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And the Winner is....a Bed

For over a month, the German art scene has been holding its breath to see who would win the “Young Art Prize”, the Berlin National Gallery's contemporary art competition. The judges have now announced the winner...


Took home the prize.

Tucked away in the east wing of the Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin’s much talked-about museum for contemporary art, there’s an empty room with nothing but a hospital bed hidden behind a white medical screen. In the metal bed, tucked under while blankets, lies a finely detailed mannequin, positioned so he’s looking out the window at Berlin’s Charité hospital across the way.

His creators call him Joe.

Joe, along with his sickbed and screen, make up "Temporarily Placed", the conceptual artwork of the Scandinavian artist team of Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset that has been in the running for the National Gallery’s Award for Young Art. On Wednesday night, the National Gallery jury and Germany’s Minister of Culture Julian Nida-Rümelin awarded the Scandinavians - and Joe - the award, praising the artists’ subtle and ironic comment on the state of contemporary art today.

"The contemporary art museum is designed as if we are pure spiritual beings," said Michael Elmgreen, who grew up in Denmark but now lives in Berlin. "But we aren’t, we carry with us our bodies, our illnesses, our desires." This sick person and his hospital-like environment are the artists’ critical comment on the sterility of art museums and the often rarified atmosphere in them that can be alienating to the public.

"It’s our way of saying ‘hey, we’re here,’ we’re something more than just intellectual beings," he said. "We make love, sleep and get sick."

The German Turner Prize

This is the second time the National Gallery has held its Young Art competition, modelled after London’s Turner Prize, although this competition doesn’t quite have the Turner’s bad-boy art reputation nor is it as savagely attacked by the tabloid papers. The artists in the running for the Young Art prize are chosen from a long list compiled by hundreds of curators throughout Europe. They are asked to submit names of established contemporary artists they feel are doing exciting work. That long list is then narrowed down to four finalists.

Artists don’t have to be German to make the list, but they do have to be under 40 years old and live at least half of the year in Germany.

In addition to the world-wide attention, this year’s winners will get a cash prize of 25 000 euro ($24,592 ) and the museum will spend another 25 000 euro to buy one of their artworks which will become part of the National Gallery’s permanent collection.

Hamburger Bahnhof

"It’s a way to making sure these artists’ works can be seen years later," said Joachim Jäger, curator at the Hamburger Bahnhof. (photo)

Stiff Competition

The work’s of the four finalists couldn’t have been more different, and curator Jäger said that was part of what made the whole competition so exciting.

Hamburg-based artist Daniel Richter might have been seen as the most traditional of the four, just because his medium is painting. But his large, flourescent canvases filled with puzzling landscapes and ghostly figures are anything but conventional.

Tacita Dean, who lives part-time in Berlin, made the process of observation the focus of her work, "The Green Ray". Her two-minute 16-mm film, a sunset filmed off the coast of Madagascar, invites the viewer to experience the split second when a natural atmospheric phenomenon turns the entire scene a vivid green.

"It’s kind of a deconstructivism while you’re watching the film," said curator Jäger. "You’re thinking about yourself in this dark room with an old projector running and what happens to you while you’re watching the film. I had to watch it three times to actually see the green ray."

This reporter never saw it.

The fourth artist, Maria Eichhorn, also focused on deconstructing film, but this time, she took apart a whole cinema, breaking it down to its basic component elements: one row of seats, one row of neon lights, one of row of beverages at a concession stand of sorts. Every day at five sharp, she showed one in a series of 23 short films.

Is Competition Good?

Winner Michael Elmgreen said he had mixed feelings about being invited to compete at first. He says he’d rather see contemporary artist working together instead of competing against one another. But he and his art partner Ingar Dragset decided to enter anyway.

"It must be our masochistic side that put us in this competitive situation," he said. "It’s kind of stupid because it puts professional artists in competitive situations, but on the other hand, it drags in a big, broad audience to get some more knowledge about contemporary art."

At the same time, it has earned him and Dragset 50 000 euro - not a bad take for surrendering to one’s masochistic side.