Turner prize 2010: Dark nights of the soul

From mangled canvasses to disembodied voices singing Scottish laments, the entries for this year's Turner prize are mournful, tough and beautiful, says Adrian Searle. So which of the four contenders should win?

This year's Turner prize exhibition at Tate Britain in London has got soul, passion and intelligence. It resounds with echoes of past music and quotations of past art, as well as all the usual argy-bargy and din that surround the annual prize itself.

Ever since he was a student in the early 1980s, Dexter Dalwood has been interested in producing a kind of narrative painting – art that tells a story. Using De Kooning licks and Rauschenberg drips, his work splices references to famous 19th- and 20th-century paintings into scenes that depict real people and situations: William Burroughs in exile in Tangiers, the mysterious death of weapons inspector David Kelly in the Oxfordshire countryside, the Greenham Common protest, the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Dalwood's human subjects never themselves appear, though their presence and absence is signalled in all kinds of sidelong ways – a pair of slippers and a hookah on a step, a typewriter on a table in Burroughs's room, the wobbly moon hanging over the hill where Kelly died. There are no nukes or protesters in Dalwood's painting of Greenham Common. The author of The Naked Lunch is not at his desk – perhaps he's out scoring drugs or a boy. Instead, Matisse's Moroccans fill Burroughs's bed, and Rauschenberg's brushstrokes and a Cy Twombly scribble mess up his room, like so much mental clutter. Dalwood's attempt to track down the junkie-modernist author in Tangiers is waylaid by all that art.

Dalwood's work forms a narrative of art both contaminated and informed by life. In White Flag, Jasper Johns's white-on-white stars and stripes forms the wall of a compound. Smashed slabs litter the ground, a reference to Hans Haacke's work in the German pavilion at the 1993 Venice Biennale, when the artist tore up the marble floor, an explicit response to the pavilion's Nazi past. Dalwood's paintings are suave and clever, but recontextualising and quoting great art doesn't by itself make you great. Witty though they are, these works are too big, too flat, and suffer the same mechanical failings as grand 18th- and 19th-century history paintings. Spotting the references is apt to make you smug, like shouting answers at the telly while watching University Challenge.

Kodwo Eshun and Anjalika Sagar, the Otolith Group, have turned their space into a kind of darkened seminar room. Lamps illuminate pamphlets on a table. You can sit and read, ponder the 49-minute film Otolith III, projected on to the end wall, or sit with headphones watching The Owl's Legacy, a rarely seen TV series by veteran film-maker and artist Chris Marker about the legacy of ancient Greece, whose 13 parts play on 13 monitors. By showing Marker's work in their Turner space (and retitling it Inner Time of Television), the Otolith Group are presenting us with what they call "a monument to dead television". Words, words, words. More words, quotes by Marker and others, emblazon the walls.

The Otolith Group, at one level, are dismantling the idea of a "Turner prize show". They swamp you and eat your time – you could spend the day in here – which is either to signal that they don't care about winning the prize, or that they want to overwhelm the opposition. "I want more life, father," says the boy in Otolith III, a film that contains fragments of other films and is intended as a kind of prequel to legendary Indian director Satyajit Ray's unmade The Alien. If Dalwood demands of his viewers a certain art historical diligence and knowledge, so the Otolith Groups's film works demand a familiarity not just with auteurs, but also goings-on in the underground art and film scenes of the patchouli-drenched late 1960s. Good Lord, there's the young David Medalla up a ladder at a happening at London's Arts Lab. And there's a painting by Jannis Kounellis floating by. The details accumulate.

But what matters? We see old footage of London, still struggling out of postwar austerity well into the 60s, while a voiceover invites us to search for possible actors among stock footage of pedestrians on the street, asking, "Could this gent play Arthur C Clarke?"

It is all very reminiscent of Marker and of the Black Audio Film Collective, whose work the Otolith Group curated in a major travelling show. The Group might well be accused of pretension (and what's wrong with that?), but what they really have is ambition. Otolith III must be seen from beginning to end in order for it to mean anything. It also has a kind of passion and sadness that means I want to watch it again. If one thinks it is derivative – well, nothing comes from nothing, and originality means going back to origins.

A galumphing, ridiculous act

Much has been made of the formal correspondences between the work of Angela de la Cruz and the late American painter Steven Parrino, who died in 2005; the New York Times's art critic Roberta Smith flagged up the connection in a 1998 review of her work. If De la Cruz's paintings have in the past paralleled some of Parrino's formal gambits and deconstruction of painting's surface and support, she recast the idea of the wounded, damaged painting in terms of her own body image and sense of human vulnerability.

For De la Cruz, even the business of painting became a galumphing, ridiculous and accident-prone act. Her paintings and sculptures may be knocked-about as well as knockabout, but there is a great deal of personal abjection in them. She also lets the muck of daily life in, the frustrations and absurdities of painting, of creativity itself. Each work is a kind of personage, or a plight, or an uncomfortable and sometimes funny situation. Her work is also painful – the broken chair on top of a rickety stool could be taken for a self-portrait, the filing cabinet and paint-rimed metal box jammed together on the wall a kind of collision of bodies, her dangling, mangled canvases fighting gravity, twisting in the wind, flopped hopelessly on the floor. Her Turner prize room is a tough, emphatic display.

Her best and biggest show, in Lisbon in 2006, took place soon after De la Cruz suffered a debilitating stroke, and it took a long time for her to start working again. Both her Turner exhibition and her Camden Art Centre show earlier this year have focused, mostly, on work made prior to her stroke, which interrupted an increasing concern with sculpture and objects. I think De la Cruz is in a moment of transition.

Who will win the Turner?

The final gallery is almost empty. Three audio speakers are hung low on the walls. Daylight falls in. Susan Philipsz's unaccompanied voice fills the space, singing three slightly different versions of the Scottish lament Lowlands Away, the voices moving together and apart, the variations in the lyrics and intonation creating dissonances, harmonic beats, a palpable friction. It is beautiful. As you move around the room, the voices cleave you and steal your heart. The experience is also very sculptural. I found myself thinking of Richard Serra, and the way he makes you feel your own presence in a space.

I first heard Philipsz's Lowlands when it was broadcast beneath a bridge on the Clyde at this year's Glasgow International festival. The effect in a room is utterly different, the voices turning in on themselves instead of lilting over the water and echoing under the bridge. This weekend, and every weekend until January, her voice also echoes and drifts in corners, alleys and courtyards in London's financial district. In this separate project, Surround Me, A Song Cycle for the City of London, Philipsz sings sad and yearning 16th- and 17th-century madrigals by John Dowland, Orlando Gibbons and their contemporaries.

Her voice glances off glass-and-steel office buildings, leaks down alleys and resonates below London Bridge. Unlike walking around with an iPod, the music inhabits the space rather than your head. It follows you like a rumour, dogs your steps, disappears in the traffic. You find yourself looking for it, and searching for what cannot be seen. Susan Philipsz should win the 2010 Turner prize.

Turner Prize 2010: see artist profiles and more images from the show – plus give us your verdict at theguardian.com/turnerprize.

Win two tickets to an exclusive private view and guided tour of the Turner Prize exhibition at theguardian.com/extra


Adrian Searle

The GuardianTramp

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