The Turner Prize is famously known as the art world’s most provocative prize. From Damien Hirst’s formaldehyde cows, Tracey Emin’s tampon-strewn bed, and Martin Creed’s flickering lights, the nominees over the prize’s 34-year existence have never failed to elicit fiery newspaper headlines. And this year’s contenders have proved no less controversial. One reviewer enthused that the works are “so rewarding it’s hard to pick a winner,” while another fumed that the exhibition was a “miserable, tedious, poker-faced display.”
So who are the contenders for this year’s prize? The artists were selected from exhibitions at different museums and galleries and are now presented in a group show at Tate Britain — and they all work in the same medium: video. The works are separated into their own darkened rooms with a reading room in the center. First up is Glasgow-based Charlotte Prodger and her 33-minute video “BRIDGIT,” an autobiographical work filmed over the course of a year, featuring shots of the Scottish landscape and the artist’s home. The voiceover, which includes extracts from Prodger’s diary, as well quotes from theoretical and literary texts, explores self-determination through the lens of Scottish independence and queer identity.
Next up is London-based Luke Willis Thompson, a New Zealand artist of mixed European and Fijian heritage, whose trilogy of short videos are a contemporary take on the traditional genre of portraiture. Two of them adopt the voyeuristic style of Andy Warhol’s screen tests, focusing on Black subjects whose lives have been affected by state and police brutality. “Autoportrait,” for example, depicts Diamond Reynolds, who in July 2016 live-streamed the police killing her boyfriend Philando Castile. The third video, “_Human,” is an elegiac study of the Black British artist Donald Rodney’s sculpture, “My Mother, My Father, My Sister, My Brother.” Rodney’s sculpture is made up of bits of his own skin, accumulated after multiple hospitalizations from the sickle-cell anemia that would claim his life at the age of 36.
Then there’s Forensic Architecture, a research collective comprised of architects, academics, filmmakers, journalists, and software developers based at London’s Goldsmiths University. The multidisciplinary group reconstructs crime scenes through digital modeling and have in the past provided conclusive evidence in human rights trials. Their presentation, the cleverly-titled “Long Duration of a Split Second,” shows their investigation into the events on the morning of January 18, 2017, when the Israeli police attempted to clear an unrecognized Bedouin village in the Naqab/Negev region, which led to two deaths.
The Turner Prize committee is challenging the definition of “artist,” as they did years ago with the nomination of the architecture collective Assemble. Though I wouldn’t go as far as to say that the work of Forensic Architecture isn’t art, I question their inclusion considering the many artists who identify strongly and exclusively as such and could use the media exposure and prize money which the Turner Prize provides.
Finally, there are two works by Bangladeshi artist-cum-writer Naeem Mohaiemen, which confront the themes of post-WW2 imperialism, migration, and community. The three-screen documentary “Two Meetings and a Funeral” resurrects the forgotten story of the rise and fall of the Non-Aligned Movement, an alliance of Third-World countries which formed as an alternative to the West and the Soviet Bloc. The fictional “Tripoli Cancelled” shows the everyday life of a man who spends a decade alone in an empty airport in Athens, a story which is loosely based on Mohaiemen’s uncle’s experience of being stuck in an airport for ten days after losing his passport. Following the lonely protagonist as he plays hopscotch on the runway and hangs out with his mannequin, the work is simultaneously poignant and kooky.
Displayed together, the works present a fascinating exploration of the medium of video. Prodger’s video-diary is partly filmed in the artist’s bedroom on her iPhone, with her thumb blurrily intruding on the lens, an interesting contrast with Forensic Architecture’s sophisticated digital reconstructions. Thompson’s black-and-white 35mm films are silent and almost completely static, but the projector itself provides a sonic and sculptural element in the installation. Meanwhile Mohaiemen’s documentary film, “Two Meetings and a Funeral,” exploits the potentials of interviews and found footage à la Adam Curtis, while the 93-minute-long fiction film “Tripoli Cancelled” plays with the viewer’s experience of time by being deliberately tedious.
Alex Farquharson, the director of Tate Britain, said that the works in this year’s Turner prize works are “very much of our times.” He’s not wrong. The challenging works confront some of the most pressing political and humanitarian issues of our age — from the Israel-Palestine conflict, to Scottish independence, to American police brutality. Digitally-driven and hyper-political, the exhibition recreates the experience of living in 2018 and the high-frequency news cycle which has become our everyday reality.
Flitting between the Turner Prize mini-exhibitions feels a bit like scrolling down a Twitter feed, casually swiping past newspaper headlines and looped videos about international crises. The risk is that these works, placed together, create the same cognitive and affective overload as our social media feeds. Do we take it in or do we zone out? Which begs the question: is this year’s Turner Prize a little bit too contemporary?
The winner of the Turner Prize will be announced on December 4, 2018. The exhibition was curated by Linsey Young and Elsa Coustou and will run until January 6, 2019.