It's big, it's plaster, it won Turner Prize - but is it art?

LONDON — LONDON -- The seven tons of American long-grain rice lighted by warmly glowing pink neon tubes was the most edible entry for Britain's most prestigious and controversial contemporary art award.

It turned out to be indigestible.


The 1993 Turner Prize instead went to Rachel Whiteread, a 30- year-old London sculptor whose plaster casts started small with the ordinary objects of everyday life salvaged from the trash bins and worked up to the interior of rooms and finally a whole house.

"She found a new way to explore reality by casting it," said Simon Wilson, the director of the Tate Gallery, where the works of four finalists were exhibited.


The $30,000 prize was awarded last night in ceremonies at the Tate Gallery, London's premier art museum. The prize has been awarded since 1984 to outstanding work produced over the past year by a British artist not yet 50 years old. It's named for J. M. W. Turner, the great English landscape painter of the Romantic era.

The prize is designed to "promote discussion of contemporary art." But in the past several years it has ignited a furious debate about whether art has woefully become dominated by wrongheaded modernists.

Ms. Whiteread was greeted with enthusiastic applause, prolonged cheers and whistles when she accepted the award last night. In her brief acknowledgment she mourned her latest work, "House," cast from the last Victorian rowhouse on a London street. It's scheduled for demolition by city officials.

It was controversial enough. But Vong Phaophanit's "Neon Rice Field" was easily the most controversial work during the most controversial year of the most controversial art award in Britain.

"This seven-ton pile of rice could make a meal for 100,000 people. But is it art?" asked the headline in the very conservative Daily Telegraph.

The newspaper had summed up the question most often asked by viewers puzzled by the works of the four finalists at the Tate Gallery.

The other finalists were Sean Scully, who at 48 is perhaps the most conventional of the top finishers. An abstract artist, he actually paints in oil on canvas.

Hannah Collins, a 36-year-old London-born photographer, studied in the United States on a Fulbright Scholarship and lives in Barcelona, Spain. Her huge evocative pictures sometimes depict dusty Barcelona streets and sometimes snails and oysters on half shells.


Mr. Phaophanit was born in Laos in 1961. He was sent to school in France, where he remained, separated from his family, after the Communists took over his country in 1975. He has lived in Britain since 1985.

"Let me say what I am doing is not primarily to be understood," Mr. Phaophanit has said. "Silence is the only word I have to describe it."

His "Neon Rice Field" spreads out in very neat undulating furrows over about 25 feet of the Tate Gallery's blond wood floor. Lights glow rosily under the rice.

"It's just a medium. The artist has chosen to use rice," said LTC Simon Wilson, the Tate Gallery's director of interpretations.

But the most severe critics choked on it and asked where does figurative painting figure in the Turner Prize.

"Figurative painting is compromised in all kinds of ways," said Mr. Wilson.


It's not insignificant, he said, that Ms. Collins' photograph of a woman in a semi-circular chair with her long hair dropping to the floor near a few strands of grain is called "Truth."

But he confessed: "I haven't been able to extract 100 percent of what she means."