John Higgins joins the 'reactors' at an open discussion on the 2013 Turner Prize nominees

'I was asked, “Why should I travel over the Glenshane Pass to see the Turner Prize?”' says incredulous curator Eilis Lavelle after today’s meeting in a cavernous lecture theatre in the Ulster Museum.

She has been participating in public talks on the history of the Turner Prize and this year’s nominees on an hourly basis in an attempt to answer that question – and to drum up some interest in the 2013 Turner Prize for Contemporary Art, which is taking place Derry~Londonderry, the inaugural UK City of Culture.

It’s a big deal for Derry~Londonderry and for the Tate, the London-based gallery that organises the Turner Prize. 2013 is the first time that the award has been presented outside of England.

The prize is both prestigious and serially controversial, and this year is precipitated by the REACT campaign, a week-long series of open discussions taking place across Northern Ireland and promoted by posters and vans emblazoned with grinning or gurning monochrome faces photographed by portrait artist Seamus Ryan alongside the legend 'How will you REACT?'

Perhaps you thought it was a Specsavers advert. It’s actually a campaign I find difficult to like, reducing, as it does, the world of art to the level of Marmite. We are asked to appraise the works of the 2013 nominees – do we love them or hate them?

Such an approach seems to suggest that the value of art can be summed up by an immediate visceral reaction, as though a gut-based, instantaneous response – some sort of fight or flight principle – should be engaged at the sight of Tracey Emin’s bed.

Two of the pieces in this year's Turner Prize, which will be on display in Ebrington from October 23 until January 5, are installations, immersive environments that actively require participation and are informed as much by the viewer as the artist. The speed-dating ethos of the REACT campaign seems anathema.

Perhaps I’m being unfair. The campaign is clearly a cheeky attempt to toy with the Turner Prize’s own mythos. The Turner is, after all, the controversialist’s prize, and throughout the worst excesses of the Young British Artist’s tabloid-baiting in the mid-1990s, it arguably became about little more than noise and glamour and throwing up outside Soho private members clubs.

There is little of that in this year’s rather more sedate selection of four artists, and there is little here to provoke the Daily Mail into virulent opposition. Of the four nominees this year, only one could be termed 'difficult', and then only if the notion of art being conceptual is difficult.

That artist is Tino Sehgal, who works in what he calls 'constructed situations', choreographies that are regularly staged in museums and galleries by participants known as 'interpreters' acting on the instruction of the artist. He disallows the recording of these situations: the work is documented only by the participant/viewer’s memory.

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye


Laure Provost’s installations and films have been called charming and quirky and other polite euphemisms for twee, but in fact her work is witty and inclusive and fun, often addressing the viewer directly with instructions or requests. Her work is comprised of film, painting, dioramas and a droll take on eruptions in language. Her piece 'Swallow' also features a fish climbing out of the water to steal a raspberry, which I like.

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye is a figurative painter, an actual oil on canvas merchant, but there is a catch – her subjects are fictions (see above), despite the often mundane poses the figures adopt, often slouching about or staring down the viewer. They are works of pure imagination, generally based on aspects of colour or composition as much as sketchbooks.

Yiadom-Boakye works at a formidable speed, completing each painting in a day, but she edits ruthlessly: if a painting isn’t working she discards it and moves on. Yiadom-Boakye is the first black woman to be nominated for the Turner Prize – the ultimate 'winner' will be announced on December 2 – and most of her subjects are black. This sense of cultural identity is both central to her work and pragmatically obvious. As she says, black is her normal.

The final nominee is David Shrigley, the art world’s own Purple Ronnie, who’s elliptical and mordant cartoons are familiar to Guardian readers from his work in Weekend magazine. But there is more to Shrigley than that.

He also uses sculpture and taxidermy in his work, and his show in Derry~Londonderry will also utilise audience participation. While possibly over-looked because of the perceived humorousness of his work, Shrigley is also immediate and exact, exercising a rigorous studio practice.

I learn very little about the artists or their work at this Ulster Museum session – nothing more than I already knew. And by the end of the morning I’ve been bundled into the back of a van and had my photo taken. Now I have joined the ranks of Ryan's black and white 'reactors' sneering, as requested, at Damien Hirst and giving it two thumbs up for Chris Ofili.

There’s no need to be as partisan about this year's nominees for the Turner Prize, as there is nothing here to offend or worry. Is that a worry in itself? Probably more for the marketers than the general public; it certainly isn’t for me. I shall be struggling over the Glenshane Pass come the end of the month regardless.

The Turner Prize runs in Ebrington, Derry~Londonderry from Octber 23 to January 5. Visit the official website for more information.

John Higgins