Steve McQueen. Grayson Perry. Damien Hirst. These are some of the winners of the Turner Prize, one of the U.K.’s most prestigious and controversial art awards.
“Play on Words” (a copy of Macbeth on top of the Oxford English Dictionary). “Jamming With Muddy Waters” (a jar with jelly, water, and mud in it). “Birds Flew” (an empty bird’s nest with flu relief medicine inside). These are some of the winners of the Turnip Prize—a bad-pun-based art contest invented by Somerset innkeeper Trevor Prideaux—which has spent 19 years taking potshots at the Turner while having some fun of its own. “I like to have a laugh, and a little poke at the establishment,” explains Prideaux.
Prideaux invented the contest in 1999, after one of those “my-kid-could-paint-that”-style conversations that have long dogged modern and contemporary art. This one focused on Tracy Emin’s “My Bed,” which was one of the works shortlisted for the Turner Prize that year.
“We were talking about it over a beer, as you do,” says Prideaux. “We decided we’d run a competition called the Turnip Prize, for people to create equally bad pieces of art. The rest is history, really.”
Since then, things have run fairly smoothly. The art is judged by a three-person panel—Prideaux and two previous winners. The trophy is a turnip, nailed shoddily to a board.
The prize’s ethos may seem egalitarian. But in the judging process, a kind of reverse snobbishness emerges. “We get ones that are too much effort,” Prideaux says. In 2007, they went so far as to disqualify one entry, a Banksy spoof called “By the Banksea,” for “trying too hard.” (The prize that year went to Bracey Vermin’s “Tea P,” a group of used tea bags in the shape of the letter “P.”)
After nearly two decades on the committee, Prideaux knows the greats as soon as he sees them. “The ones where someone hasn’t put in any work, but has a really great idea: they stand out a mile,” he says. One favorite, from 2010, was the then-topical “Chilli’n’Minors”—one large chili pepper and three small ones. Another is “Man Hole Cover,” a pair of extra-large men’s Y-front briefs. “One that didn’t win that I liked was just a fly in a saucer,” he says. “You can guess the title.”
This year’s contest opened this morning, and Prideaux has already received a couple of entries. Submissions close on November 21, and he expects more to pour in as the weeks go by. Last year, they got a record 99 entries. A shortlist is then drawn up, and the winner is announced on December 5, to take some of the spotlight (or the pressure) off the Turner Prize winner, unveiled the same day.
Prideaux expects great things, as always. “It never ceases to amaze me,” he says. “You’d think that all of the puns and everything had been done.” But you’d be very wrong.
If you’d like to participate, you can drop your entry off at The New Inn, Combe Batch, Wedmore, Somerset BS28 4DU.