Arguably the most prestigious award in the contemporary art world, the British Turner Prize ceremony is broadcast live in its native land, while the winner is guaranteed to grace the front page of national newspapers. Art celebs! And not always without a stir: The winner in 1995, Damien Hirst’s “Mother and Child, Divided,” caused great controversy even in the context of an award that’s so often a magnet for controversy. Now this mlegendary work has finally made it to Japan for the History in the Making: A Retrospective of the Turner Prize exhibition at Mori Art Museum in Roppongi that opened April 25th. However, with the BSE issue, British media made a big deal out of moving Hurst’s holy cows to Japan. PingMag met assistant curator Kenichi Kondo and public relations officer Moichi Watanabe of the Mori Art Museum to check out the behind-the-scenes story…
Written by Chiemi
Translated by Natsumi Yamane
First of all, please explain briefly about the Turner Prize?
Moichi: The Turner Prize is an annual contemporary art prize, awarded since 1984 by the Tate Britain. It is presented to a British artist or an artist based in the U.K. under fifty years old, and it’s characterised by the fact that it represents all media. It was cancelled once, in 1990, but came to be recognised internationally since it entered a partnership with a television station, Channel 4, the following year. Also, in Britain, the prize is widely known to the general public partly because the winner is announced after the works of all four nominees have been exhibited and also because the ceremony is hosted by celebrities including, in the past, Madonna and Dennis Hopper.
Damien Hirst’s “Mother and Child, Divided” is probably the best known winner of the prize but I heard that the work currently on display in Japan is not the original one. Why?
Moichi: This is the second piece but it’s still original. They couldn’t make arrangements for the first piece when Tate Britain organised this retrospective last year, so another one was made for them.
What about the rumour that the cow is starting to rot?
Moichi: With this work, each case weighs approximately seven tons so the contents are taken out each time it’s transported and also it’s been a while since it was made. Therefore there might be a slight deterioration but that has nothing to do with the makings of this second piece.
You actually take out the content for transportation?!
Moichi: Yes. In this case, formaldehyde solution inside the case was removed first and the cow was put into an airtight container. Then the display case and the contents were transported separately by air. We made arrangements for formaldehyde solution in Japan and the case was refilled over here.
That sounds like a lot of hassle. Incidentally, it was just in the news again that banned spine parts were found in beef imported from the U.S. Did you have any trouble at customs explaining that this cow was “a work of contemporary art”?
Moichi: We didn’t have any problems like the rumours in the media. It’s assumed that we are NOT going to eat the cow!
Oh, no way (laughs).
Moichi: Moreover, we handle these procedures for air transporting works of art for exhibitions several times a year. So we had informed the customs at Narita in advance that such a work would be arriving.
Chris Ofili became the first black winner of the Turner Prize for his work which controversially used elephant dung. Chris Ofili “No Woman, No Cry” 1998, 243.8 x 182.8 x 5.1cm, Acrylic, oil and polyester resin, paper collage, map pins and elephant dung on canvas, Tate
German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans takes pictures of daily life. The winner of 2000′s Turner Prize, Wolfgang Tilmans “I don’t want to get over you” 2000, Inkjet print (Courtesy: The artist and Maureen Paley, London)
The Mori Art Museum is housed in a rather unique location on the 53rd floor of a multi-story building — did the transportation into the gallery go smoothly as well?
Moichi: We have a huge lift for art objects in the gallery, so there weren’t any problems there. But for the formaldehyde solution refilling process we had to work in a highly air-tight space by making a tent-like structure in the exhibit room and installing special ventilation equipment. That was quite a job.
Is it true that specialists came to Japan just for the installation of this work?
Moichi: Four people from the Tate and Momart (a company handling fine arts and antiquities, including Damien Hirst’s works) flew to Japan from the U.K. and a total of 15 people spent three evenings working on it. Just to be safe, we consulted the fire authorities and the staff all wore protective gear.
Kenichi: The engineers from Britain were all thorough professionals and their attention to detail was really impressive. For example, they wouldn’t tolerate even a tiny bit of dirt at the bottom of the case and they were desperately removing the dirt with thin, nozzle-shaped equipment.
Was there any problem with the weight of the work?
Kenichi: The floor of the museum has a load capacity and as the work weighs seven tons per case and it had to be supported by the beam part of the floor. So we searched for the spot with enough load bearings from an architectonic point of view and displayed the work there.
Why was it so important to display this work as part of the retrospective here?
Kenichi: This exhibition charts the past quarter-century of British art, covering major movements such as the New British Sculpture in the ’80s and the Young British Artists (YBAs) in the ’90s. Damien Hirst is the leading artist of this YBA and this work was simply essential to this exhibition as an icon of British art in the ’90s.
And what’s your opinion of the work?
Kenichi: The cow is dead in a biological sense but it will persist forever as a work of art. Such a paradox of life and death is, in my view, the attraction of this work. Also, humans carry out anatomies and experiments in the name of medical science to sustain us. I think this work makes us aware of that in an extremely powerful manner.
Finally, do you have any message for people visiting this exhibition?
Kenichi: I presume there are many people who have a gruesome image of this work but it is actually a truly beautiful work that gives us the impression that the mother cow and the calf are still alive. We would like everyone to experience its impact and then think about what it is trying to tell us — and then find your own answers to that.
Kenichi Kondo and Moichi Watanabe of Mori Art Museum, thank you very much!
“History in the Making: A Retrospective of the Turner Prize”
INFORMATION: History in the Making: A Retrospective of the Turner Prize will run till Sunday 17th of July, 2008. Don’t miss!
Venue: Mori Art Museum
Address: 53rd Floor, Roppongi Hills Mori Tower, 6-10-1 Roppongi, Minato-ku, Tokyo
Admission: Adults 1500yen, Students 1000yen