Arguably one of the most talked about art events of the year, the Turner Prize is a big occasion on the British art calendar. Championing the work of British visual artists under the age of 50, the award has a reputation as a bastion of “modern art” and all of the phrase’s connotations - positive and negative.
With previous winners including Chris Ofili, Grayson Perry, Wolfgang Tillmans and Damien Hirst — as well as nominations for the likes of Tracey Emin, Lucian Freud and the Chapman Brothers — it’s no surprise that the Turner Prize is Britain’s most talked about art award in the press every year, offering a perfect opportunity to celebrate British creativity or denigrate the state of the art world, depending what side of the spectrum you’re on.
This year the prize will be awarded on the 6 of December, with a selection of works by the four shortlisted artists currently on display at the Tate Britain gallery in London. With that in mind, here’s a short guide to the four nominees for this year’s Turner Prize.
Born in 1985 in the northern town of Macclesfield, Helen Marten’s work is deeply concerned with ideas of language, symbolism and communication; how physical objects inform meaning, and vice-versa. As Tate St. Ives’ Exhibitions and Displays curator Laura Smith puts it, “if words don’t look like the things they represent, what if objects didn’t either?”
Combining familiar objects and household items into new and unexpected forms, Marten creates abstract visual puzzles that invite the viewer to dig deeper, look closer and search for a hidden meaning.
Taken from the exhibition at the 56th Venice Biennale that earned Marten her nomination, the pieces on display appear familiar in their form, resembling houses, snakes, landscape views, or perhaps factory equipment, but the individual symbolism of each composite part confuses these images, while Marten’s titles — Brood and Bitter Pass, Lunar Nibs and On aerial greens (haymakers) — lead us even further from finding the “true” meaning.
Northumberland-born Josephine Pryde creates art across multiple mediums exploring the intersections between art, commerce, business and lifestyle. Linsey Young, Curator of Contemporary Art at the Tate Britain, points to a central question in Pryde’s work: “how does the increasing professionalisation of the art world affect the way in which we read an artwork?”
For her Turner exhibition, Pryde presents three different facets of this concept. The ongoing project Hands (Für Mich) is a series of photographs of hands holding a range of objects including phones, books, stationery and other familiar objects. Shot super close-up with the hands immaculately manicured in vibrant colors, the photographs deliberately resemble the glamorous images we are used to seeing selling products in magazines and on train station billboards.
The New Media Express, a scaled-model of a diesel train and two freight carriages, is a constantly-evolving piece, receiving a new tag from a local graffiti artist in every city where the piece is exhibited.
When I encountered these two pieces at the Feuerle Collection gallery, the train was set on a track that ran around the gallery’s perimeter, allowing visitors to ride past each photograph and view them in a passing, transient context.
The final piece, a triptych of sorts, consists of three identical mass-produced kitchen counters that were left in direct sunlight with various objects laid on top of them in three cities this Summer — London, Athens and Berlin. Essentially a rudimentary form of photography, Pryde’s alteration of a mass-produced, commercial item using only solar light, the essential natural resource, could be viewed as a reconfiguration of the creativity/commerciality question through artificial/organic frameworks.
Ultimately, Pryde appears fascinated with the multiple dialogues that the art world mediates between its many agents, be they artists, audiences, galleries, curators, sponsors, collectors or other.
There’s a high chance you’ve already encountered at least one of Anthea Hamilton’s pieces in the Turner shortlist this year, owing to its possibly-unintended relevance in the fashion world.
As its name suggests, Brick Suit is a wool suit that is adorned with the pattern of a redbrick wall, and has proven popular on streetwear Twitter as the perfect visual representation of a bricked fit.
Certainly, Hamilton’s work is arguably the most “Instagrammable” of the work displayed this year, but not without deeper meaning. Linsey Young highlights the importance of the human body in a number of Hamilton’s work, despite their noted absence in the pieces themselves.
Reconfigured versions of suits, boots and chastity belts combine numerous conceptual influences into singular, familiar forms, challenging binary oppositions that create our world. Thus, the figure-hugging form of a woolen suit collides with the rigid structure of a brick wall.
A series of hanging chastity belts are laser cut with initial drawings for Hector Guimard’s Paris Metro designs, perhaps colliding symbols of movement and restriction. A mural on the gallery walls of a London afternoon sky is clearly suggestive of transience and permanence.
Most provocative of the pieces on display, however, is Hamilton’s Project for a Door (After Gaetano Pesce), a scaled model of a doorway for a New York apartment block that features a naked body spreading its buttocks. Inspired by an initial concept by Pesce, Hamilton’s approach becomes something new, perhaps a commentary on the politics of contemporary urban developments such as gentrification, or the positioning of two doors on apartment blocks that separate wealthy residents from poorer tenants and maintenance staff.
Born in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1977, Michael Dean’s work is rooted in language and communication, particularly the written word. Using unconventional materials such as concrete, construction rebars, corrugated metal and chain-link fences and even weed baggies, the works presented for the Turner Prize subtly incorporate letters into their forms, suggesting the communicative power of design and structure.
One phrase in particular appears throughout Dean’s work; "4 SHORE," a seemingly nonsensical phrase that is woven into each sculpture, as well as being repeated on stickers placed throughout the gallery that imitate the kind seen on building sites and bus shelters advertising plumbing and electrical services. Dean’s choice of materials and mediums suggest a particular fascination with the experiences of poor and working class people in Britain, something which gives the casual reassurance of 4 Shore (or “for sure”) a sharper, more satirical meaning.
This angle is most poignant in what is arguably the most accessible piece from the Turner shortlist this year, (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).
Drawn from the UK government’s official figure for the amount of money a family of two adults and two children would need to survive for a year, there is a clear commentary on economic struggles and political disparities in 2016, and the presentation of poverty in its largest physical form — a pile of penny coins — gives cause for thought.
Going further, Dean removed one penny from the pile upon completion, meaning the pile of coins that the audience sees is now one penny below the official poverty line of the United Kingdom.