Before I was asked to go out and cover it, I’d never heard of the Vincent Award for contemporary art. It’s a big deal in the Dutch art world, apparently, a sort of pan-European answer to the Turner Prize. It was set up by a charitable foundation with some deeply serious intent or other, and takes place around Holland every other year. The deal is that 50,000€ is awarded to – and I’m more or less directly quoting the literature here – a stimulating mid-career artist building a discussion platform. It is also, we are told, ‘Europe’s most prestigious art prize’. Are your bullshit detectors sounding off yet?
Sure enough, mine were. ‘Prestigious’ is one of those adjectival free-for alls, isn’t it? And ‘Europe’s most prestigious’ might be the single most abused compound superlative in the English language.
Two weeks ago, the ceremony was hosted at the Gemeentemuseum, an enormous Art Deco ziggurat in The Hague. I was flown out there to have a nose around the exhibition and listen to the speeches. ‘There’s a lot of nonsense here,’ a Dutch guy who’d helped organise the exhibition told me when we pitched up for the dinner, ‘but hey – this is contemporary art.’ He was, of course, spot on. But you know what? As these things go – and you only need look at this year’s Turner Prize line-up to see how wrong that can be – it was pretty good, actually.
Of the five artists selected, two (Germany’s Manfred Pernice and Holland’s Willem de Rooij) exhibited some dreadful old crap – EuroArt at its most gnomic and embarrassing. One (France’s Pierre Huyghe) put forward no new work whatsoever, and the other two (Albanian artist Anri Sala and our very own Gillian Wearing) were great.
For my money, Wearing should have won. She’s an artist who is genuinely interested in people – not critical theory, not her own navel, but people. People are interesting, a fact that most contemporary artists seem to be unaware of. Her 2010 film Bully in particular is superb; at first sight, it’s a sort of am-dram re-enactment of a teenager getting beaten up on an estate by a bunch of thugs. The action takes place in a gym – no props, no costumes, no attempt to make us suspend our disbelief. Somehow, this makes the violence that bit more shocking when it kicks off. It’s somehow even more traumatising either way when you find out the whole thing was staged by method actors.
Sala, who won, put together a very silly but charming installation. Two films – one of an abandoned Modernist visitor centre in France, the other of a failed housing project in Mexico City – were projected onto opposite sides of a screen. In both, street organs churn out a stilted version of the Clash’s song 'Should I Stay or Should I Go'. I initially asked myself the same question, and decided to stay. I like the fact that Sala’s work messes around with the way you look at it. Because you can’t watch both films at once, you’re never sure which side you should be looking at – your movements around the room define what the work is. At the very least, it frees you from the normal tedium of concentrating on an art film.
Sala says the work is about the ‘failure of ideological structures’. You want to groan, then you remember where he comes from – if anyone is qualified to talk about this stuff, it’s an Albanian. Enver Hoxha, the country’s peerlessly paranoid dictator from 1944 to 1985, built a catastrophically expensive network of pillboxes positioned almost at random in cities, in fields and on mountains. This may have been history’s most pointless construction project – around 700,000 bunkers were built across Albania at a time when it had a population of less than 4 million.
But that’s enough about the art. There’s a cheerful amateurism to it that appeals enormously by contrast to the nauseating self-importance of the Turner Prize. There isn’t the same desperation to be seen as ahead of the curve with the selection, to stir up the same tedious controversy year in, year out. Penelope Curtis and chums should take note.
Nobody – the Gemeentemuseum’s director included – is even sure what the qualifications for the Vincent Awards are. What makes an artist eligible for the prize? Is it an award for a particular work of art or a sort of lifetime achievement gong? ‘Errrrm,’ he says when asked. But there follows no condescending response. He just giggles a bit. Believe me – you wouldn’t get that from Nick Serota.
‘Prestigious’ or not, this year’s Vincent Award actually recognised and rewarded talent. Which, if you’ll allow me to state the bleeding obvious, is what an art prize is supposed to do.