Against Elizabeth Price

Contemporary and Old Art Reviews

Against Elizabeth Price

Postby CAP » Sat Feb 23, 2013 6:09 am

I was going to add this to the existing thread on Price, but it sort of grew into it's own post.

My problem is not so much that she won The Turner Prize in 2012 (although if pressed, I would have given it to the dogged Nobbsy) but that this gains little or nothing from colonizing gallery space in the name of video. There are videos that explicitly deal with placement and conditions for screens/viewing – essentially expand video into installation. But Price’s work is not among them. It’s pretty much your straight arty video that would work just as well on TV or at BAFTA. By all means give it a gong there for poetic movie essay or whatever, but comparing it to fine art only underlines its limitations. An interview with the artist on You Tube confirmed my suspicions. While it’s unfair to judge work purely by the artist’s interpretation, her introduction neatly nails what’s wrong with it. The You Tube discusses three works, User Group Disco, West Hinder and Choir but in all cases what is significant is the artist’s indifference to form in the interest of establishing impressive content.

Whether picking out underlying themes of place or context, architecture or product design, gesture or fashion, the artist displays a disturbing indifference to matters of angle, lighting, scale, duration, still or movie in contributing to the meaning of the work. In short, her priorities are not with the medium or formal issues, but more general iconographic ones. Price talks a good video, no doubt writes an even better grant application, but the walk is pretty perfunctory really, on closer inspection not particularly convincing. The videos most assuredly feature distinctive timing of shots, placements of images within the screen, camera angles, colour or tone, and framing, fixed or still – but it is not clear what part these play in discerning the desired themes, beyond convenient or tasteful design – certainly not from the artist’s discussion. Why, for instance, do the images of choir seating in churches conspicuously draw upon old photographs from publications (favour The Gothic), complete with modish flickering and white frame flash in transitions? Has the artist just mastered wiggle expressions in After Effects? Has she been watching just a few too many music videos? If the link is between church choirs and music videos, then the problem lies in the preciousness of such allusions. Why is there that typography or font for those captions, placed there, on that scale? This is an endless dilemma for designers as well as fine artists – but in Price’s work there is no sense of a problematic to captions as graphics, all is in the poetry. As usual, when the chips are down, British art gropes for literary inspiration, like a security blanket. And the results unfortunately read more like TV commercials. It’s poetry of a particularly flat-footed variety.

Attention to formal issues is taken for granted in fine arts proper, so that their neglect in a neighbouring branch is all the more prominent when viewed in comparison. The intended themes, in as much as they are apparent in the work, remain embedded in arbitrary choices that ultimately announce just this distance from the content. As an exercise in modish video editing it’s adequate, but it’s all the steps that come before that where it looks slack and shallow. For example, West Hinder supposedly deals in sunken cars from a cross channel ferry disaster, but for the most part what we have are some pretty clunky 3-D modelling and animation, in stark chiaroscuro that at no time summons submersion much less the dislodgement of cars from a ferry. The themes, as understood by the artist, are just not in the work. It's not fatal that a work fails to fulfil the artist's intentions, of course, but it is fatal where the work discloses only a trivial or banal meaning for the viewer or spectator. What themes actually emerge from West Hinder essentially point to overwrought manipulation, with the toy-like nature of the cars, the blurred images of speedometers and accessories. Again, the theme is really one of distance, thesis-building without sufficient leg work, real rigour.

As for Choir, the leaps here from the gestures of a woman trapped in a burning factory to dance steps by sixties pop groups and medieval sarcophagi hardly build a compelling underlying theme, for women, the times or mortality. What we have is not much more than free-associating on available archive footage. It is simply an editor’s conceit to gather them across archive formats, to some extent celebrate these (the extreme blurring to the pop groups) cut to a rhythm, divide the screen and presume a theme of unity or solidarity that just isn’t there. As far as poetic movie essays go, these don’t do it for me. If I look back at comparable efforts by Chris Marker or Jean-Luc Godard I can see a heritage for such work, but I also see much more stringent deployment of formal resources, a greater attention to the nuts and bolts of movie making. But then, their movies don’t need the prop of fine art to find an audience, either.
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