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The New Review: Agenda: THE LIST: The 10 best Turner prize moments: With 2014's shortlist revealed, we review a chequered history

May 11, 2014

Laura Cumming

The absent artist 1984

The inaugural Turner prize - for "the greatest contribution to British art in the previous year" - goes to the painter Malcolm Morley (work above), who has been living in America for 20 years (and doesn't turn up) to the outrage of critics, commentators and the arts minister, Lord Gowrie. Handing out the pounds 10,000 cheque, stumped up by an anonymous donor, Gowrie baldly states his preference for the land art of Richard Long, who will be shortlisted three times before finally winning. The first two winners are Morley and Howard Hodgkin, and there won't be another painter for 13 years.

Lucian Freud loses 1988

The sculptor Tony Cragg (above) wins out in the stiffest competition ever against Richard Hamilton, Richard Wilson, Richard Long and Lucian Freud, not that the public knows this as the publication of the shortlist is abolished, only to be restored two years later after media protest. Only Cragg's work is shown at the Tate, so the original aim of the prize - to encourage more people to look at more art - is thwarted. Nicholas Serota becomes Tate director and restricts the prize to artists only (as opposed to curators: Serota himself had been nominated), but still the rules are chaotic. This will never change.

The gap year 1990

Drexel Burnham Lambert, the investment bank now subsidising the award, goes bust in the junk bond scandal. There is no sponsorship; there is no prize. It has been looking more like a lifetime achievement award of late, in any case, but all this changes when Channel 4 offers to sponsor and televise the prize from 1991. The public is invited to submit nominations, the emphasis is on new stars and the over-50s are longer eligible. This is the Turner prize as we now know it - evergreen controversy, the media puffed up like angry bullfrogs over conceptual art, punning headlines and ratcheting William Hill odds.

Best and worst 1993

Rachel Whiteread wins both the Turner prize and the anti-Turner prize for the ephemeral and haunting House (above), her plaster cast (which stands on the same spot) of the interior of the last remaining house in an East End terrace before its demolition. The local council will shortly destroy the sculpture too. The K Foundation's pounds 40,000 anti-Turner award for "the worst artist in Britain" has an identical shortlist; Whiteread accepts and gives the money to charity. Despite the outrage provoked by his prize-winning pickled cows in 1995, Damien Hirst does not receive a K Foundation award.

Women only 1997

Gillian Wearing, the winner, shows 60 Minutes of Silence (above), in which a group of police officers (or actors, as it later turns out) stand still for an hour in a mesmerising endurance test that splits the critics. Tracey Emin is drunk on the live C4 discussion programme, ripping off her microphone and storming out; she later claims to have no memory of the event (and in a collective mis-memory, is widely thought to have won the 1999 prize herself for the notorious unmade bed). This is the first and last time the prize has an all-female shortlist (Wearing, Christine Borland, Angela Bulloch and Cornelia Parker).

Year of the elephant 1998

Chris Ofili (above) wins, providing this year's tabloid talking point for the elephant dung balls attached to and propping up his paintings, including one of a black mother of Christ, The Holy Virgin Mary, which will later enter the Tate's collection. Dung is deposited on the museum steps in protest. The annual hoopla, and the surrounding furore, have now become such a social fixture that celebrities are becoming involved. Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys is the first of the celebrity judges; fashion designer AgnEs B awards the prize. This is the boom time, when Ofili can win over such gifted artists as Tacita Dean.

The on-and-off year 2002

Catnip for the headline writers, Martin Creed's Work No. 227: The lights going on and off is possibly the most ridiculed of all prize-winning works. No matter that the Tate has by now installed a gallery full of pamphlets and filmed interviews with the artists as context for visitors and Creed's characteristically wry and philosophical remarks might have deflated the most indignant opponent. Eggs are thrown at the walls. The choice of Madonna (above) to present the prize is scorned as shameless marketing, especially when she swears on air before the watershed. Channel 4 gets an official warning from the Independent Television Commission.

The system exposed 2006

Lynn Barber's year, as it is known, when the Observer writer breaks with the jury's traditional vow of silence to reveal what everyone has long suspected: that the judges are frequently working from catalogues and slides. And that some of them have never set eyes on the work of the shortlisted artists until it arrives in the gallery. Tomma Abts wins the pounds 25,000 prize for her delicate and epigrammatic abstracts (above). Not that the public can see what the jury might (or might not) have admired, for the shortlisted art is never the same as the work displayed in the Tate exhibition accompanying the prize - yet another Turner prize anomaly.

Nadir year 2008

The dullest year yet, comparable only to 2002 when the almost classically boring wooden shack - Shedboatshed, by Simon Starling (above) - won the prize. The shortlist is now properly international, like the British art scene itself, with artists from Bangladesh and eastern Europe. But the works include an installation of dirty dishes, a lecture on cinema and some dripdry photomontage that could scarcely hold anyone's attention and which rely heavily for what little meaning they have on the films in the context room. The Turner prize is not quite dead - Mark Wallinger was the much-admired winner the previous year - but is certainly dormant.

The Turner revives 2013

The prize relocates to Derry, attracting record visitor numbers. This year one of the prize's serious flaws has at last been resolved: the shows for which the artists were shortlisted are mainly in Britain, so that judges and public had a fair chance of seeing them. Two very popular artists are shortlisted - David Shrigley and Tino Seghal - their work enthusiastically conscious of its viewers. Laure Prouvost (above) wins. In a perfect reversal, some commentators actually miss the rude, crude, eye-poking, brain-jabbing YBA 90s. And the Turner prize never quite stands still: 2014 features the youngest and leastknown shortlist in the award's history.

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Source: Observer (UK)

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