Grayson Perry's ceramics were superb, and very easy to like. They're on themes of dark, oppressive sexuality, violence and childhood, often in small-town England. The curved canvas that the jars present is very interesting, and is well used; at any time half the picture is hidden, and there's an unfolding story as you walk around each piece. Many of the pieces dredge some of the more disturbing bits of psychology; children associated with violence, death and sex, fairly intense BDSM, aggressive sexuality in adults. One vase shows figures engaged in various sex and SM activities, on a backdrop of an aerial photograph of an large housing estate, with faded newsprint overlayed. Another shows girls in ornate, lacy, Edwardian-style children's dresses arrayed around a brutal inner-city area threatening violence, offering drugs and denying outside authority. It's obvious that these vases have taken all of vision, skill, time and effort to create; and as such feels more like “real” art against some of the more eosteric modern pieces. I'm not sure why the feeling exists that art doesn't count unless it took a lot of effort to create, the “it's just a pile of bricks” feeling, but I know I sometimes experience that myself (but incidently, not about the bricks).
Willie Doherty's piece is a video loop of a man running along an empty bridge at night; projecting the view of the front and the back of the man on opposing screens. The views cut between various shots of full-body, shoes, head and so on; the front and back views are not synchronised. The overall effect is rather anxiety inducing. I found the most dramatic view was standing between the two screens, not looking at either, and seeing both from peripheral vision. There, I could almost identify with the character, rather than choosing to see him run away or run at me. I think I'd need to be more immersed in Northern Irish society to appreciate the political meanings of the work; but if Doherty intended to show the tension and anxiety involved in that, he succeeded. It's a short work, it's dramatic, and very effective.
Anya Gallaccio's work is very interesting. It's very stark, hard and aesthetic. There's a wall of gerbera daisies sandwiched between panes of glass. There's a bronze cast of the trunk and branches of an apple tree, with apples roped through their cores and tied to the tree in unnaturally dense bunches. There's a bottle of eau de vie distilled from apples. The daisies are starting to decay already, the apples still look fine; by the end of the exhibition both will be a putrescent mess. The apples leaving the ropes on the tree with slime and mold dripping down the branches, the daisies held in place by the glass, with their decay dripping down between the panes. The eau de vie will stay in the same state for years, the bronze apple-tree potentially for millennia. As you visit, everything is caught in an instant; but it will have changed should you go again. The apples and daisies are real, but they're mass produced commercial varieties. The spirit was distilled especially for the artist.
…and there's the Chapmans' works. These do have something of a sensationalist feel to them, I think they're probably spoiled by the vague cynical feeling that they may have just been included to generate attention. I'd start with the alredy infamous blow-up dolls, but that isn't a good place to begin. Around the walls of the gallery there are their altered Goya prints. They took a set of 1937 prints of Goya's Disasters of War (from original plates), and very carefully painted over the heads with brightly coloured grotesque clowns, anthropomorphic puppies and rabbits. Partly they manage to give you second thoughts about their “defacement” of a valuable piece of art and history. Partly they do manage to add to it, and create something unique in the place of something rare. The faces they've drawn are very expressive and somehow, disturbingly, extend the dehumanization of the victims Goya portrayed.
So then there's a large diorama, taken from one of the most graphic Goya pictures, but pushed to a ludicrous, laughable extreme. Skeletons and parts of skeletons hang from a tree, everything is covered in vast numbers of maggots, and also worms, flies and snails; a raven perches atop the broken trunk. Everything is brightly and cleanly painted, all details picked out with meticulous care. Mostly, it reminded me of the sort of dioramas that people used to create for Games Workshop magazines. It's comic, it's not real, it's not the horrors that human can inflict on human, it's the imagination of a teenage boy trying to make the goriest scene he can. That piece is called Sex, and this is where the dolls finally come in (so to speak). Casts of two blow-up sex dolls, simulating oral sex (on a lilo just for the blow-up theme). So when you put that next to a work depicting death called Sex, obviously you're going to call the work with the dolls Death. Oh, and the press will come and photograph it. *yawn*
Who do I think should win? Not entirely sure, there are three very good artists there, and one pair of fairly good artists trying to make a fuss. I can say that I would rather the Chapmans didn't win. The prize is for all the work exhibited in the past 12 months, not just those on display. The brevity of Doherty's piece compared to the extent of work in the dozen or more vases from Perry makes it difficult to judge, as does only seeing a snapshot of Gallaccio's work rather than the evolving piece. Going by what's on display, the best exhibit to me is Perry's vases, but I'm going to dodge the question on who deserves the prize, pleading lack of data.
It's also reminded me that I really want to see the Bill Viola exhibition at the National Gallery, having been awed by his Five Angels for the Millennium. Would anybody else be interested in going?