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The triumph of Eerke, Juerke and Veeke

Her quiet, evasive geometric mood paintings have just won German artist Tomma Abts the Turner Prize. She talked to Morgan Falconer on the eve of the award ceremony

Britain's art scene has become more outward looking, and a sure sign of that is Tomma Abts' nomination for the Turner Prize. Although the nomination and judging process of the prize remain obscure, it has always been open to artists who are merely based in Britain, and Abts has been nominated for her work in two exhibitions last year, one of which was at a show at the Kunsthalle Basel. Ultimately, though, she will be judged on what she contributes to the Turner Prize exhibition, a collection of installations by the four artists included in the prize. This year they included Mark Titchner, an artist known for sculptures and dynamic posters with the air of Soviet rallies to mass action; Rebecca Warren, a sculptor whose heavy lumpen figures suggest a comic reinterpretation of Picasso; and filmmaker Phil Collins, whose work often has an off-beat documentary feel.

'Lühr', 2004. Acrylic & oil on canvas. 48 x 38 cm. Courtesy Galerie Giti Nourbakhsch
, Berlin

Abts is certainly the quietest amongst this crowd. Her work is resolutely abstract, comprised of puzzling and intriguing interconnections of planes and forms whose composition seem to defy rational explanation. At first glance they look like examples of old geometric abstraction from the 1920s and 1930s, but on closer inspection they're less like expositions of ideas, plans for utopia, than mood pictures loaded with ambivalent atmospheres. Originally, Abts made films, but towards the end of her time at college those abstract films began to influence a series of paintings. Her style has remained fairly steady since then: she still uses the same small portrait format, 48x38cm, and she titles them by browsing through a dictionary of first names.

"Thiale". Acrylic & oil on canvas. 48 x 38 cm. Courtesy greengrassi, London

Exactly what issues her work addresses, however, is a matter that remains rather uncertain. Critics seem to positively value this, relishing the slippery possibilities of the pictures. Adrian Searle, writing in the Guardian, praised their "untimeliness, uncanniness and homelessness". One would have thought that that would be a serious problem, yet Abts is quite frank in agreeing with him: "I think," she says, "whenever I say something about my paintings, I always find that the opposite is true as well". In any case, whether she is known at home in Germany or not, sticking to her methods is clearly paying dividends in Britain. And by the end of tomorrow night, she could well be measuring those dividends in cash.

'Pabe', 2000. Acrylic & oil on canvas. 48 x 38 cm. Courtesy Galerie Giti Nourbakhsch, Berlin
Die Welt: How do you begin your paintings?

Tomma Abts: With a very vague idea really, or even no idea. The whole process is about making a form, constructing a shape. It's more that I start with something abstract and I work towards finding a form for something, something concrete. Some people have said my pictures are related to geometric abstraction, but I don't feel that at all. It doesn't feel abstract to me, I'm not interested in geometry. I simply know the piece is finished when everything falls into place. The pictures go through so many phases that in the end it can be something like a particular kind of light that has a particular kind of mood which makes it work.

"Veeke". Acrylic & oil on canvas. 48 x 38 cm. Courtesy greengrassi, London

Why did you come to London?

I think artists always feel it's interesting to be abroad. Wherever you're from, it's good to get out. And it just seemed as if there was a lot happening in the British art scene in the mid 1990s, it was more alive than Berlin. It wasn't even that I was so interested in the art – a lot of the 'Young British Artists' were exhibiting in London at that time, people like Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin – but the place just seemed to have more energy. I think it has changed now, that generation has stepped aside and there is more room for other sorts of artists. The atmosphere isn't so crazy.

Do you still regard yourself as a German painter?

I don't feel like a German painter, no. I showed in an exhibition of German painters in Frankfurt in 2003 and didn't feel I had so much kinship with them, but then I don't feel I have so much kinship with British artists either.

"Mehm". Acrylic & oil on canvas. 48 x 38 cm. Courtesy greengrassi, London

Many people say that Britain's art scene has become more outward looking in recent years, do you find that yourself?

Yes, I do think the British scene is much more open and international than it used to be. The Turner Prize, for instance, although it's still a British art prize, it's also more international these days. Perhaps for that reason it doesn't seem strange to me that I'm included in it, after all, I've been here twelve years now so I feel more part of the British scene than the German scene.

What would winning the Turner Prize do for you?

I don't know, I'm not sure it would make any difference, and I decided to accept the nomination because I didn't think it would affect my work either way. I think it's bad for younger artists to be included in the Turner Prize – it can be distracting - but people have supported my work for some time now, and I just thought it would be good to have a larger public for the work.


The Turner Prize 2006 is on show at Tate Britain until 14th January

This article originally appeared in German in Die Welt on December 2, 2006.

Morgan Falconer is an art critic for The Times.

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