So far, critics seem to be focusing on how tame "The House of Osama bin Laden" is, at least compared to Damien Hirst's animals pickled in formaldehyde. Has the Prize entered a new, "mature" era?
In my opinion, not.
The most instructive writing on the exhibit appeared in The Observer in late 2003, when “Osama’s House” was being shown in the Imperial War Museum in London.
According to Ben Langlands, one of two men responsible for the piece of so-called art,
'In a way, it's about bin Laden’s absence more than anything... He is now this unseen presence who, in many ways, is more powerful now than when he was visible. In a way, the house is a metaphor for bin Laden, a Scarlet Pimpernel figure.'
The comparison to the fictional Scarlet Pimpernel is unfortunate; while he was “darned, elusive,” rather like bin Laden, Baroness Orczy’s hero of the French Revolution was famous for saving people, not killing them. Langland’s words betray a subconscious element of admiration for bin Laden; could it be that Langlands sees in the murderer something of the Pimpernel’s dashing adventure?
Adds Nikki Bell, the second “artist”,
'People are always interested in visiting places where certain people lived. They want to go to a house where someone lived in order to somehow explore that life.'
The trouble is, bin Laden isn’t just “certain people.” He’s an evil, mass-murdering terrorist; nosing around his former haunts, which don’t contain any of trace of his presence anyway, won’t solve the bin Laden enigma. The way Bell is talking, you would think bin Laden’s house was just one more stop on the Hollywood Celebrity House Tour.
This is why this piece is almost dangerous: it turns bin Laden, the epitomy of evil, into just another famous star, whose disappearing act makes him exciting, kind of Romantic. We are meant to feel a thrill at being up close and personal, in bin Laden's personal space, in awe of his celebrity – while his evil, if remembered at all, seems more and more banal.
The Turner Prize has long been sensationalist and tasteless; I have no doubt “Osama’s House” will win. But don’t go see it when it does.