LONDON — It’s the same thing every year. The press has a field day with some sensational piece that challenges the very definition of art and the Turner Prize is front page news for the day — a rare event for any contemporary art show — bringing it to the attention of hundred of thousands, if not millions, of potential audience members. This year it was handed to them on a plate in the form of Anthea Hamilton’s “Project for Door (After Gaetano Pesce)” (2016), a monumental pair of butt cheeks, casually spread, made to flank the doors of a New York apartment building. The project was never realised however, and now the sculpture is in the neoclassical galleries of Tate Britain, subject to hundreds of selfies a day, all bearing the hashtag #turnerprize. For this is no ordinary Tate show; this year the gallery is positively encouraging photography and sharing of images on social platforms. It’s sensational art for sure, but knowingly done in order to bring art to a wider audience. The judges and curators of this year’s prize are inviting debate and even mockery with tongue in cheek (sorry), political, and gendered work from this year’s selection of the best artists under 50 working in Britain.
The show opens with the work of Helen Marten who is known for her collages of objects that are loaded with associations, from the entrenched femininity of embroidery to the mechanical simplicity of a bicycle chain. Here they are pieced together in ‘poetic visual puzzles’ to create 3D tableaux of daily life. The placement of these objects, both strange and familiar — one piece included what looked like animal skin or dried fish as well as used earbuds — creates both a theatre of the domestic and the industrial, as we move from home to workstation, and forces us to readdress the everyday aspects and objects of our lives.
The next gallery has been dubbed the ‘butt room’ by the curators for obvious reasons, but it is not just the large sculpture that commands attention. Like her show last year at the SculptureCenter in New York, the walls are covered in brick pattern wallpaper intended to represent the banal backgrounds to our lives that we barely notice until we are told to sit up and pay attention. On the other side of the butt is a gallery whose walls are covered in a Windows 95-like mural of a perfect blue sky, dotted with impossibly picturesque clouds, providing an almost saccharine backdrop to four metal medieval chastity belts, hanging on chains from the ceiling and embellished with cut-out art nouveau floral motifs.
In a week where the Guerrilla Girls unveiled their Is it even worse in Europe? campaign at the Whitechapel Gallery it is significant that this year’s Turner Prize is dominated by women — three out of the four artists nominated are female — but in Hamilton’s work gender feels slightly like an afterthought, trotting out seasoned female tropes for the sake of juxtaposition.
Josephine Pryde’s work brings us back to the virtual reality of the 21st century with Hands “Für Mich,” a series of photographs of women’s hands, often holding some form of screen,whether smartphone or tablet, or natural object such as driftwood, each carefully manicured and shot in close up as if for advertising. They show a certain intimacy with these objects and we are told that Pryde also wishes to highlight the pressures of social media, from the culture of commenting — women beware women — to our need to present a more perfect version of ourselves that is alien to true experience. As a professor of contemporary photography at the University of the Arts, Berlin, Pryde is also commenting on what it means for photographers now that everyone has a camera in their pocket, and access to a massive audience in seconds. Her deep rooting in the photographic tradition is also evident in a series of photograms made with six kitchen counters, leaning John McCracken-style against the wall, that bear negative impressions of domestic objects, letters, and shapes. In these post-Brexit times it is significant to note they were exposed over the course of the summer in Athens, Berlin, and London to mark the passage of time between her nomination and the opening of the show, highlighting her concerns about the end of free movement in the European Union.
Finally, Michael Dean presents an installation of sculpture in everyday materials like concrete, corrugated iron, and plywood reminiscent of makeshift structures, an association made poignant by the sad news last week that the demolition of the Calais camp for refugees is imminent. At the centre of the room is a work consisting of £20,436 in pennies on the floor of the gallery faced by four concrete ‘figures.’ This is the amount the UK government states is the minimum that two adults and two children need to survive for a year. Seen in the flesh it seems surprisingly small. To highlight the significance of this ‘poverty line’ Dean removed just one penny from the piece. We are told that his sculptures derive from language, words he has distorted and abstracted with a computer programme to form awkward figures and structures that are intended to make us aware of our bodies passing through the exhibition space.
Thirty-two years on from the first Turner Prize — which was won by photorealist painter Malcolm Morley — it is no surprise that technology is at the forefront of the conversation on contemporary art. It is fascinating to see how different artists respond to the constant reminders that we live in a drone-plagued, narcissistic echo chamber, and even more so to see how an establishment like the Tate has embraced the possibilities of social media in an effort to make art truly universal. Each work invites some form of interaction, whether it’s an installation or something so knowingly ridiculous that it positively invites photography, and though the observations may seem a little tired at times, these works should be applauded for asking us to step back and notice how we look at art.
The Turner Prize 2016 exhibition continues at Tate Britain (Millbank, London SW1P 4RG) until January 2, 2017.