The Turner Prize: Who's Been and Who's On
By Lucia Hawkes
A chaotic sprawl of bedsheets, empty vodka bottles, contraceptive pill packets, discarded hosiery – the deeply confessional debris of Tracey Emin’s 1998 Turner Prize installation, My Bed, provoked an uproar of controversy. Likewise, Damien Hirst’s Mother and Child (Divided) (1995) – featured in the Turner Prize a few years prior – elicited turmoil and objection, and yet, a deep intrigue. Hirst seemed to highlight our innately human, morbid curiosity with death and decay; in other words, our compulsion with revulsion. His installation piece confronts themes of isolation, loss and loneliness, in an appeal to our most primal anxieties.
With Hirst and Emin, the Turner Prize became increasingly controversial, gaining in the process an expansive international following. Unfairly, artistic merit was somewhat lost amidst the furore of media-slamming and punning headlines. Little is remembered, for instance, about Richard Deacon’s serpentine, lyrical works, or Christine Borland’s quietly melancholic and anthropological sculptures. Admittedly, obscenity and controversy has overwhelmed the history of the Turner Prize, discrediting the less-obtrusive, yet equally noteworthy, works of other nominees and winners. Nevertheless, this publicity has sustained ardent cultural and artistic debate, and with the announcement of this year’s shortlisted artists, the discourse fervently continues.
Newcastle born Michael Dean (b. 1977) describes the ‘miracle’ of his work, and art in general, to be the way in which meaning is indeterminable and interpretation is never-ending. Dean’s structures are conceived from the written word and focuses upon the transformation of language into a tactile and palpable object. In a recent exhibition at the South London Gallery, entitled Sic Glyphs, visitors were denied direct access to Dean’s sculptures. The works were observed through peepholes, in a deliberately restrictive and exclusive gesture. In relation to wider socio-political discourse, Dean provides commentary upon immigration, borders and control; the movement from one threshold to another. Being neither fully accepted nor completely prohibited, visitors were thus suspended in an indefinable, liminal state. Arguably, there is something disturbingly familiar about his elongated, upright constructions. In some instances, his sculptures are adorned with limb-like extensions and concrete-casts of tightly clenched fists – an allusion to violence or frustration. Displacing the industrial material, however, Dean incorporates spouting branches and sprigs of grass, an evocation of the ‘urban jungle’. What is most significant for Dean is the way in which his work is encountered and experienced; how the viewer responds to its physical presence and attaches or divulges meaning from his alphabetically-inspired vision.
The work of Anthea Hamilton (b. 1978) adapts and reconfigures imagery from popular culture, also making substantial art historical references to Surrealism and Dada. She focuses upon humour and ambiguity, a sense of ‘collaborating the space’, curiosity of the everyday and reworking of the commonplace. Her defiant and cheeky large-scale Project for Door is presented as the focal point of the Tate exhibit; the splayed bottom, Hamilton explains, originated from a photograph of an installation by Gaetano Pesce – a leading Italian architect and designer. Moreover, one can’t help but see affinities between Hamilton’s Brick Suit (2010) and Bill Woodrow’s sculpture Self-Portrait in the Nuclear Age, shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 1986. Woodrow – through his use of visual paradox and inversion – offered a social commentary upon the chaotic and dangerous ‘modern’ age of mass-destruction.The hanging business suit – also featuring within Hamilton’s work – is symbolic of the ‘ordinary’ or commonplace, subsequently reworked to convey a sense of uncertainty. The suit icon also makes explicit reference to the faceless or silhouetted figures depicted in the work of Surrealist artist Rene Magritte. In Hamilton’s version, however, the suspended garment becomes the site of textural play and provocation, mocking and adapting a popular and recognisable image from the Surrealist lexicon.
The multi-media assemblages of Helen Marten (b. 1985) make reference to the intrusive and overwhelming bombardment of imagery in the age of mass, virtual and fast-paced communication. Her Night-blooming genera(2015), a sculpture consisting of aluminium, steel, fabric, ceramic and feathers, forms a visual conundrum. It appears as a relic of the contemporary moment – a sci-fi inspired artifact and a vestige of the industrial world. She seems to amalgamate the rubble of modern life, producing strangely lyrical and beautiful objects. Similarly, Josephine Pryde’s (b. 1967) photographic-based exhibition, Hands “Für Mich”, is based upon the imagery of fashion advertisement. Isolating the hands of her sitters, Pryde’s photographs convey a conflict of intimacy and detachment; ‘hands’ are symbolic of labour, creativity, social interaction and the need for physical affection. Pryde generates a sense of emotion in the subtle, yet expressive, gestures. The inclusion of technology – for example, a phone or other handheld device – within Pryde’s imagery, however, signifies our extension of social interaction into the so-called cyber sphere; a disconnected form of ‘connection’ which, damagingly, substitutes and negates the need for face-to-face communication.
The publicity received annually from the Turner Prize has ensured British art remains a topic of debate. From its origins in 1984, the Turner Prize has consistently sparked debate about what ‘art’ really is and how it can possibly be defined into categories of ‘good’ and ‘bad’. The panel of judges – refreshed yearly – admit to being firmly based upon subjective critique; is there any other way to judge art? The shortlisted Turner Prize nominees, typically, produce work which is socially and politically confrontational, experimental, installation-based and unconventional; the criteria against which work is judged is elusive – or, perhaps, non-existent. Subjecting art to ‘judgement’ will always remain contentious, and defining exactly what art is and isn’t, even more so. Ultimately, the Turner Prize offers contemporary up-and-coming British artists a platform upon which to gain notoriety and make a substantial contribution to the redefinition of Britain’s ever-changing artistic and cultural landscape.
Stella Bottai, ‘Mousse Magazine’, Michael Dean “Sic Glyphs” at South London Gallery, URL: http://moussemagazine.it/michael-dean-south-london-gallery-2016/ [Accessed: 24/10/2016]
‘Tate London’, Michael Dean: Tate Shots’, URL: http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/video/michael-dean-turner-prize-2016-tateshots [Accessed: 24/10/2016]
‘Tate London’, Anthea Hamilton: Tate Shots’, URL: http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/video/michael-dean-turner-prize-2016-tateshots [Accessed: 24/10/2016]
Button, The Turner Prize: Twenty Years, (London: Tate Publishing, 2003) p. 52