What is the Turner Prize for?

10 Mins read

Lauded as the most significant competition in contemporary art, the Turner Prize has propelled some of its participants to vast fortune on the art market, further accolade and insertion in the national memory. Consider Tracy Emin’s My Bed, and that didn’t even win.

Seizing the attention of the press was of course Anthea Hamilton’s Project for a Door, a ceiling-high cast of a bum, prised apart by two hands.

Probably an (unintentionally) expected two-fingers to the Prize’s more sceptical members of the public, something that is almost taken as rent each year when something scandalous in the shortlist is revealed.

Turner Prize 2016, Tate Britain

Anthea Hamilton, Project for a Door

Hamilton associated Project for a Door with the murder of the acclaimed Italian director Pier Paulo Pasolini, the mutilated victim of what is still thought to be an attack driven by homophobia.

Reminiscent of the death of Joe Orton, the sculpture can come to embody trust in intimacy and its inseparableness with vulnerability.

A photographer would find it hard not love Josephine Pryde’s photogram-inspired kitchen worktops, not only revealing the naturally beautiful principle of photography, but also reminiscent in one’s mind of a recently vacated house; a morose idea that a lifetime is just an imprint.

Turner Prize 2016, Tate Britain

Josephine Pryde, Summer of 2016 (London, Athens, Berlin)

Lapses in Thinking By the person I Am, a fully functional graffitied model train could have been really great.

Designed to carry passengers around the gallery (think Groucho Marx in a soapbox racer) it was sadly decommissioned for the show, spoiling its impact.

Consider the association it creates between the gallery and the theme park – our expectations of any institution and how satisfactorily it entertains us. Consequently, by seeking it out in the art gallery, you yourself become the locus of entertainment. The farce of a passenger’s likely disappointment and awkwardness, squatting on toy train.

Both Pryde and Hamilton’s work had noteworthy pieces within them. Project for a Door, evidently made to stand out, contrasted well with Brick Suit, inconspicuous against a brickwork mural. The internal conflict to stand out or blend in no doubt? However, in their completeness they were poorly edited. Too many disconnected ideas, only associated by the artist herself.

Consequently, this may be why Michael Dean and Helen Marten were considered the likely contenders for the prize. Both had passed the semiotic threshold ever-present in conceptual art; channelling the question ‘You think you know how to define this? Now what does this mean with this, next to this?’

The straightforward United Kingdom poverty line for two adults and two children: twenty thousand four hundred and thirty-six pounds sterling as published on 1st September 2016 by Dean consisted entirely of pennies minus one (penny).

Presumed to infer how precarious such a definition of poverty is, the pile is stood over by a family of anthropomorphised concrete slabs, brought to life by pairs of eyes.

Huddling on their shallow, copper island they are surrounded by a wasteland, not unlike some sort of refugee camp. Wiry, crooked letters of the alphabet stand about the room, maybe analogous of any attempt we make to understand ongoing real-life chaos, our psyche fed by disconnected messages that don’t provide any resolution.

Here, one may wonder whether Dean’s relative accessibility hampered any chance he had of winning.

Turner Prize 2016, Tate Britain

Michael Dean, United Kingdom poverty line for two adults and two children

If this review had been written in November it would ended roughly here. However, the fourth participant Helen Marten, was voted the winner and it’s a bit ridiculous to ignore that.

The reviews of bonafide art writers prior to this article wrote very admiringly of Marten’s submission. So unsurprisingly one writing afterwards can feel intimidated by their insight and irritated by one’s own blindness.

But beyond the basic premise of subjective interpretation; what were Marten’s “narratives giddily fragmenting and multiplying” that Matthew Collings spoke of?

“Elements in ceramic are precise,” wrote Artnet’s Hettie Judah on Marten, “fired with studio-made glazes, carved wood… so smooth it nestles almost unperceived alongside plastic, everything is pressed and milled and punched just so. Where elements are unclean and unfinished—fetishes lashed together from worn insoles, feathers and ribbon.”

The significance of the impact of Marten’s art, maybe once so vivid in her concept, feels lost in the process of making the art itself.

Marten’s work felt far more reliant on interpretation to govern the definition of and feeling towards, the art piece. Consider this in art literacy and appreciation; how does it affect the criticism of the work? How is it written about?

Turner Prize 2016, Tate Britain

Helen Marten, Night-blooming genera, Turner Prize 2016, Tate Britain

By the responsibility of interpretation and thus the impact of a piece of art being passed to the viewer or reviewer; an undue pressure comes with it.

It makes it harder to be assertive and opinionated about such art. It is like being asked repeated questions in a foreign language, a language only known to the artist, and this is important.

