Tai Shani, DC Semiramis, 2018 Glasgow, Courtesy the artist, Photo Keith Hunter.
Every other year, one of the art world’s most anticipated awards – the Turner Prize – ups sticks from London and lands elsewhere in the UK. This year for the first time, almost unbelievably given its aptness, it’s taking over the Turner Contemporary in Margate, the gallery built on the site of J. M. W. Turner’s (whom the prize is named after) holiday lodgings. And while the majority of the four nominated artists hasn’t made much noise about this connection, one, Oscar Murillo, has used Turner’s association as well as the gallery’s seaside views to make acerbic political commentary about Brexit, migration and economic exclusion.
Each artist is given a room, and Murillo’s room is the most Instagrammable, unexpectedly given that Tai Shani’s bizarrely garish pink and green sculpture portraying a sci-fi feminist city is just next door. In his room, rows of wooden benches are filled with a congregation of 20 larger-than-life-size, paper mâché human effigies, gawping at the huge window that would normally provide panoramic views of the sea – a view that Turner famously painted. Instead that window is almost entirely obstructed by a black canvas, with just a small section allowing a peek of the horizon, making a not-so-subtle statement about Britain’s imminent severance from Europe.
“Murillo’s work is about globalisation, capitalism, the labour trade and community,” explains co-curator Fiona Parry. “Because [the Turner Prize] is in Margate, he wanted to focus on the political and social situation in the UK at the moment. His first gesture was to block out this beautiful view out to the North Sea with this enormous black canvas, he says ‘to reflect the darkness of our contemporary moment’. There is a glimmer of hope, though,” Parry continues, “he’s cut a hole in it so you can just see the horizon line.” Opposite the blocked window is a historical work by 19th Century Scottish painter John Watson Nicol depicting a couple leaving Scotland for America during the Highland Clearances. “He wanted to say that migration is part of the history of this country, and humanity, to challenge the negative rhetoric around migration at the moment,” Parry says.
The figures have appeared in Murillo’s work before, intended to portray the position of the worker in capitalism, and have metal cylinders protruding from their torsos, filled with corn and clay loaves that represent the fuel of the industrial class and, in turn, the “insidiousness of the system they’re trapped in”. Proving his dedication to bringing his figures to life, they even travelled from Murillo’s London studio to Margate on the train as a gaggle (which you can witness on video screens in the exhibition) and on wheeled chairs along the seafront before taking their place in the installation.
Next door is Tai Shani’s aforementioned, eye-boggling room, filled by her installation DC: Semiramis – the latest episode in a four-year project for the artist. Inspired by a 15th Century text titled The Book of the City of Ladies, the work is part mythology, part science fiction, imagining a world structured as if the patriarchy never happened. On the floor is a bright pink architectural plan of the city, and a series of hand sculptures representing each of the 12 characters in Shani’s complicated 12-part narrative. Suspended above is an assemblage of surreal oversized items, such as a giant drooping arm and a floating disc, appearing like Dali’s paintings if they were real and draped in deep pink velvet. A video reads Shani’s text, which is apparently seven hours long and only audible over headphones due to its violent and disturbing content.
While its fantastical and dramatic aesthetic might be the most visually intriguing, Shani’s work also seems unapproachable in its confusing complexity – which co-curator Rowan Geddis says is intentional. “It’s unapologetically dense and verbose,” he says. “It’s also boldly feminist and subversive. It shows the potential of science fiction to unpack structures of how we live, and consider them malleable, like the patriarchy.”
More traditional in presentation yet with a similarly feminist slant is Helen Cammock’s work, which centres around a film titled The Long Note and a series of prints called Shouting in Whispers. Cammock was commissioned by Void Gallery to make the film, which explores the history and role of women in the civil rights movement in Derry Londonderry, Northern Ireland, in 1968 – a period seen as the starting point of the country’s conflict. Cammock’s work is largely focused on bringing marginalised voices to the fore, and The Long Note is no different, featuring the artist interviewing women who were active in the movement and those affected by it, for example mothers who lost sons on both sides of the Troubles.
“She’s challenging the way history is told,” explains Parry, “presenting lots of different voices. It also exposes the importance of the issues still today.”
Also concerned with storytelling is Lawrence Abu Hamdan, whose installation is simplest in form, but has the longest lasting impact. At the centre of the large, dark room is a screen showing three works on a loop. Saydnaya, one of these works, shows simply text appearing word by word, explaining Abu Hamdan’s process for collecting “ear-witness” accounts from survivors of the Saydnaya prison in Syria. At the prison, where Amnesty International estimates up to 13,000 people were executed, inmates were forced to live in silence and blindfolded, so most of the survivors’ memories rely on sounds. Abu Hamdan interviewed six survivors, and set about creating sound effects to mimic their descriptions, in order to aid their recollections and gather evidence about the prison.
In watching the film, viewers are exposed to the suspense and fear experienced by these inmates, albeit fractionally, as some of the noises are played intermittently and suddenly in the otherwise quiet room while the inmates’ terrifying accounts are described on-screen.
Lawrence Abu Hamdan: installation view of Saydnaya (the missing 19db), 2017, Turner Prize 2019. Photo by Stuart Leech.
One of the most fascinating aspects is the artist’s investigation into how we perceive sound; how the sounds we hear, for example the sound of a gunshot or a punch, don’t match our expectations because we’ve been conditioned by TV and films. Also, how our situation warps our memories of sound, for example in one section of Abu Hamdan’s interview with an ex-Saydnaya prisoner, where he recalls the sound of bread hitting the floor outside his cell as a deafening echo, due to his starvation. Abu Hamdan’s forensic works, as Geddis explains, “bridge the gap between the lack of language to describe experiences,” and “make extreme situations relatable, without being traumatic.” Its stripped back presentation means the viewer is absorbed from the outset, and the results are utterly gripping.
The Turner Prize exhibition is open at the Turner Contemporary from 28 September 2019 – 12 January 2020. The winner of the £25,000 prize will be announced on 3 December 2019 live on the BBC.