In the interest of international amity, it might be best if Rudolph Giuliani were to stay away from London's Tate Gallery for the next few months.
The proudly avant-garde Tate has just opened a new exhibit featuring further work by the "Britpack"--the community of young British artists whose recent show at the Brooklyn Museum of Art sparked a noisy confrontation between the New York City mayor and the arts community. The Tate's current show is weirder, and arguably more offensive, than "Sensation," the collection that prompted Giuliani's attack.
One of the artists in the Tate exhibit, Steven Pippin, has contributed a blurry series of photos taken from inside washing machines. Another, Tracey Emin, has put together a display that features her bloodstained underwear and a home movie about her abortion. In the film, Emin complains about a doctor who urged her to keep the baby. "He must be a Christian or something," she groans.
The new Tate exhibit features work from Pippin, Emin and two other finalists for the 1999 Turner Prize, probably the most prestigious award anywhere for young artists. As this year's nominees indicate, the Turner judges in recent years have turned sharply away from traditional painting and sculpture to choose works that can be called either "imaginative" (that's the judges' term) or "shock commercialization" (as Giuliani sees it).
Last year the Turner winner was Chris Ofili, a London painter who decorates much of his work with elephant dung. Ofili's dunged portrait of the Virgin Mary has been the most controversial single piece in the "Sensation" exhibit. Another recent Turner laureate, Damien Hirst, also had a piece in "Sensation" that Giuliani disliked: a dead cow floating in formaldehyde.
The four artists who have been "short-listed"--that is, named as finalists--for this year's Turner all come from the same "Britpack" set as Hirst and Ofili. But this year's short list has sparked much greater controversy here than Ofili's dung art did a year ago.
That's mainly due to the centerpiece of the Turner Prize show, Emin's "My Bed." This work of art is an unmade bed, encircled by clutter: pillows, pantyhose, pregnancy tests, condoms, vodka bottles, bloody toilet paper, stained panties, overflowing ashtrays, etc. On the surrounding wall, the 35-year-old Emin has framed news clippings about herself and taped up some of her drawings, including a sketch of the Statue of Liberty with bare breasts.
Emin's entry also includes a set of hazy amateur videos in which she relates the details of her abortion and other aspects of her life as the notorious "bad girl" of the London art scene.
Tate Gallery curator Simon Wilson describes "My Bed" as "an object with powerful metaphorical resonance." The London critics have been less impressed. "Tracey, you just go on and on," wrote Adrian Searle in the Guardian. "You're only a bore. Your art has become so closed and predictable . . . so mawkish, so cloying."
If, as many critics suggest, Emin's bed is mainly designed to be shocking, the artist herself got a shock last weekend when two other self-styled "contemporary artists" leaped onto the exhibit and held a pillow fight. Onlookers seemed to enjoy this emendation of Emin's work, and booed when the pair was hauled away by security guards. Emin spent five hours restoring "My Bed" to its original disheveled state.
The art world here seems more taken with the entry by Steve McQueen, a 29-year-old British filmmaker now living in Amsterdam. His Turner submission centers on short silent films. One shows a reel-to-reel tape recorder spinning. Another shows McQueen himself standing perfectly still while the wall of a barn falls. A third shows a stream that appears to have a bicycle in it.
There's more action--well, slightly more action--in the films of Jane and Louise Wilson, 32-year-old twins from Newcastle. Their Turner entry comprises films and large photographs of empty spaces in and around Las Vegas--the casino at Caesars Palace in the predawn hours and some corridors inside Boulder Dam.
And then there's Steven Pippin, at 39 the old man on this year's short list. He put cameras inside 12 washing machines at a New Jersey laundromat. He passed in front of the machines, first wearing a pair of white underpants and then riding a horse. The resulting photos, titled "Laundromat-Locomotion," are his entry in the Turner competition. He is generally considered the least likely to win this year.
The Turner Prize will be awarded to one of the four entries on Nov. 30. The prize itself pays $32,000, but its value is far greater. Winning the famous prize makes any artist a marketable commodity in the intensely fashion-conscious art world. Just by getting short-listed, Tracey Emin has been able to double the prices for her work, according to gallery owners here, and their value will go even higher if she wins.
For all the arguments Emin and her fellow short-listers have generated, there's one segment of London that has remained completely silent: the politicians.
Although British pols are just as eager as their American counterparts to grab the popular sound bite, nobody in an official position has gone after the soiled panties, the abortion film or any other aspect of the Turner show. The Tate Gallery, like every museum here, draws large sums of government money (primarily from the national lottery). But nary a soul has argued that art, which clearly offends much of the public, should not be funded with public money.
Perhaps this is because public support has always been the foundation of European art, and still is today. Or perhaps it's just that politicians here recognize that today's shocking work of art can become tomorrow's mainstream.
The Tate is making that point in a vivid way during its Turner Prize show this fall. Just down the corridor from Emin's much-criticized "My Bed," the curators have hung one of the gallery's modern treasures, Andy Warhol's "Marilyn Diptych."
When Warhol produced it in 1962, this acrylic print of 53 identical head shots of Marilyn Monroe was itself considered shocking. It was attacked as "junk" and ridiculed as "non-art." Today--particularly compared to an unmade bed or a photo from a washing machine--it looks familiar, friendly and perfectly at home on the walls of one of the world's great museums.
The 1999 Turner Prize entries can be viewed on the World Wide Web at www.newsunlimited.co.uk/turner.