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The Mercurys, the Turner – and a different kind of arts award...

CultureCritic | 02.November.2012 | 15:40

Over £400K in prize money was shared between eight artists and composers last night - but it's unlikely you have heard of the award they won. And that's the way its organisers want it. In light of yesterday's Mercury announcement, we compare three very different major awards and talk to artist Elizabeth Price about being on the list for two of them.

Paul Hamlyn Foundation Artist AwardsRecipients of the Paul Hamlyn Foundation 2012 Awards for Artists from left: Lis Rhodes, Andy Holden, Eliza Carthy, Steve Beresford, Pavel Büchler, Ed Atkins, Edmund Finnis, Elizabeth Price.
Emile Holba/Paul Hamlyn Foundation.

Cambridge-based ‘folk-step' band Alt-J or (∆) were announced as winners of the 2012 Mercury Prize yesterday. Whatever your thoughts on it (tame nominee lists, etc. etc.) the prize has some importance, as veteran nominee Richard Hawley pointed out - it celebrates the album ‘as an art form'.

Post- ceremony, some may wonder whether Alt-J will avoid the ‘Mercury curse' that has seen bands such as, er, Primal Scream, Suede, Pulp, PJ Harvey and the Arctic Monkeys slide into obscurity. It ‘isn't dependent on whether you win... It's dependent on the material that you have after you win', said the band sensibly, when questioned on the matter.

In seriousness, the few artists whose post-Mercury career might support such a theory (Speech Debelle, Klaxons) are exceptions rather than rules. Should we be surprised when winners of a prize set up ostensibly to champion non-commercial music don't go on to sell out stadiums? The Mercury is likely a career - or certainly publicity - highlight for most.

Alt-J said it will bring them ‘a level of security', a luxury most artists - or anyone for that matter - would appreciate, especially in the current climate. The £20,000 prize money might seem scant when split between their four members, but increased record sales are likely now.

The issue of security is central to another award ceremony which took place a short distance south of the Mercurys in King's Cross also last night, one that enjoys much less of the hype and considerably more cash.

The Paul Hamlyn Foundation (PHF) Awards for Artists are almost unknown compared to the above, or the Turner Prize, the most high profile contemporary art award in Britain (if not Europe).

Yet one of the PHF Award's winners has been nominated for a Mercury twice before: folk musician Eliza Carthy, and PHF visual arts winner, Elizabeth Price, is a Turner Prize nominee this year.

Unlike the Turner or the Mercury, however, The PHF Awards are not accompanied by an exhibition or album, they intentionally have a less public face - yet each winner is awarded £50,000 (up from £45,000 last year) over three years. 

This focus on a long-term safety net rather than the glare of the camera means a very different kind of support. It's a ‘no-strings attached' grant - no box-ticking, no obligations to make work or engage with the media - unheard of in the world of public funding.

Elizabeth Price told us that winning the PHF award will ‘ free me from the task of writing lengthy and complex funding applications'. De facto, she will be able to ‘avoid the ways in which grant-funding can constrain and over-determine projects from their inception.'

There are other ways in which the award stands out - and benefits artists in particular ways: for Price it ‘acknowledges other aspects of an artist's working life, such as teaching.'

She says her Turner nomination is ‘very exciting - and terrifying' and will create exposure for her work. ‘It's a great privilege, and a rare opportunity, which I want to live up to in a meaningful way.'

‘The PHF awards on the other hand are rather discreet, and you don't really feel as if you are in a competition,' she continues, noting their focus on supporting artists ‘at all stages'.

Age is not a factor for this award (the Turner has an under-50s policy); 2011 winner Rose Wylie is in her 70s; Gustav Metzger was 80 when he received it in 2006. Among the 2012 winners are 70-year-old experimental filmmaker Lis Rhodes, and 28-year-old composer Edmund Finnis.

Nominees are selected, by a different ‘pool' of insiders every year (which includes peers), then invited to apply (almost everyone who is asked does). The basis of the judges decision is, aside from merit, timeliness: those for whom the award will make the most difference are top of the list, and artists must relate their circumstances as well as offer examples of work on application.

There is a kind of value judgment in this remit. 'In receiving one,' explains Price, ‘I feel I benefit, not only from the direct support of the award - but also from the political definition of the artist, that is implicitly promoted.'

The foundation argue that their interest in giving chunks of support where it can really help to develop work in the arts links with their belief that art has social worth - and their other work in social justice projects for example is part of the same wider aim.

