John Garth talks to Turner Prize-winning video artist and fellow of Lady Margaret Hall Elizabeth Price.
It was a day of contrasts for Elizabeth Price. First she interviewed applicants for the BA course at the Ruskin. Then she won the Turner Prize. As a newly appointed tutor, Price felt it was vital for her to take part in the admissions process. “And it put the whole thing in perspective,” she said. “I went to Oxford, I did a morning of interviews, I got the train, I went to the Tate.”
Yet her journey from Oxford to victory at Tate Britain truly began nearly three decades ago, and it is this odyssey that came to mind as she stepped up on 3 December last year to be presented with the £25,000 prize by actor Jude Law for her video installation, The Woolworths Choir of 1979.
“It was thrilling but I also felt quite solemn, because there had been so many really hard years and points where you think you have to give up. It felt good, not in a triumphal way but, ‘Phew, out of the terrible years!’”
Price came to Oxford in 1985 as a shy 18-year-old attracted by the Ruskin’s intimate scale and by the University’s diverse intellectual life and collections. At Jesus College, everyone else seemed to know someone, but coming from a Luton comprehensive she felt isolated. At a gig by an indie band in the college bar, she met Amelia Fletcher, who was reading economics at St Edmund Hall.
“She came up to talk to me because we both had the same badge on. She was a lot more confident than me and the first thing she said was, ‘Do you want to be in a band?’ And I went, ‘Uh, yes...’”
A whirlwind year on vocals, violin, guitar and tambourine in Talulah Gosh saw recording sessions in Glasgow, cult music paper the NME putting their debut single on a sampler cassette, and the classic entry-level touring experience: “Strings of gigs one after the other, travelling wedged between two amplifiers, and sleeping on someone’s freezing cold kitchen floor.”
Talulah Gosh stuck out. Price recalls: “We said a lot of things initially as an anti-rock’n’roll stance: ‘We eat sweets, we don’t take drugs.’ At that time, goth was very dominant, and it was this really po-faced, serious and male-oriented rock.” Then, when the music press lumbered them with the label ‘twee pop’, Talulah Gosh spent the rest of their short career striving with punk energy to throw it off. The band eventually fizzled out, to be remembered only by diehard aficionados. (Since her Turner Prize win it has been called “one of the most over-achieving indie bands in history”, with lead vocalist Fletcher now chief economist at the Office of Fair Trading, and guitarist Pete Momtchiloff senior commissioning editor for philosophy at OUP.)
Price’s fledgling pop career almost derailed her BA course, and she had to retake her prelims. “When I failed, I think they felt I’d made my choice and I should go and do something else. But I just thought they were wrong, so I worked really hard over the summer. When I came back in the second year I was very much more focused.” A pep talk from her “lucid and incisive” tutor, Douglas Allsopp, helped her through the crisis.
After the Ruskin she worked for a year in the Bodleian stacks. “I’ve done a lot of work on this as an artist,” she said, “using the idea of this subterranean library.” A 2009 video installation, User Group Disco, explores a fictional underground museum, ruined and disorganised.
The iconoclasm of Talulah Gosh lives on in Price’s own artistic drive to dismantle the conventional categories of contemporary art. The Woolworths Choir of 1979 spans cathedral architecture and a fatal Manchester shop fire; it also reflects Price’s musical interests, incorporating archive footage of the Shangri-Las and percussive handclaps. All this might suggest a grab-bag, but it’s a surprisingly intense experience, with its disparate subjects hauntingly united by the soundtrack and by a recurrent hand gesture made from a high window during the fire.
Price had been nominated for a solo exhibition at Gateshead’s Baltic Centre which also comprised two other video pieces, but it was The Woolworths Choir of 1979 that travelled to Tate Britain for the Turner Prize show, and which most impressed audiences. The Turner Prize jury, noting that Price’s work had been consistently ambitious for several years, praised the piece as “seductive and immersive”. Richard Dorment of The Daily Telegraph went further, calling it “an artwork that has the potential fundamentally to change the way knowledge is transferred, the way we teach and the way we learn.”
If it augurs any tidal shift in the notoriously swirling waters of contemporary British art, Dorment suggests it is in applying modern, savvy communications media to deeper cultural concerns than the usual ephemera of infomercials and YouTube pop videos. It is embracing video that proved the turning point in Price’s career about six years ago, and though she also works in sculpture and photography, she’s most often described as a video installation artist.
Looking ahead, Price sees her life settling down after the media interest that followed on the Turner. She’s working on a major new project as artist-in-residence at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory at Harwell.
If Turner Prize winners are not normally associated with academic institutions like the University of Oxford, that’s not the way Price sees it. She was drawn back to teach at the Ruskin by the same intimacy and diversity that originally brought her here as an undergraduate. “The scale of it, and the fact that the University supports the Ruskin so well, just seemed promising. And there are very good students.
“Also, in normal universities I would end up talking to cultural historians, art historians and artists,” she said. “Their company’s fantastic and very interesting; but when you talk to somebody about solar science over a chat at lunchtime, it’s just a different kind of pleasure.”
Price shuttles between Oxford and East London, where she has her studio and lives with her partner. “The time I’m not teaching is incredibly intense: I have the most dreadful deadlines and I work like a mad person,” she said. “I find it frustrating if I then go to teach and it’s a bit lacklustre. So I like working somewhere where it’s ambitious, exciting and people want it to be great. Oxford is a place where there is that culture of expectation and ambition.”
Elizabeth Price (Jesus College, 1985) did her MA at the Royal College of Art and a PhD at Leeds. She has taught at the Royal College and at Goldsmiths.