BY Jennifer Higgie in News | 28 AUG 09

Frieze Writer's Prize 2009

Jessica Lott wins first prize

BY Jennifer Higgie in News | 28 AUG 09

After reading around 300 entries for this year’s frieze Writer’s Prize, we – myself, James Elkins and Ali Smith – decided to award Jessica Lott the first prize. We liked her review because it was clear, smart, jargon-free and illuminating (you can read it below). She has been commissioned to write her first review for frieze and will receive a prize of £2,000. We also highly commended eight entrants: Christine Brueckner McVay, Ian Cowmeadow, Frederico Duarte, Annette Leddy, Taro Nettleton, Tessa Rapaport, Gabriel Sánchez Sorondo, and Emily Warner.

Judging prizes is, in turn, a fraught, frustrating, illuminating process. It’s easy to let your concentration flag or let something or someone distract you mid-paragraph and it’s inevitable that, by the time you reach the end of a big pile of reviews of uneven quality, the speed of your judgement can be compromised by your levels of tiredness (which only serves to reinforce that the first sentence of any piece of writing is often the most important. It’s there to reel the reader in, however weary – a lesson that a lot of new writers could do with learning). However, nothing distracted us from the happy knowledge that this prize – now in its third year – has encouraged literally hundreds of emerging writers from around the globe to get in contact with us; we had entrants from the USA, Canada, UK, Australasia, Latin America, Europe and Africa. We are grateful to have been contacted by so many hopeful writers and fascinated to gain such insights into what ideas, artists and galleries are being discussed in various parts of the globe.

The high level of response to the prize has vindicated our initial reasons for establishing the prize in 2006 – namely, to promote the discipline of art criticism at an international level. More people than ever are interested in, looking at and thinking about contemporary art – which means that more than ever intelligent criticism and interpretation are needed in order to help people navigate their way through this complex field. Compared to the amount of prizes and residencies offered to emerging artists, there are hardly any international prizes that encourage new writing about art. Hopefully, the frieze writer’s prize will help redress that balance.

I’d like to make one thing clear though – frieze has always encouraged writers to contact us with ideas or feedback. If you’re interested in writing for us, we’re interested in hearing from you. Best thing to do is to email the appropriate editor a brief cover note and include some recent examples of your writing – and if your writing is clear, smart, jargon-free, entertaining, illuminating and original, then it’s more than likely you’ll be hearing back from us with good news.

Sophie Calle

Paula Cooper Gallery, New York, USA

The genesis of ‘Take Care of Yourself’, Sophie Calle’s mesmerizing collaborative piece recently on view at Paula Cooper, is a break-up letter her then-boyfriend (dubbed ‘X’) sent her via e-mail. Calle took the e-mail, and the paralyzing confusion that accompanies the mind’s failure to comprehend heartbreak, and distributed it to 107 women of various professions, skills and talents to help her understand it – to interpret, analyze, examine and perform it. The result of this seemingly obsessive, schoolyard exercise is paradoxically one of the most expansive and telling pieces of art on women and contemporary feminism to pass through New York in recent years.

It is also very, very funny. The respondents range from a criminal prosecutor, a cartoonist, a clown (whose excitement over the author’s use of parentheses far exceeds her interest in the content), a markswoman (heard riddling the letter with bullets in an adjacent room), a teenager, an expert in women’s rights at the UN and a nursery school teacher, who creates a list of age-appropriate reading questions, such as ‘How did the hero betray the pact?’  Assuming the entirety of the gallery’s barn-like space, the exhibition includes large-scale photographs of the women, written analyses, and more than 30 monitors showing simultaneous performances, dramatic readings and musical renditions. It’s easy to spend several absorbing hours in this interpretive hall of mirrors, completely enthralled, without getting any closer to having a clue what this letter means. If that was ever really the point.

The letter itself is available in a deliberately mountainous stack at the entrance, and you can read it in its English language translation or make a little paper airplane out of it – it’s yours to keep, the curator’s way of providing her own feedback. As for the content, a lawyer in the exhibition asserts that the author (a well-known French writer who will most likely never break up with a woman via e-mail again) has committed fraud by claiming his profession as a man of letters. No argument here. With the fugitive pronouns, passive constructions and general linguistic fuzziness, this letter has to be one of the most unsympathetic and least intelligible pieces of writing in what is typically a disingenuous and incoherent genre (my qualifications: writer, literary scholar). The Latinist, painstakingly trying for an exact translation, has an excruciating time with it.  

Even with a less abstruse text, however, meaning can slip and slide under an avalanche of interpretation, and it’s no surprise that the sheer volume, diversity, creativity and pleasure of these women’s achievements and talents steal the show in a remarkably uplifting way. Yet despite all this fun and professional exhibitionism, the nature of the undertaking is destabilizing to female power. The only man in the room, invisible and unnamed, is still a domineering figure, multiply replicated, chased, tossed about in the interpretive tide, but overwhelmingly necessary. Without him, the entire exhibition would collapse on itself – the reason, the women’s participatory purpose, would vanish.

As such, ‘Take Care of Yourself’ is speaking very honestly to the complicated male-female interdependency at the heart of feminism. The dominant male art historical environment, acknowledged, ignored, or reviled, tends, for better or worse, both to marginalize and provide a basis for feminist art, and the relationship has always been an active and instable one. The reactionary ‘victimhood’ art of the 1990s, with its individual narratives of defilement, self-abnegation and accusation, has yielded to a more positivist trend in recent years, recalling the collaborative models of second-wave feminism, such as Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party (1974-9) and the 1972 multi-sensory CalArts project, ‘Womanhouse’. Calle’s exhibition, brilliantly timed in its first appearance at the 2007 Venice Biennale, coincided with several landmark exhibitions and the opening of a feminist art centre in the US, and a higher profile for feminist art internationally. As a result, forums, and contentious internal disagreements, have sprung up to counter this question of feminism’s future. Calle, in using her own personal trauma to create and then problematize a model of group empowerment, is revealing the underlying affinity between these hotly debated approaches. It may not be to feminism’s advantage to spend too much time splitting hairs, after all. All movements will always require both – cooperation and that singular and terrifying journey into the submerged power relations found deep within the emotional recesses of the self.

—Jessica Lott

Jennifer Higgie is a writer who lives in London. Her book The Mirror and the Palette – Rebellion, Revolution and Resilience: 500 Years of Women’s Self-Portraits is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, and she is currently working on another – about women, art and the spirit world.