At the recent opening of the exhibition showcasing the artworks nominated for the Nationalgalerie Prize for Young Art at the Hamburger Bahnhof museum in Berlin, curator Joachim Jäger compared Monica Bonvicini’s installation to an Abu Ghraib cell, while her fellow contestant John Bock gave a performance that included getting pushed through a window by an angry "spectator" before leading the incredulous audience out of the gallery and jumping off a nearby bridge onto a waiting boat (photo).
The four finalists for the prize set to be announced in late September are certainly not your standard museum fare.
The emperor's new clothes?
In this respect, the Nationalgalerie prize has taken an obvious cue from the 20-year-old Turner -- which, the critics have often argued, has a habit of favoring controversy over content.
With a list of celebrity candidates ranging from Damien Hirst and his cows cut in half, Tracey Emin and her unmade bed to the cross-dressing Grayson Perry, the Turner shortlist has more often than not boasted a generous dose of scandal that never failed to get the nation talking.
What tends to ruffle public feathers is less a matter of shocking content than a perceived lack of content. It can be counted on to generate an annual media row, usually focused on that old chestnut: is it art?
Edgy but educational
Already dubbed "the German Turner" and worth almost as much, the 50,000 euro ($62,000) Nationalgalerie Prize for Young Art might be trying a similar tack in its stated aim of bringing art to a wider public, but with a short-list that includes Bonvicini, Bock, Anri Sala and Angela Bulloch (photo), it's giving a platform to four artists with established international reputations -- even if they hardly deliver feel-good family fun.
"Contemporary art attracts far less attention from the general public than 20th century modern art, for example," said Joachim Jäger. "It's often edgy, provocative, and therefore not always instantly popular. The competitive nature of the prize, as well as the ensuing publicity, is one way of raising awareness of contemporary art and arousing public curiosity."
It's also educational. "It might be incomprehensible until you make an effort to get into it," said Peter Raue from the Friends of the Nationalgalerie. "But then it’s all very illuminating. And ultimately, it should be a people’s prize."
Art as an event
In any case, according to Ursula Prinz, deputy director at the German capital's esteemed Berlinische Galerie, just about all contemporary art could be described as shocking.
"Provocation is an integral part of today's art," she said. "We live in an event culture, everything has to create a stir."
Many feel it's a trend that raises the stakes for the average museum, and perhaps leaves the public bored by anything less than outrage.
"It does mean a lot of less spectacular work falls through the net, which is a little regrettable," said Prinz. "Less high-profile projects don’t get a look in. Art as an event is the order of the day, to the detriment of less flashy art."
But attention-grabbing art isn't all bad. "Events like this prize are one way of getting people into museums in the first place," she admitted. "In that sense, they definitely don’t hurt."
Conceptual rather than figurative
Old-school craft certainly isn't what the prize is about. Featuring performance, video and installation, the money is clearly on experimentation -- another unmistakable nod to the Turner, which has always been conceptual rather than figurative. And if the prize attracts similar media frenzy, the entire German art world gets to benefit from the hype.
"Everyone always wants to know who's won the Turner," pointed out Ursula Prinz. "So if one can achieve the same effect in Germany, it would be a boon for everyone."
But even though the Turner has always triggered fierce opinions, much of the attention it attracts is unfavorable. Weird art is great in theory, but doesn't it ultimately alienate the public? According to the German Turner’s organizers, they have all their bases covered.
"Shock tactics have the advantage of mass appeal, but also the disadvantage of reflecting a very one-sided facet to contemporary art," said Jäger. "The Nationalgalerie Prize is aiming to be a crowd-puller, but it also takes a serious look at present-day art. The jury's selection represents four very different positions."
It also represents different nationalities. Unlike the Turner, which focuses on artists living and working in Britain but often only shortlists British artists, the Nationalgalerie Prize has a very international slew of nominations. In fact, German artists are conspicuously absent, as is traditional painting -- so anyone expecting a sample of the fashionable New Leipzig School, for example, will be sorely disappointed.
But it all goes to show just how open-minded the German art scene is. "The prize turns the spotlight on international art developments in Germany, rather than just German art," pointed out Jäger.
The exhibition of the Nationalgalerie Prize for Young Art at Hamburger Bahnhof runs through Oct. 16.