Feature · arts
A deeper look into the art world's most controversial award: The Turner Prize
The award, won by Damien Hirst and Antony Gormley in previous years, may sometimes baffle but never fails to spark conversation.
Instinctively and predictably, they acted as one.
I counted 13 press photographers outside and within moments of entering this year's Turner Prize exhibition
at London's Tate Britain
, they'd gathered in front of the large polystyrene sculpture of a man's buttocks.
1/13 – "Project for a Door" (2016) by Anthea Hamilton
London artist Anthea Hamilton works across sculpture, installation, performance and video. Hamilton has been nominated for her solo exhibition "Lichen! Libido! (London!) Chastity!", which first showed at SculptureCenter, New York. Credit: Carl Court/Getty Images Europe/Getty Images
Some 200 years ago, Goya famously painted a firing squad; here was a contemporary equivalent in the flesh. A woman from the Tate press office was quickly instructed where to stand, lens caps were removed and the photographers began firing away.
The London Evening Standard
was first with the story a few hours later with the headline "Bottoms Up." The Guardian
went with "bleak and baffling but no bum deal," and the Times
with "Big ideas and empty bombast hit a bum note."
“After the heady days of the 1990s, the Turner Prize has arguably struggled to maintain its profile.”
This deliberately playful (and surrealist) buttocks piece is by the British artist, Anthea Hamilton,
and is entitled "Project for a Door." She was inspired by a 1970s design for a New York apartment block entrance that was never built.
Hamilton actively likes to collaborate with others. The work was fabricated in Sussex and painted in skin tones by an expert from London's Madame Tussauds
. The show's lead curator, Linsey Young, merrily referred to the space as the "Butt Room."
The man's hands, I noticed, were cupping his cheeks rather precisely (and symmetrically), apparently prizing them apart. Was he about to unleash a fart into the Butt Room? -- I wondered indelicately. "No," said the curator firmly, "he wasn't."
The Turner Prize legacy
So here we all were again; another year and another Turner Prize exhibition.
This December, the prize will be awarded for the 32nd time -- £25,000 (about $36,000) to the winner, £5000 each to three runners-up. The rules have been settled for some time -- artists must be British and under the age of 50 and the exhibited work recent.
I've been to a lot of Turner Prize press shows; for 16 years, from 1993 to 2009, I've never missed one and these were undeniably newsworthy years -- the prize demanding and deserving attention. And at least three winners created work so memorable that it was talked about well beyond what one Turner winner, the Essex transvestite potter Grayson Perry
, refers to as "the art mafia."
There was Damien Hirst'
s Shark -- "The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living" (both the original tiger shark and its later substitute). What London taxi-driver didn't have an opinion about the shark? For a fleeting moment, "formaldehyde" entered the popular vocabulary and newspaper cartoonists made fun of politicians by suspending them in vitrines.
I happened to witness the manufacture and erection (another good word) of Antony Gormley
's splendid rusting steel "Angel of the North" that overlooks a motorway near Gateshead in the north of England.
Just as memorably, there was the monumental creation of Rachel Whiteread's "House," her interior cast of the last terrace house standing on a patch of grass in the East End of London. At the insistence of the local council, "House" was demolished. I still have a relic -- a small gray concrete shard, bearing the partial imprint of a door panel.
Like them or not, the Shark, the Angel and "House" were artworks that were instantly written into Art History -- capital "A," capital "H." And some of the artists found collectors and fame and became rich. Last year, The Guardian estimated Damien Hirst's wealth at £1 billion ($1.3 billion).
After the heady days of the 1990s, the Turner Prize has arguably struggled to maintain its profile, has some years perhaps felt a little jaded. With over 140 artists nominated since the first prize in 1984, how good could all of them be?
Turner Prize 2016
This year, for the first time, the BBC is the prize's media partner and that should help spread the word. And for the second year, the head of the jury is Tate Britain's enthusiastic new director, Alex Farquharson
, in his mid-40s.
So how was he rising to the challenge of reinvigorating the Turner Prize? "The artists keep it fresh" was his quick response. "Art keeps moving. There are no one-liners now." This was "a very exciting year -- the work capricious, seductive, poetic." As he saw it, the nature and trajectory of contemporary art had changed. It was now about "the liquidity of images and objects, about the internet, about shape-shifting and the art of retrieval."
This was immediately apparent from the first room in the new show.
Like some archaeological storeroom, the space had been filled by the youngest of the nominees, 31-year-old Helen Marten
with multiple handmade and found objects -- an idiosyncratic detritus of fish bones, python skins, coins, a textile magic lamp, cotton buds, iron building nails, dried lemon peel -- all neatly laid out on shelves and chipboard and oddly shaped work stations. Her work clearly invites you to look and look again more closely.
Marten has said -- ''as an artist, there is no policing of fantasy." As intended, the work was full of visual riddles. "We are" -- she has said "archaeologists of our own time."
An art installation by artist Josephine Pryde. Credit: ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
At the heart of Josephine Pryde
's practice is photography -- she's a professor of photography in Berlin and, at 49, the oldest of the four nominees. Along one wall, she'd hung a series of photographs of manicured female hands -- nails painted in brightly colors -- holding objects like iPhones and pens. A perfect miniature diesel locomotive runs through her space, disappointingly stopped in its tracks; there were evidently leaves on the line. In previous Pryde exhibitions, the train has moved and carried gallery visitors two or three at a time. Here the train is entitled "The New Media Express in a Temporary Siding (Baby wants a Ride)." I definitely would have loved a ride. The old media snapped happily away at the locomotive as their willing model marched up and down alongside the track.
Visitors view an installation of artworks by artist Michael Dean. Credit: ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
In the final room, Michael Dean
's work stopped me in my tracks -- an arresting and simple idea, wonderfully executed. Spread across the floor, like so much metallic scree, was a heap of British one penny coins -- to be precise £20,436 ($26,605) -- the annual income for a family of four living on what the British government deems the national poverty line. For many of us Brits, pennies are just loose change of frankly little or no use. The artwork presented the shocking reality -- pennies do have value -- and here, a slurry of them to keep a family alive. Dean has surrounded his pennies with upstanding sculptures, made of materials like concrete, corrugated sheeting and chain mail fencing. The white box of his exhibition space has been powerfully transformed into a landscape of decay, of a world falling apart.
Women in art
This year (as was the case last year), three of the four nominated artists are women. Three of the five jury members are women. The Tate curatorial team of four who put on the show are all women. Alex Farquharson hoped he'd seen "an end to inequality in the profile between male and female artists, maybe for the first time in history." Up to now, about 75% percent of Turner Prize Winners have been men although frankly I wouldn't bet against Michael Dean winning this year.
I left Tate Britain pleasantly mystified and invigorated but also thirsting for a good old fashioned artistic fix of beauty. The Frith Gallery
in Golden Square is showing new work by Tacita Dean, a Turner Prize nominee from 1998.
Dean has made a short, intimate film about the 79-year-old David Hockney
, smoking in his studio.
It's an affectionate, non-judgmental portrait of a famous smoking zealot. And it made me laugh. "It's very very enjoyable smoking," he muses to himself taking another long slow death-defying drag. In a static close-up, you can't help but worry for the state of Hockney's lungs. But like J.M.W Turner (from whom the Turner takes its name), Dean has also turned to cloudscapes -- fragile and exquisite chalk, gouache and white charcoal drawings on old Victorian school slates. They are simply breath-taking.