The no-strings factor has been honoured, generally in full, it would seem -previous PHF award recipients in visual arts have continued to work in the upper tiers of the UK art world: the list reads like a who's who of contemporary practice: Jim Lambie, Paul Noble (this year's Turner favourite), Tomma Abts, Jeremy Deller, Anya Gallacio (all Turner nominees)... etc. So who else has won this year?

Elizabeth PriceElizabeth Price, User Group Disco (2009) © Elizabeth Price, courtesy MOTInternational, London

Visual Arts

Ed Atkins

Atkins (b. 1982) is fascinated with the slick, hyper-lifelike qualities of media like HD film and surround-sound, and marries that to explorations disease and death, often to seriously unnerving effect. His new two-channel piece Us Dead Talk Love at the Chisenhale in London until 11 November, features two cadavers conversing about intimacy. Past works include A Tumour (In English), and the Death Mask series (2010­-11). He also works with the written word and is in residency at the Whitechapel Gallery, London. He exhibited in Art Now at Tate.

Pavel Büchler

"Making nothing happen" is how this Czech-born teacher and influential artist (b. 1952) describes his work, which keeps the wry, nonsensical flame of 1970s conceptualism alive. One recent drawing is entitled Human breath traced from the shadow of a pierced balloon found in Tampere with a pencil taken from the children's section of the city library; erased and the pencil shaved to nothing. He won the Northern Art Prize in 2010.

Andy Holden

Holden (b.1982) has exhibited at Tate: his 2011 Art Now show featured a giant knitted replica of a piece of stone the artist took from the Pyramids at Giza when he was young, the whole installation being a strange homage to guilt, historic monuments and tourism (he often touches on the idea of the souvenir). Music features large in his work, and he plays with The Grubby Mitts, and recently co-dramatised a David Foster Wallace book.

Andy HoldenAndy Holden, Return of the Pyramid Piece (video stills), 2008. Courtesy Andy Holden

Elizabeth Price

Film is Price's (b. 1966) medium of choice, but it wasn't always so - she worked with sculpture until 2006, when  'A combination of personal events and artistic frustrations' caused a radical change. A Max Mara prize for women artists nomination came in 2010, before the Turner this year (for her BALTIC exhibition, HERE). Cultural archives as well as objects of consumer life; furniture, design, interiors, populate her work, which often resonates with foreboding.

Lis Rhodes

Lis Rhodes (b. 1942) has been showcasing her films internationally at festivals since the 1970s, and continues to use the medium to challenge preconceived ideas about such things as language. Her famous 1975 film Light Music is currently being shown at Tate Modern's new performance and media space Tate Tanks - her response to the marginalisation of women composers in Europe at the time.

Lis Rhodes Lis Rhodes, Light Music, 1975 © The artist. Photo: Tate


Steve Beresford
Not to be confused with the actor-turned author behind The Last of the Haussmans , Beresford boasts an intimidating discography, which includes collaborations with seminal post-punk band The Slits, The Flying Lizards, David Toop and Brian Eno. That should give you an idea of the sort of avant-garde and genuinely influential music that he's plied for over four decades, and he's become a central figure in London's improvised music scene. His last birthday was celebrated at perhaps the city's premier location for experiemental music, Café Oto.

Eliza Carthy

Yorkshire-born Eliza Carthy lost out to student favourites Gomez and Dizzee Rascal respectively when she was up for the Mercurys – not bad going for what the more cynical in the music press might call the ‘token folk nomination'. Carthy makes English folk of the undiluted sort represented by Sam Lee on this year's shortlist and 2012 has been a busy year, with the release of a new record Neptune - ‘her bravest, most orginial work to date', according to the Guardian and an official autobiography. A ‘Best Of', scheduled for next year should provide a primer for new listeners.

Edmund Finnis

The youngest recipient on this year's PHF award list is London-based composer Finnis (b. 1984), who at a tender age has already composed for the London Symphony Orchestra, London Sinfonietta, Helsinki's Sibelius Academy Symphony Orchestra and New College Choir Oxford, among others. That's a CV that can be backed up in academic terms too: he's currently completing a doctorate of the subject of distortion in acoustic instrumental music.

Rachel Potts and Rhys Griffiths

Image top left: Lis Rhodes, Light Music, 1975 © The artist. Photo: Tate

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