Consider how the identity of the art-world translates to the relationship between the insiders and the outsiders.

“Modern art is a mixture of snob-culture and amazing open-mindedness” says critic Matthew Collings in his 1999 television series This is Modern Art. Isn’t that a strange pairing? One concept borrowed from Burkean conservatism and another from a variety of cosmopolitan liberalism.

[pullquote align=”right”]“IAE (International Art English) ‘sounds like inexpertly translated French’. This was no coincidence, they claimed…”[/pullquote]

In a TEDxTalk last year, Jessica Backus of Artsy spoke of how contemporary art has approximately become quasi-religious; with its own syntax, grammar, dedicated educational establishments, even cathedrals (galleries of course, the Tate for one) and rituals (the Turner Prize).

In 2013, artist David Levine and critic Alix Rule outlined the the idea of a language that binds this all together, which they called IAE, International Art English, absorbed through university reading lists of John Berger, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and Susan Sontag.

For example, one of the most common words found amongst British coverage of the Turner Prize last year, was ‘assemblage’ (The Telegraph, Artnet and Evening Standard all offenders). Think also of the words ‘gestural’, ‘negative space’ and ‘hybridity’.

Andy Beckett, in conversation with Levine and Rule for The Guardian wrote the following: “In fact, in its declarative, multi-clause sentences, and in its odd combination of stiffness and swagger, they argued that IAE ‘sounds like inexpertly translated French’.

This was no coincidence, they claimed, having traced the origins of IAE back to French post-structuralism and the introduction of its slippery ideas and prose style into American art writing via October, the New York critical journal founded in 1976.

Since then, IAE had spread across the world so thoroughly that there was even, wrote Rule and Levine, an “IAE of the French press release … written, we can only imagine, by French interns imitating American interns imitating American academics imitating French academics.”

The significance of IAE is “its ubiquity, thanks to the internet, and thanks to the heavily theoretical and text-influenced nature of much current art-making and education. Rule and Levine are cautious about IAE’s precise effect on artists; they haven’t researched it. But Rule does say: ‘It would be naive to say artists are not influenced’.”

[pullquote align=”right”]“Modern art is a mixture of snob-culture and amazing open-mindedness”[/pullquote]

By being held up through convoluted and cryptic description, art presented to the viewer can just as easily be misconstrued either as a sham, attempting brilliance; or pure genius, transcending everyday rationale.

Consequentially, if you like it – you feel like an imposter; dislike it, you feel like a snob. The Turner Prize creates this dilemma almost every year.

I am a fan of Martin Creed’s Work No. 227: The lights going on and off; the winning entry in 2001. However, there were walk-outs, as well as the usual protest by the Stuckists.

Even then, during what some critics consider to be the Prize’s golden years, Nigel Reynolds of the Telegraph asked whether the Turner’s death knell may be rapidly approaching.

Then as now, how does one write about art? Mostly appraisingly says Jonathan Jones, groaning at the feebleness of contemporary criticism: To consider an artist unworthy is to be denounced as a philistine.

Which is maybe because of the medium within which we see their work, such as the larger public galleries like the Tate(s), Whitechapel, Saatchi and National Portrait gallery and how they mediate, to use and ‘IAE’ term, our opinion.

Even when Adrian Searle, a remarkably artistically literate writer, is critical of an artist in the Turner Prize, he is careful about his words, never really acute in his opinion and far from anything as brutal as what Robert Hughes might have said.

Is it not a valid question to ask whether this has created a recycling paradox? Where no-one is willing to say ‘I don’t understand your message’. It is the emperor’s new clothes.

In 2015, the Turner Prize had for the past five years been selected by a jury, which Artnet critic Martin Gayford pointedly said “…often consisted solely of staff members from various modern art institutions, plus perhaps a freelance curator.”

The institutional groupthink Gayford presents led him to write in 2014 that the shortlist was “the most opaque, and least calculated to grab the attention of the average sentient human being.”

Turner Prize 2016, Tate Britain

Helen Marten, Lunar Nibs

However, back to 2015 and on announcement day, the prize was not won by an artist representative of this trend.

Probably the biggest shock win within the Turner Prize’s history was not because of the work’s grotesqueness or exhibitionism, but its practicality.

Assemble, a design and architectural collective in London started by graduates of architecture, philosophy and politics had renovation the Granby four streets area of Toxteth in Liverpool. Their submission was a gift shop of wares they had created for this project, door handles, fireplaces and rugs.

There was at least continuity between all three of the other entrants that year and last year’s Marten; made apparent in this description by Martin Gayford, “Janice Kerbel, wrote a piece of music, deliberately not having studied the subject of composition in much depth… [and] performed in an art gallery.

