Elizabeth Price, The Woolworths Choir of 1979 (still), 2012
With the end of the year rapidly approaching and with the start of the academic year having provide rather too hectic for me to manage regular blogging as well, now seems like a good time to close some of the gaps by looking back at some of the art I’ve seen but not written about this in 2012. And where better to start than with the Turner Prize – which in fact I have already written about but for MostlyFilm rather than here – and with the work I correctly predicted would win. Of the work in the Turner Prize exhibition, other than Paul Noble’s Nobson drawings which I’ve seen from time to time over the years that he’s been making them, it was Elizabeth Price’s The Woolworths Choir of 1979 and that I was most familiar with having seen it quite by accident at MOT International earlier in the year. That encounter was an intriguing one; I’d headed to Bond Street to see, I think, Nancy Holt or maybe Jamie Shovlin at Haunch of Venison and had a enough time to spare to pop in to MOT without having checked what was on there.
The work starts slowly and, in a way, bafflingly with what feels a bit like an annoyingly slick PowerPoint presentation about church architecture and the nature of the area set aside for the choir. It’s informative and interesting but unexpected – video are doesn’t usually look or feel like this – and quite apart from what’s happening on screen there’s the incongruity of the soundtrack which features repeated loud handclaps or finger-clicks in a rhythm that both marks changes of slide and yet seems out of kilter with the on-screen infomercial history lesson. Somehow the combination lulls me into a strange kind of reverie. It couldn’t last of course.
The work shifts from informative presentation to uplifting retro-pop with the arrival of the choir; in this case taking the form of low quality video images of a 1960s’ girl group. Here the look and feel of the piece are in sync: the images are bright and colourful, the mood as up-beat as the music. Okay, first the choir as architectural space, now the choir as singers, albeit pop singers, this much I get. But nonetheless there’s a disjuncture here that somehow works. Perhaps it’s that I want to know what’s going to happen next, I’m not sure, but this is a work that holds my attention completely. As it turns out, the musical interlude is a brief respite, raising spirits only to smash them down again…
The final section of the work suddenly brings the title The Woolworths Choir of 1979 into focus. We’ve covered the choir part already of course, so now it’s the Woolworths and 1979 parts of the equation with Price bringing together bits of footage of news reports about the fire in a Manchester branch of Woolworths that killed ten people in 1979. The clapping of the opening section here gives way to hand gestures of eye-witnesses struggling to explain the awful speed with which events unfolded. Bringing us back to the informative elements of the start, the space and the event that defined it is explained through reconstruction and digital mapping but it’s the news footage and the way the elements are interwoven that gives the work it’s power. There is a certain visual chaos, but it’s an effective one.
The work is completely immersive; I’ve watched it several times now without ever being tempted to cut my viewing short. In a way, the finger-clicking right at the start sets the scene for the whole thing: it’s all about pace. As the presentation on church architecture gives way to up tempo music the mood of the audience shifts but Price raises us up only to smash us back down again when the work shifts to it’s real subject: the Woolworths fire. It’s this mood-swing rollercoaster ride that makes the work so extraordinary and it’s the feeling of the work that has stayed with me since I first saw it all those months ago.
The Turner Prize 2012 is at Tate Britain until 6 January 2013