account, if a ‘tie’ was to have occurred, then one feels a ‘little positive discrimination’ may have been justified in this instance. Not necessary though. For a variety of reasons her work was the finest from this group. This statistical fact is still worth noting though.
And Finally:
d). While on the subject of statistical proportions, not being Scottish, or more specifically having not studied in Glasgow might have helped her too. Those educational and cultural origins were starting to give the impression that they had some sort of a monopoly on this Prize. This is of course credit to GSA as an institution and generally the healthy state of education in the arts north of the boarder. The fact that they have produced more than their fair share of Turner Prize winners, is testament to Glasgow as an art school. Maybe there is something in the waters up there after all?
Taking all these facts and views into account, I feel this year’s Prize certainly went to the best candidate and in doing so one hopes it has started to redress a few ‘balances’.
Luke-Fowler-turner_2207833b Fig 2: A still from Luke Fowler’s film Divided Self; nominated alongside Price for this year’s prize
III) The Artist & ‘The Woolworth’s Choir of 1979’
The Bradford born artist Elizabeth Price’s work is a projected film presented as an installation. The work’s title is The Woolworth’s Choir of 1979 and it is a 20 minute projection. Its fast cuts and vivid imagery is a comment on ‘mainstream’ modern culture, consumerism, and the western world’s constant stream of advertising audio-visual language.
Price was nominated for the Prize from her solo show at the Baltic Centre in Gateshead. This was one of the films from a body of work which consisted of a triptych of video installations.
The film begins with a view of architectural diagrams of medieval churches. It ends with images of a fatal fire that began in a Woolworth’s furniture store in Manchester in the late 1970’s. The notion of the “choir” is an element that the film plays on and references through-out. It begins with the physical choir area of the church. After that the terms choral origins are picked up on by the harmonised voices which come from Pop videos. These lead into a unifying sound as they blend with the voices of people who witnessed or were in the fire of 1979. The speakers in the darkened gallery space emanate with the sounds of clicking fingers and hand claps; which is a constant during the film. These sounds relentless nature and synchronicity are used to emphasise the edits and accompanied visual imagery.
Towards the end of the film two men draw on a plan of the Woolworth’s building. This identifies the area where the fire originated. The familiar rectangular area of the church, where the choir normally resides, is full of flammable soft furnishings, as opposed to the associated wooden seating.
The rectangular seating formation from the church in the video, is mirrored by the installation space. Price has identically arranged the audience’s viewing environment. This binds the viewer to the imagery and creates a kind of capsule which emphasises the viewer’s involvement in the piece. She has described these features of this work, both how it has been presented and its audio-visual impact, as a kind of ‘Propagandistic aspect’. It appropriates a kind of visual rhetoric - the “rhetoric of propaganda” - designed at persuading the viewer. By encouraging the viewer to experience the video “sensually”, assisted by creating this totally immersive space, these manipulative elements of the work become far more subtle during the viewing experience. For me this apparent subtly, is the work’s overriding success.
Video Still 2 Fig 3: An archival still from The Woolworth’s Choir of 1979; one of the many poignant sections in the work
The sections and subjects in this film consist of the 60s girl group The Shangri-Las performing; medieval church architecture; and footage of a fire that took place at a central Manchester Woolworth’s store in 1979. The film also consists of the accounts from those who were involved or witnessed the fire. Price successfully uses various elements of sound, subject matter and visual symbolism in order to hold the piece together. The allied sounds and the notion of the ‘choir’, as a place where people congregate and sing, is referenced by the iconic 60s pop group aesthetic. A choreographed pop sequence is interestingly crafted together visually, with the arms from figures on medieval funeral monuments. All taken from archived footage; this is coupled with the vision of a waving arm disturbingly coming out of the burning shop’s barred window. These relentless loops of archival film are poignant and powerful.
To explain exactly why Price’s film works so well would be a far greater undertaking and would be a much more complex written piece. Such a task may well fail anyway. Therefore for the purpose of this article, I will simply say its success is the emotive, sensory stimulation that the work produces. For me this is what makes it so utterly complete and gripping. 
elizabeth_price_woolworths_choir_0_658_370_s Fig 4: Iconic imagery of ‘The Shangri-Las performing’, which is used so effectively in Price’s work
VI) Price’s Impact on The Turner Prize
I suppose if you had simply wanted to know about this piece you could have looked in any number of places. I suggest that, ‘as is the way nowadays’, these would probably be mostly online sources. However, there is nothing better than going to see the work first hand for oneself. A work of this nature, with its layers of meaning, connotations and implications must be interpreted individually I feel. I suspect, from what I have heard from Price that her intention was very much one of viewer empowerment. Ambiguity, inclusivity and openness are attributes very much associated with this work. For me when these characteristics are embraced and utilised successfully through art, it is usually a major plus. By actively embracing the possibility of such interpretations, it is unquestionable in my view, that she has achieved a greater impact through this approach.
Another aspect of Price as an artist which interests me, and this year’s contest in general, are the current problems in the arts and especially in education; which Price has been keen to highlight. She has used this ‘platform’ to have her voice heard on matters concerning Arts education and funding. This is a refreshing change. Most artists, especially during the Prize’s “golden” period (‘Cool Britannia’ and all that…), pretty much took the opportunity to massage their own egos; or their winning simply became an exercise in self-promotion. Price - a ‘real person’ in this regard - is thankfully still completely in touch with reality. Therefore, she has used this spotlight to explain some genuine concerns about her profession. Those which, like myself, she undoubtedly feels strongly about.
