Tai Shani, installation view of DC: Semiramis (2019), Turner Prize 2019 (photograph by David Levene, courtesy Turner Contemporary and the artist)

MARGATE, England — Every year the Turner Prize judges trawl through dozens of exhibitions around the world to find new and fresh voices in contemporary art. The four nominees are then presented in a group show, and part-way through a winner is announced and awarded the £25,000 (~$32,000) prize. If the Turner Prize tries to capture the cultural zeitgeist, then this year’s exhibition — its 35th edition — is proof that we are living in the age of identity politics and the moving image.  

In last year’s exhibition at Tate Britain, all of the nominees presented works of politically-focused video art. The videos, which had a collective running time of over four hours, explored the themes of crime, migration, and sexuality. The pieces in this year’s line-up touch on some of the same ideas but take a more eclectic form. Nominees Helen Cammock and Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s displays feature the time-based media of video and sound, while Tai Shani and Oscar Murillo present multi-media installations and performances.

Lawrence Abu Hamdan, installation view of After SFX (2018) (photograph by Stuart Leech, courtesy Turner Contemporary and the artist)

For the last few years, the exhibition’s venue has alternated between London’s Tate Britain and a regional UK museum. This year’s exhibition takes place at the Turner Contemporary in Margate, the coastal town whose views inspired the seascapes of the prize’s eponym, J.M.W. Turner. One of the Turner Prize’s most famous nominees is another Margate-native, Tracey Emin, who recently moved her studio back to the town 20 years after being nominated for the prize in 1999.

The annual prize is awarded to a British artist, defined by the prize-givers as “an artist born, living or working in Britain.” This year, the definition is treated loosely. Although both studied in London, Lawrence Abu Hamdan was born in Amman, Jordan, and lives and works in Beirut, Lebanon, while Oscar Murillo was born in La Paila, Colombia and is now based in various locations. This more international approach is appropriate for this year’s nominees, all of whom explore the injustices created by borders, including national ones. 

Oscar Murillo, installation view of Collective Conscience (2019) (photograph by Stephen White, courtesy Turner Contemporary and the artist)

The 33-year-old Oscar Murillo focuses his presentation on the theme of migration. His installation collective conscience (2015—ongoing) is made up of 20 colorfully-dressed papier-mâché effigies, inspired by a Colombian New Year tradition. The life-size figures which, according to the artist, represent “human capital” or a “mobile globalised workforce,” traveled to the museum from London by commuter train. Now in Margate, they sit on scuffed wooden pews looking out of the museum windows at the North Sea. Except that their view is obscured by a number of black canvases — another work by Murillo and part of his series, The Institute of Reconciliation (2014 — ongoing), which explores the cultural symbolism of blackness.

On the wall opposite hangs a painting by the Scottish artist John Watson Nicol — “Lochaber No More” (1883) — which depicts a man and woman migrating by boat from Scotland to America, with a trunk, bucket, and dog in tow. On either side of this figurative painting is surge (social cataracts) (2019), 11 unstretched, abstract canvases — the type of work for which Murillo is best known. They have the energy and anarchism of a child’s first foray into painting. And fittingly, as part of his Turner Prize presentation, the artist has distributed canvases to schools across the county of Kent that will be fixed to desks and the schoolchildren encouraged to paint or write whatever they want on them. 

Tai Shani, installation view of DC: Semiramis (photograph by David Levene, courtesy Turner Contemporary and the artist)

There is a similar sense of play in Tai Shani’s zany pink installation piece, which is the latest installment in her project DC: Semiramis, now in its fourth year. London-born Shani, 43, works in installation, performance, and film. Her Turner Prize presentation, which incorporates elements of all three, is composed of a tableau of surreal shapes and forms: a floating red velvet caterpillar with udders, sickly-green disembodied hands, and orange marbled puddles. From a hanging screen, a woman narrates a story in 12 chapters, each centering a different mythical character: Cube of Flesh, The Vampyre, The Neanderthal, Phantasmagoregasm. Six of these chapters will be brought to life in a series of performances between November 15-17. The project draws inspiration from a utopian proto-feminist text by the French medieval writer Christine de Pizan, as well as contemporary gender theory. It is meant, according to the artist, to reflect “feminine subjectivity and experience.”

Helen Cammock, video still from The Long Note (2018) (photograph by David Levene, courtesy Turner Contemporary and the artist)

Helen Cammock, detail of Shouting in Whispers (2017) (photograph by David Levene, courtesy Turner Contemporary and the artist)

Equally focused on feminism is Helen Cammock’s video work, The Long Note (2018), which shines a light on women’s involvement in the 1968 civil rights movement in Northern Ireland. Born in 1970 in Staffordshire, England, Cammock spent 10 years as a social worker before turning to art, and this background clearly informs her artistic practice. Her video piece features clips of archival footage: news reports of petrol bombings, a group of boys singing an Irish ditty, a Nina Simone concert. Interspersed among these are recently-conducted interviews with female participants of the liberation movement. Diverse in their political leanings, they are all given freedom of expression under Cammock’s non-judgmental lens. In the next gallery is Shouting in Whispers (2017), a series of screenprints bearing feminist quotes, which continues Cammock’s mission of giving voice to the voiceless. 

Lawrence Abu Hamdan, installation view of After SFX (2018) (photograph by Stuart Leech, courtesy Turner Contemporary and the artist)

Voice, and sound more broadly, is at the core of Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s work too. A self-titled “private ear,” 34-year-old Hamdan has collaborated with human rights groups like Amnesty International and Forensic Architecture (nominees for last year’s prize) on investigations into the role of sound in crime. The three works in his presentation draw on his research on a Syrian prison-turned-death-camp called Saydnaya, where inmates were tortured for making even the slightest noise. A lightbox shows a “spectrograph” of the volume of three former detainees’ voices before and after the Syrian Revolution, when speaking became punishable by death. In two videos, After SFX and Walled Unwalled (both 2018), Hamdan describes how sound is distorted in our memory and the ways in which it interacts with space and architecture. If any artwork can make you shut up and listen, it’s this one. 

Oscar Murillo, installation view of Collective Conscience (2019) (photograph by David Levene, courtesy Turner Contemporary and the artist)

The winner of the Turner Prize will be announced on December 3, 2019. The exhibition continues at the Turner Contemporary (Rendezvous, Margate CT9 1HG) through January 12, 2020. 

Naomi Polonsky is a London-based curator, art critic, and translator. She studied at the University of Oxford and the Courtauld Institute of Art and has experience working at the Hermitage Museum and Tate...