Viewing this year’s Turner Prize exhibition was a bit like playing a game designed to challenge attention and mental flexibility skills. The four finalists, who showed both recent and new works, all seemed to have shared the same desire to challenge perception.

The exhibition opened with Scottish artist Lucy Skaer’s installation “Thames and Hudson.” Skaer’s work often originates in found photos, news clippings and other recycled objects. This installation included Leviathan Edge (2009), which comprises the huge skull of a sperm whale boxed inside a three-sided structure attached to a gallery wall. From afar, slits in the structure’s sides offer fragmentary glimpses of the interior, which lead to generally false conjectures about what it contains. This perceptual sequence is reversed in the dense black drawing Leonora (Death), 2006, on the opposite wall; there, the hulk of a whale can just be made out in a mass of curly black felt-tip pen marks, which dissolve into abstract patterns as one approaches. A chair stood in the center of the room; behind it was what looked like a puzzle, an image made by dipping parts of the dismantled chair in ink and printing them on paper. Completing Skaer’s installation was Black Alphabet (2008), 26 replicas of Brancusi’s Bird in Space (one for each of the original artist’s versions) made from compressed coal dust. Skaer’s flock supports no romantic notion of flight; instead, standing quietly still in close ranks, her birds seem like ghosts of modernism.

The richly glimmering, baroque wall painting no title (2009), by Skaer’s fellow Scot Richard Wright, covered a huge wall. Using gold leaf, Wright sucks the viewer into the work’s multitude of flourishes and curls, which danced with the slightest shift of position. The heavenly effusions of no title gave way to hellishness in Enrico David’s theatrical installation Absuction Cardigan (2009). Known for sculptures, paintings and works on paper portraying the human body and mind in turmoil, David here presented a scene of deep physical and mental distress. It featured the likes of crazy-faced, egg-shaped papier-mâché figures and a big, tortured-looking rag doll, arrayed across the length of an elevated platform. This disturbing ensemble of nightmarish characters made the viewer feel somehow observed, again upending perceptual convention.

This year’s fourth finalist, Roger Hiorns, was nominated for the installation Seizure (2008), in which he lined the interior of a disused London flat with blue copper sulfate crystals. Hiorns is in the business of atomizing and transforming everyday objects, as with an untitled work of 2008 shown here that consists of the ashes of a cremated jet engine spilled over the floor like a shadowy gray landscape. Two untitled sculptures, one from 2008 and the other 2009, both juxtapose the unlikely materials of stainless steel, plastic and pulverized cow brains, again provoking thoughts about mutability and mortality. All in all, this stands as one of the most stimulating Turner Prize exhibitions in years.

Photo (left) Richard Wright: no title, 2009, gold leaf; at Tate Britain.

Photo (right) View of Enrico David’s installation Absuction Cardigan, 2009; at Tate Britain.