So Price used this opportunity to do something she felt worthwhile. The refreshing nature of this certainly shouldn’t be so. However, because of the prevalence of self-interest and ‘PR’ in this ‘art world’s’ recent history, it unfortunately is all too rare. In contrast, Price has used this isolated occasion to discuss the present crisis in education. With so much public funding now being cut; the arts have undoubtedly taken the most drastic hit. On past history, I certainly feared this was going to be the case where a Tory Government was concerned. The cuts have already affected the arts in an unprecedented way and we know there are more to come (which Price has specifically discussed since winning). She tells of her own gratitude at the funding she received and how she could not have produced her work adequately without these funds. Her career, she says, would have been impossible without the “generous opportunities I've had through education and public funding”. Price has warned of her grave concerns about the awful news of the return of the ‘Ebacc’; as proposed by the Conservative education minster Michael Gove. This was a feature of her ongoing discussion on the latest reforms in education. This ideological move is aimed at killing off the last hopes for inclusivity in education. I have been enthused by the way she speaks of her own comprehensive education: “anyone could be in the orchestra, or sports team, or arts club at my school. It was precisely the kind of inclusivity that now meets with a sort of scorn and derision as a prizes-for-all culture that generates only mediocrity. There’s something so insulting about the idea that including lots of people means mediocrity.” In agreement with this, I would state that inclusivity actually gives all people hope and a life they would not normally have had access to. Crucially as well, civilisation gains from discovering a diversity of talents, from every walk of life. I also believe strongly that having the chance to benefit from the arts is a civil right as a citizen of this country. This should be protected at all costs. A tragic return to elitism and streamlining those ‘chosen few’ for the top, are sentiments that Price has spoken of at length. The only conclusion which can be draw from these recent ideological policies is that they are intended at restricting the arts to only those who can afford them. She states that the arts “will become the subjects of the privileged, and history-writing and novel-writing and art-making and poetry-writing will become homogeneous.” Having just experienced 7 years of arts education myself, I can say I have already seen some worrying signs of this. The private ‘business’ model, which is current higher education seems totally incompatible with the very notions and histories of university and art college education. Consequently, I completely share in Price’s distress at further enforced economic changes and the subsequent restrictions they will bring.
Michael-Gove-010 Fig 5: Michael Gove the Tory Minister; sadly responsible for bringing back the ‘Ebacc’
Elizabeth clearly is a ‘switched on’ character. She is someone who lives in the same world as the rest of us. The fact that she is in her forties and has had a life outside ‘art’ is something which she has drawn on. I feel this has made her a far more interesting and engaging individual. She works for a living as a teacher a couple of days a week at The Ruskin. This obviously gives her a greater understanding of the present state of arts education and makes her prior comments on this subject even more valid. However it is important to state that she hasn’t been ‘institutionalised’ by the ‘art school world’ (which can happen, I have seen it). Her prior jobs include working part time for 6 year as an administrator for Hackney Council. So she probably understands the political metaphor, of what being on ‘the front line’ really means. More interestingly - where the press are concerned that is - she was in the indie band Talulah Gosh. Not a comfortable performer, by her own admission. Price definitely seems far too sensible to be a ‘rock star’ anyway – whatever that term means nowadays? Therefore one definitely gets the feeling that she is someone who can see The Turner Prize for what it is. I doubt she will be getting carried away by this attention and the rewards it undoubtedly brings. In fact, she has bucked the trend a little here already; by using this unique chance to speak about concerns relevant to the community she comes from. This I commend her for.
V) To Surmise…
I know that many people have commented that this year’s Turner Prize has been a real success. That in terms of the standard of work on show it has been a noteworthy competition. I apprehensively agree. My hesitant agreement here is down to the fact that I wouldn’t want to do any injustice to (some) prior years, and their winners; by suggesting they were not of the same quality. Although there might be something in this, I don’t believe on the whole that this would be fair to say. However, certainly with regards Price and Fowler’s nominations, we have seen work that is of contemporary intrigue and manages to reflect our times with a real sense of frankness. Where these two artists are concerned, the quality of their respected works is never in question either. I must admit though, that my interest in this year’s competition has been enhanced by the winner’s obvious need to talk about real issues that face the arts and education in general. Price’s honest and totally unpretentious demeanour is genuinely refreshing. It is sad that more artists have not used this platform to discuss such subjects. On the whole this hasn’t been the case. Price’s real social concerns have endeared her to me and with this in mind, has allowed her winning piece to be examined in an even more critical and pre-informed fashion. On these rare occasions, which The Turner Prize clearly is one of those. To know something of the artist as an individual has undoubtedly benefitted my interpretation of her work; especially when viewing it again, which it unquestionably merits. As a result, I surmise that this year’s winner has not only raised her own standing, but more importantly has helped the overall critical reputation of the competition. I just hope that The Turner Prize can maintain this new found relevance. Who knows, it may even become one of the great champions of change in this country? If it does, so far Elizabeth Price has played her own small part in that ‘change’.

