Walking through sliding doors into the Tate Britain I am met by the tiptoeing-quiet typical of galleries and museums, the silence interrupted only by a group of day-tripping pensioners. Upstairs though, the atmosphere is charged with frenetic energy. The Turner Prize is about to open and journalists and photographers are everywhere, each trying to present their own unique view on what is one of the most talked about exhibitions in British art.
One TV presenter is jogging through the four rooms while simultaneously presenting artwork energetically to the camera. He pauses by Josephine Pryde’s scale model of a class 66 diesel locomotive The New Media Express (Baby Wants To Ride). In past exhibitions, the train has been presented moving and viewers have been encouraged to ride it. “But you can’t ride on it in London!” he beams into the camera. “There’s leaves on the line!” He dashes off into the next room. Another presenter is posing behind one of Michael Dean’s sculptures. It has drill holes in it, which the cameraman has decided will do well as peep holes. “Hello!” the presenter exclaims with feigned enthusiasm, time after time. “Hello! Hello!” As I turn away, I see a photographer posing gallery assistants to stand “more naturally” in front of a sculpture.
“Contemporary artists consistently respond to the way we live our lives,” Laura Smith, one of the exhibition’s two female curators tells me. “I think the Turner Prize has always been reflective of its time in this way and this year’s shortlist is no different. The four nominees are all interested in political, social and popular culture to varying degrees. This year’s exhibition considers issues ranging from class and poverty in the UK, to the over-saturation of our everyday lives with images and advertising, and the impact — be it positive or negative — of technology on the way that we live.”
This, the Tate Britain’s director Alex Farquharson reminds the assembled press, is the prize’s 32nd year. Much has changed in those 32 years. This year, Alex says, is “very exciting”. It’s the first year cameras and camera phones have been allowed into the exhibition space, and the gallery has paired up with Facebook Live. “As much as it’s important to hear what experts have to say about contemporary art,” Alex explains, “you don’t have to be an expert to understand it all. In fact, art is not about a single meaning or single statement. I think the work this year invites a very wide engagement: I think it’s a very seductive, very physical and very visual exhibition.”
The show’s first room belongs to Helen Marten. It is divided by walls which are angled so oddly that I nearly miss one of the three works from two of Helen’s recent exhibitions: Lunar Nibs and Eucalyptus Let us In. Helen’s highly detailed works combine screen printing, sculpture and writing, found and hand-made objects which are at once recognisable and unrecognisable. One piece alludes to work, productivity, resembling, according to Laura Smith, a “workstation or terminal”. The second work is a dreamscape with a background resembling a galaxy sky. Underneath this sky lies the bottom half of a body — shoes and legs — suggesting sleep. The third artwork is inspired by Japanese sites of spirituality. Helen’s work is a strange, complicated puzzle which resists easy analysis.
Entering into the next room is to enter into Anthea Hamilton’s head, a place where bawdy humour is created from near-obsessive levels of research. The walls of “the butt room”, as the Turner Prize’s second curator Lindsey Young labels it, is decorated with dour brick wallpaper. A Rene Magritte-style suit decorated with the same brick print hangs in the room, and a single vintage boot growing with coral-like lichen is presented on a plinth. But the room’s star is a 10-ft high naked ass, its cheeks prized apart by eager hands. “Whether you like it or not, people are engaged,” Lindsey notes dryly. The buttocks themselves have been made with of-the-moment 3D scanning technology and the assistance of a waxwork artist from Madame Tussauds. The work is based on an unrealised 1970s proposal by industrial designer Gaetano Pesce for a doorway into a New York apartment block and an essay which accompanies Hamilton’s installation refers to the sexually charged murder of Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini. But the context is lost on some. A nearby photographer mutters to another photographer beside him: “I just want to get a good picture of this and then go.” The crack, it seems, is difficult to capture on camera.
The walls of the second part of Anthea’s installation, like the first, are decorated, this time with a mural of an English sky — grey-tinged clouds on light blue. Hanging from the ceiling from metal chains are a line of metal pants.They’re chastity belts, Lindsey explains, but they look more like something that would fit a child. Again, Anthea’s enthusiasm for research is apparent, this time in the floral patterns which decorate the items, designs discovered in the work of French architect and art nouveau pioneer Hector Guimard.
More sculptures line one wall of the third room, wooden kitchen worktops covered with objects and exposed to the sun in London, Berlin and Athens — cities where photography professor Josephine Pryde has stayed since she was nominated for the Turner Prize — to create experimental camera-less photos. Along another wall are stock image-style photographs of women’s hands holding objects. Some of the objects are natural, like driftwood, others are stubbornly, strikingly modern — iPhones and tablets. Each set of hands is very different, but all wear nail varnish in oddly child-like pastel shades. Cutting through the room is the scale-model German diesel train. Unlike in other exhibitions, when viewers have been able to climb aboard, this time the train is going nowhere. Still, reminders of past shows are visible in graffiti across the train’s carriages — PRIDE, NUTS, News — tags by graffiti artists from the cities the model has previously been exhibited in.
Language dominates the final room in Michael Dean’s Sic Glyphs. The strikingly white space is filled with sculptures made of concrete, congregated metal shop shutters, sand and one-pence coins placed stubbornly, making the room difficult to navigate. At the entrance and stuck on the sculptures is graffiti of a different kind — stickers of varying designs all playing on the word “Shore”: “4 WHO SHORES SHORE”, “4 SHORE SHORES SHORING”, “NO SHORING SHOREY £SHO”. “Shore” refers to “propping up”, Laura Smith explains, and to the “urban slang” phrase “for sure”. Michael’s sculptures are derived from his writing — short plays, poetry, publications — which is then translated into typography, then realised physically in the form of sculptures. Far from cold graphics, Michael’s sculptures are near-human, some with circular “eyes”. Scattered on the gallery floor are concrete fists (a material Laura terms “democratic ceramic”) cast from the hands of Michael’s family, and in the room’s centre is a startlingly small pile of borrowed one pence coins that makes up £20,439.99, one pence below the amount that the UK government suggests a family of four can live on for a year. With its coins, concrete and congregated iron, the room feels like a linguistic scrapyard, a modern, physicalised retelling of T. S. Elliot’s Waste Land.
“There is a very particular mood to this year’s exhibition,” Laura tells me. “It certainly feels like a response to, or even a consequence of, our political times. Many of the works ask us to slow down the way we look at the images and the objects that they consist of, and in doing so to reconsider the world around us. The way that we are bombarded by certain levels of communication — advertising, commodification — is a huge part of the show and several of the works borrow from the worlds of fashion, design, technology and the built environment. Equally significant is the questioning of how democratic access to language and literature – for all factions of society – really is.” At a time when the global community seems more fractured than ever, art has the ability to distract, to provide solace and entertainment. But as this year’s Turner prize nominees instead address issues of politics, democracy and modernity head on, the prize’s largest audience yet is forced to consider and question the troubled world around them.
About the Author
Bryony joined It's Nice That as Deputy Editor in August 2016, following roles at Mother, Secret Cinema, LAW, Rollacoaster and Wonderland. She later became Acting Editor at It's Nice That, before leaving in late 2018.