The Turner Prize

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State Britain, Mark Wallinger, 2006 — Photo © Tate 2006

The people at Tate Britain who bestow the Turner Prize, the U.K.’s annual art award, have given it this week to the artist who produced one of the most highly publicized installation works of the year. From January through August Mark Wallinger filled the Tate’s Duveen Gallery with State Britain, a recreation of the anti-war protest encampment of Brian Haw, who for five years filled Parliament Square in London with banners, placards and messages opposing Britain’s involvement in the Iraq War.

Wallinger’s replica of Haw’s protest uses an old installation art strategy, the re-contextualization of some meticulously recreated reality. (I first saw it done 20 years ago in the form of a perfectly reproduced futon shop in a Soho gallery.) This passage from the Tate wesbite explains the importance of recreating the protest this year.

On 23 May 2006, following the passing by Parliament of the ‘Serious Organised Crime and Police Act’ prohibiting unauthorised demonstrations within a one kilometre radius of Parliament Square, the majority of Haw’s protest was removed. Taken literally, the edge of this exclusion zone bisects Tate Britain. Wallinger has marked a line on the floor of the galleries throughout the building, positioning State Britain half inside and half outside the border.

You might say that Wallinger “aestheticized” one half of Haw’s protest by locating it within the gallery but outside the exclusion zone for protests. But the portion that sat within the zone in which protests are now banned remained, in effect, an active protest. On one side, the simulacrum, on the other side, the ongoing reality itself, all thanks to one imaginary line drawn by the law.

I can’t remember the Turner Prize ever going to such entirely political work. (Though the pottery of Grayson Perry, who won in 2003, usually has a social message tucked away somewhere.) What Wallinger does could not be more unlike the work produced by last year’s Turner winner, Tomma Abts, who makes small, painstakingly conceived and executed abstractions with not a trace of reference to the world outside the picture.

This is probably a good time to point out that no less an institution than the New York Public Library has been doing its part to keep alive the tradition of protest art in the U.S. I think I’ll head over and take a look at this show this week.