Turner Portrait
Fig 6: In many respects The Turner Prize has benefitted from Price; as much as her from it

note: All my quotes within this article and direct references to comments made by Price, have come from her interview with Charlotte Higgins, for The Guardian, on Tuesday the 4th of December this year. Or from her interview, which coincided with her nomination for The Turner Prize, found on the Tate website. Click on either title to be directed to the source websites.


  1. Hi Pipe, it's a well argued piece and I agree with the sentiments. Price was a worthy winner imho as well. But while her response to the cuts may have been the most comprehensive, to be fair it was not the first.

    Susan Philipsz used her post prize interview to express support for the students who occupied Tate Britain on awards night in 2010. And then last year Martin Boyce got a cheer at BALTIC when he pointedly thanked his art teacher.

    Perhaps we are seeing a return to an art rooted in the real world or on the front line; I'd like to think so and if so, this movement has been underway for a little while...

    1. Hi Mark,

      Thanks for your kind words and thoroughly worthwhile comments.

      I do remember Boyce thanking his art teacher actually, this was a nice touch to. I realise that more recent winners of this Prize have been much better at acknowledging some of the problems we all face in the 'real world'. My dig, if you like, was aimed at the totally careerist types who have won this Prize in the past. I understand this is just my view, but I am not at all into that kind of blind self-interest, which some have shown latterly. I do stand corrected for not acknowledging the 2010/11 winners for their sentiments of solidarity though.

      I specifically focused on what Price had said (& since she won as well), because I believe we have come to a sort of crisis point in education, and she dealt directly with these issues.

      I truly hope that there is something in your last comment too. However with it costing more and more to study (The Independent ran a story yesterday, which stated that it will cost in the region of £100,000 to study for a degree) I worry that far less folk like Price and myself also, from more modest backgrounds will be able to undertake some sort of higher education. This is an extremely worrying thought in my view.

      I just hope, as has often been the case in the past, that artists will find a way past these real obstacles and enforced restrictions; as you have alluded to.

      I am really glad you got something from the piece though and this ongoing dialogue continues.

      Thanks again Mark,





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