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Frieze Writer's Prize 2010

Erica Cooke wins the 2010 writer's prize

We are delighted to announce Erica Cooke as the winner of this year’s Frieze Writer’s Prize. Cooke has been commissioned to write her first review for frieze magazine, to be published in the January/February issue. She will receive a prize of £2,000.

The judges for 2010 were writer and novelist A.M. Homes, philosopher and critic Boris Groys and frieze co-editor Jörg Heiser. The judges were in unanimous agreement
about the quality of Erica Cooke’s clear and well-argued position on what constitutes so-called outsider art in her review of the ‘Museum of Everything’ in Turin.
 
frieze received more than 300 entries from around the world. Chad Dawkins is the runner-up, with his review of a show about Psychedelic Art in San Antonio, Texas, notable for its thoughtful and imaginative response to a theme conjoining art and popular culture.
 
Also highly commended are: Daniel Horn (who reviewed the Berlin Biennial 6), Candice Amich (‘Phantom Sightings: Art after the Chicano Movement’, El Museo del Barrio, New York), Benjamin Young (Allan Sekula, e-flux, New York), Paul Kneale (Felix Gonzalez-Torres, WIELS, Brussels), Riccardo Giacconi (Tino Sehgal, Guggenheim New York), Ian Chang (Tim Hawkinson, Blum & Poe, Los Angeles).
 
Frieze Writer’s Prize was established in 2006 and is presented annually. Its aim is to promote and encourage new critics from around the world. Outlining its importance
Jörg Heiser stated: ‘There are many prizes for artists and curators – almost none for critics. This is one of the few; it is aimed at encouraging emerging writers to develop a critical voice in response to contemporary art. Many previous winners and commended entrants have gone on to contribute to frieze magazine.’

The winning entry:

‘Exhibition #1’
The Museum of Everything, Turin, Italy

The Museum of Everything, previously housed in a former dairy and recording studio in London’s Primrose Hill, serendipitously relocated this past April to Turin’s Lingotto Building, former home to the Fiat factory renowned for its unusual assembly of raw materials from the ground floor up. Following its closure in 1982, the building received a facelift by in-vogue architect Renzo Piano (soon to design the Whitney Museum’s new building in Chelsea) and re-opened as a bastion of consumer culture replete with entertainment venues, shopping arcades, restaurants and a hotel. The Museum of Everything is planted on top of this mall, nestled within the rooftop racetrack once used to test cars, but now operating akin to a widow’s walk overlooking this remnant of a bygone industrial era. With shaker-style benches, cavernous rooms divided with a wooden clapboard structure, an inconsistent white paint job, childishly handwritten graphics, hazard tape, hanging wires and visible nails, the exquisite DIY aesthetic of the exhibition design is fittingly out-of-context with its polished commercial environment. What lies inside is a result of the perseverance and zeal of the museum’s founder, James Brett, and his private collection that constitutes much of the inaugural ‘Exhibition #1’ of over 600 drawings, paintings, photographs, prints, sculptures and installations by, as the website describes, ‘untrained, unintentional and unseen creators of this, our modern world.’

Unlike most group exhibitions that collapse individuality, curators James Brett and Paolo Colombo give each artist ample space for several works to be exhibited together as well as proper physical divisions that lessen viewers’ proclivity towards a comparative model. Retaining the unique character of the participating artists which include Morton Bartlett (American , 1903–92), Nek Chand (Indian, born 1924), Madge Gill (British, 1882–1961), Miroslav Tichý (Czech, born 1926) and A.C.M. (French, born 1951) is an imperative considering that these artists do not constitute an art movement- even this shortlist escapes geographical or chronological categorization – and by default, are grouped together under the umbrella of outsider art. Outsider art, a problematic term which is by definition non-defining, refers to artists that produce independently of ideological discourses of art history, commercial transactions, expected academic training and most often parallel traditions found in visionary, folk and primitive art. Schizophrenic, criminal, recluse, orphan, social misfit, autistic, drifter and idiot savant are popular biographical descriptions applied to these artists.

With works produced across a century and around the world, ‘Exhibition #1’ bypasses an extraordinary opportunity to trace how psychiatric diagnoses, assessments of criminal behavior and general treatment of marginalized groups evolved in the twentieth century and distinctly by geographical regions. German psychiatrist and art historian Hans Prinzhorn, for example, spearheaded collecting representations of insane art from European asylums in the 1910s for the nascent and unconventional museum of pathological art at the psychiatric institution of the University of Heidelburg. This collection became the exclusive material for Prinzhorn’s re-evaluation of mental illness and self-expression through an aesthetic, rather than clinical, lens in his 1922 publication Artistry of the Mentally Ill. The hugely successful title marks one of the first efforts to give visibility to socially marginalized figures as competent producers, challenging misinformed fears that asylum inmates, like criminals, would physically and morally contaminate culture (an unfortunate paranoia that returned when the Nazis denounced this collection as perverse in their 1937 exhibition ‘Degenerate Art’).

While its revolutionary character cannot be underestimated, Prinzhorn’s text continued to romanticize the madness-genius theory by championing primordial, naïve, irrational and imaginative instincts as the cherished spontaneity found only in the creative works of uncivilized and untrained artists (not far from the outdated stereotype of non-European cultures at the turn of the century). This euphoric vision of insanity as pure expression percolated most avant-garde movements, such as the unconscious drive of Surrealism or the beckoning of Nature in German Expressionism, later reinforced Jean Dubuffet’s notion of art brut (‘raw art’) and certainly holds weight over The Museum of Everything. Perhaps ‘Exhibition #1’ is susceptible to this mystification because of its lack of engagement with the very terms, like outsider art, that haunt the exhibition and whose instabilities disclose society’s shifting perceptions of normality.  However, the lax and open-ended curatorial structure could be a conscious amnesia of the past; one that is deliberately symbolic of our current cultural climate that doubts the acceptance of grand narratives. Even after links are established between outsider art and Paul Klee, or tribal art and Picasso, how is art history, in this case modernism, re-written and what are the visual manifestations?

The plurality of unorthodox voices available in the wall text and advising the curatorial selection of the artists, such as art historian Colin Rhodes, curators Hans Ulrich Obrist and Norman Rosenthal and artists Paul Chan and Ed Ruscha, situates ‘Exhibition #1’ within this contemporary dilemma by establishing a discourse and curatorial practice based upon creative, non-hierarchical and unfinished interpretation. Musician David Byrne, for example, sheds light on Henry Darger’s childhood inside an abusive orphanage, positioning his fairytale illustrations of seven pre-pubescent girls with penises as a diaristic methodology to process personal trauma; and artist Marlene Dumas speaks of George Widener’s meticulous and futile charting of the day by day progression of the Titanic sinking as a magical and tragic twist on the tidy systematization that plagues modern society. Also strikingly logical, A.C.M.’s painted and acid-burned assemblages of electrical and mechanical parts, like a miniature futuristic city, seem to deafen the lurking ghost of Fiat with more lucid, compact and elaborate industrial forms. And yet the most intriguing commentary is not written: similar to Prinzhorn’s venture into uncharted territory, James Brett began collecting blindly without specific intentions or an art education; as a result, both collections, separated by decades and yet with overlapping artists, capture the contemporary thirst for discovering alternative histories and embracing the unpredictable trajectory of cultural narratives to come.

–Erica Cooke

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