“Bonnie Camplin produced a ‘study room’ which ‘examined the anxieties caused by the categorisation of lived experiences as valid or deviant.’ The fourth, Nicole Wermers, exhibited an installation focusing on ‘the glossy aesthetics and materials of modernist design and high fashion, alluding to themes of lifestyle, class, consumption, and control’.”

[pullquote align=”right”]“Why bring it in as art? I think if you’re just looking for stuff that isn’t pretention that’s going to be useful, why don’t you nominate B&Q? Or Oxfam?”[/pullquote]

“It’s been declared the death of the Turner Prize”, Charlotte Higgins wrote in the Guardian after Assemble’s win; “What’s happened to the Turner Prize?” asked Artnet.

In an interview, Maria Lisogorskaya of Assemble said they never considered themselves artists, “it’s funny, because we are not in control of this perception of us as artists or not. For us it’s not that important: it’s an academic discussion. We are more interested in doing good projects.”

The significance of Assemble’s win last year has a consequence beyond the controversy of Creed, Emin, Ben Okri, Rachel Whiteread and the Chapman brothers.

Why did they win? Maybe the jury wanted to push the boat out, but in doing so, it revealed the limitations of the “amazing open-mindedness” of Modern art, Collings talked of so long ago, in 1999.

It uncovers a verbal constitution that may soon break, under which artists have made indeterminate sums money but with instruction that art is art and products are products.

Of Assemble, Mark Hudson of The Telegraph said on Newsnight, “Why bring it in as art? I think if you’re just looking for stuff that isn’t pretention that’s going to be useful, why don’t you nominate B&Q? Or Oxfam?”

This is where insiders decided to draw an imaginary line dividing ‘art’ and ‘not art’. Ironically hypocritical.

[pullquote align=”right”]“It’s funny, because we are not in control of this perception of us as artists or not. For us it’s not that important”[/pullquote]

Suppose Marten’s victory is a repulsion by contemporary art for edging too close to commercialism? Does the art of the Turner Prize fear its own demise if it blurs with its sworn enemy the product?

If artists ever touch upon the commercial world, it is so often with parody or antithesis. But art is so often at its best and most relevant when it is questioning itself, its existence, which Assemble did.

This is epitomised across the Thames in the Newport Street Gallery, in Gavin Turk’s solo exhibition. On the floor of the last room, Chish ‘n’ fips, a bronze cast of a dirty polystyrene chip tray is guarded at all hours by gallery staff, in case someone treads on it, or throws it in the bin.

Maybe contemporary art cannot, like other disciplines, struggles and individuals, bear the idea of an end? Consider the Turner Prize as a conscious entity. Has it developed a self-defeating personality disorder?

One could suppose that this was instigated by a collective-consciousness or groupthink of the jury, whereby the Turner Prize may be turning away from the wider world; and may even obfuscate itself into irrelevance.

Turner Prize 2016, Tate Britain

Michael Dean, sic glyphs

Art must stay important and embedded in the imaginations of the public, whoever they are and wherever they come from. Assemble’s victory and the likelihood of Michael Dean being the ‘people’s choice’ last year offer a laurel of hope to the Turner Prize and Tate galleries.

One that says “The personal is political” as Carol Hanisch said. Both have made works that are conscientious, even going so far as to say Assemble’s raison d’etre is civic engagement.

[pullquote align=”right”]“Proper bottom-of-the-barrel bollocks”[/pullquote]

Digby Warde-Aldam, a journalist with the Spectator who believes himself to be reasonably fair-minded about the Turner Prize, called the apocryphal 2014 show “proper bottom-of-the-barrel bollocks”.

Warde-Aldam in 2014, like Gayford, grieved the steady decline of of the Turner Prize since it’s zenith in the nineties and early noughties.

In the same year however, Nicholas Serota said in promotion of the Prize, “I think the great achievement of the Turner Prize over thirty years is to have given people an opportunity to disagree with each and to form a view. Not everyone likes contemporary art, I don’t expect everyone should, but I think the Turner Prize has at least given them an opportunity to engage with it”.

Therein lies the key; as long as it provokes healthy debate, as far and wide as possible, it will always have a future. Maybe that is a lesson to be learnt from the foibles of British politics.

The politicians that have commented on the Turner Prize seem do so more candidly than any statement of policy. In 2003, the ever-delicate Culture minister Kim Howells said the Prize was “conceptual bullshit”.

As a final reply in the Prize’s favour, “My Bed was quite something” said Warde-Aldam, “…it forced me to think about cruelty, sex and guilt for the first time in my life.

It’s no exaggeration to say that this was what shoved me loping into adolescence.”




All images courtesy of Tate Britain

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