The hype created by Anthea Hamilton’s ‘Project for a Door (After Gaetano Pesce)’ (AKA ‘the butt’ or ‘the giant bottom’) is only one side of the tasty variety the visitor can savour at this year’s Turner Prize exhibition. There are compelling works and less exciting ones, but the exhibition is absolutely worth exploring.
The Turner Prize was introduced in 1984, and since then has become one of the most prestigious awards in the UK for the visual arts. It gained international resonance when Tracy Emin’s famous work ‘My Bed’ was shortlisted in 1999. Interestingly enough, the installation did not win the prize in the end, but gave international exposure to both the artist and the institution. The artists shortlisted this year seem to share the overarching theme of ‘challenging and puzzling the viewer’: the works exhibited feature clouds and bowls, pennies and metal underwear.
Helen Marten, ‘Night-blooming genera’ (2015)
Helen Marten starts the ball rolling with her complex sculptural installations, consisting of the most disparate range of objects. The question all viewers ask themselves is probably ‘What the hell are these sculptures made of?’. Once embraced this state of puzzlement, we are left to contemplate the aesthetic qualities of the works, letting our eyes dwell upon individual shapes, colours, and textures. Marten invites the visitors to experience what she calls ‘poetic visual puzzles’. She wants to give the impression that some unknown human activity has been interrupted. The approach we should take is therefore similar to that of an archaeologist, as if we were facing the remains of a bewildering but fascinating civilisation – our own. The challenge is to identify patterns, correspondences, and potential meanings in these (seemingly) haphazard assemblages of human devices.
Anthea Hamilton, ‘Project for a Door (After Gaetano Pesce)’ (2015)
Then comes Anthea Hamilton, and her notorious set of sculptures and installations. Of course, the huge bottom gateway is just inescapable. Before seeing the work, I have to confess I was somewhat annoyed by the fuss surrounding it, coupled with the fact that I had the impression that contemporary British art was going throw a phase of sex-obsession. Apart from the mild sexual references present in Emin’s ‘My Bed’, the art of Sarah Lucas also pivots around this idea, with highly sexualised images. Her work was exposed in the British Pavillion at Venice Biennale 2015, and left me disappointed and a bit upset. I thought that Hamilton was just going to be the latest addition to the series. Instead, I found unexpected poignancy in the work, which increased when I learned about its origins. Designed by Gaetano Pesce in 1972 and originally intended as a doorway in a New York apartment, the big buttocks were never realised. Hamilton here brings to life material from the archives, and (to my mind) shows how things that are apparently shocking for us, have in fact a longer story than we may think. Moreover, in real life I found work awe-inspiring rather than offensive, so in the end I was fine with it. Another work by Hamilton I really enjoyed was the floor to ceiling mural of the London sky at 3pm on a sunny day in June. That was the proof British weather is not that bad after all, and re-creating the atmosphere of peace and serenity in an art gallery was very much appreciated.
Josephine Pryde, ‘Gift For Me’ (2013)
The third artist shortlisted for the Turner Prize is Josephine Pryde, whom I thought was the least exciting of the four. Her gallery comprises a train model, which I thought was sad it its still state; kitchen tops photographed with old photographic techniques; a series of photos of hands in the act of touching objects. The only thought this pictures inspired me was the different way in which women touch objects when they wear nail varnish, but that was about it really. Investigating our relationship with objects at moment we come into contact with them was not the most revelatory thing.
Michael Dean, ‘Untitled’ (2016)
Michael Dean, ‘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’ (2016)
And last was Michael Dean, his work being by far my favourite. The visitors enter a wholly white space, with floor, walls, and ceiling are all painted in purity. Within the room, his weird and marvellous sculptures dominate the space. In his creative process, Dean starts from hand-written letters, which them become inspirations for his sculptures, and are realised in the most diverse materials: metal, shells, paper, plastic, concrete, glass. Already fascinating in themselves, the works were accompanied by a large installation, ‘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’. The title says it all: the installation consists of £20,436 in pennies, which is the average sum a household of four needs to live in the UK for one year. The artist has removed one coin, so that the sum is exactly one penny below the poverty line. An arresting, compelling visualisation of poverty. An emotive concept made physical and tangible. I loved the way the visitors inadvertently touched the coins, which made ringing sounds, emphasising their realness. Poverty is here, the pennies seemed to be saying, before your eyes, you cannot escape it. Moreover, I liked the room because the visitors were allowed to move about freely, without annoying beeping noises reminding them to stay clear of the works (which was the case with Helen Marten’s sculptures). You even had to go through the sculptures and make your way though the pennies in order to exit the gallery. A way to make the experience of Dean’s art all the more immersive.
The tagline of this year’s Turner Prize is ‘Discuss’. I found this was a clever way to get people involved in the conversation. I am sure that the slightly academic tone, recalling an undergraduate essay, is deliberate. It invites people to take contemporary art more seriously, as a real discipline. It encourages audiences to share their thoughts and impressions on the artworks on social media. It’s a call to talk about the Prize with people around you and spread the word. The tagline ‘Discuss’ captures the urgency of getting people to take part in the debate, so come to the gallery with open minds and leave with ideas, impressions, inspirations, even strong opinions. It gives a prestigious prize the chance to make art resonate in our society, to speak loudly and emphasise once again its role in our contemporary world.