art... Relational aesthetics alive and well in the Turner Prize!

Phil Collins
2006 Turner Prize, Tate Britain

For those that may not know, the Turner Prize is a very prestigious and important award given annually to a particularly promising contemporary artist in Britain. Past winners include Gilbert & George, Antony Gormley, Damien Hirst, Douglas Gordon, Chris Ofili, Martin Creed, etc. The prize offers a hefty cash award and instant notoriety. This year’s winner was Tomma Abts, a German painter now living and working in London (see more about the prize). Despite the committee’s selection, I felt that the work of Phil Collins actually represents the most interesting and engaging potential out of the four candidates short-listed for the award. Admitting my bias, I happily announce that relational aesthetics is alive and well!

Collins’ chosen medium is video, and he has showcased his work internationally, including key exhibits in New York, London, Chicago, Istanbul, etc. The Tate’s press release describes his art practice in this way:

"Phil Collins’s art investigates our ambivalent relationship with the camera as both an instrument of attraction and manipulation, of revelation and shame. He often operates within forms of low-budget television and reportage-style documentary to address the discrepancy between reality and its representations. In his projects, Collins creates unpredictable situations and his irreverent and intimate engagement with his subjects – a process he describes as ‘a cycle of no redemption’ – is as important for his practice as the final presentation in the gallery."

In his recent work, these aims have manifested a driving interest in reality television: talk shows, makeover shows, and reality TV in general. The showcase of his work in the Turner Prize exhibition includes two projects embodying this unique exploration of reality TV. For obvious reasons, visitors to the gallery on the day I was there naturally found Collins’ work the most engaging and were unable to gloss over his work as they had with the others.

Visitors discovered first his 8 hours of documentary footage entitled the return of the real / gercegin geri donusu 2005, originally compiled for last year’s Istanbul Biennial. The footage records eight interviews with various past guests from reality televisions shows in Turkey. The interviewer, a reality TV host himself, dialogues with each person about how they felt about their television appearance and how things in their lives might be different as a result of the appearance. The volunteers were allowed to re-live the experience, once again in front of the camera, for all that opportunity might offer: release, closure or something worse. The grim details had all the agonizing effect of viewing a traffic accident.

In addition to this documentary footage, Collins constructed a fully functioning office space in which to house the work toward his next documentary initiative in Britain. Organised under the name Shady Lane Productions, Collins’ aim is to document the same sort of effects of reality TV in Britain this time. Until the research for this new work is complete, visitors to the Turner Prize exhibition can gain a view of the day in and day out activities of a contemporary artist and his team through the office windows of Shady Lane Productions. In this way, Collins has attempted to broaden the scope of what constitutes appropriate portions of the work to be displayed in the gallery. Homework can be art too!

More fascinating than building an office in an art gallery, however, is the driving impetus behind Collins’ body of work. Enthralled by the complex duality of thrill and horror wrapped up in the public confessions that reality TV thrives upon, he has set to examining the way in which the camera not only documents these highly personal stories but also influences, even changes, them. By his own confession, Collins himself maintains a wicked fascination for the sort of exuberant freedom that seems on offer through reality TV’s strange combination of media spectacle and public confession. Stay tuned to learn what surprising insights this artist’s exploration of human vulnerability might yield.

See and hear interviews with Phil Collins here.