For the second year in a row The Turner Prize takes a lurch towards acknowledgment of the collective. Is this democracy in action? Is it a definitive change? Should we rejoice? Or is the change dictated merely by temporary circumstances? Neil Cooper looks at the history of the award and at some contemporary realities, and gives us some context.
When it was announced that this year’s Turner Prize would not be taking place in its usual form, it marked the latest evolution of one of the UK’s most well-known art awards. The change was done out of necessity, with the award’s usual accompanying exhibition of the four short-listees cancelled due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
Rather than drop out of view completely, this prompted the decision by this year’s Turner jury to give ten bursaries of £10,000 to ten long-listed artists rather than £25,000 to an outright winner and £5,000 apiece to three runners-up.
However necessary, such a lateral leap nevertheless makes quite a statement, both about collective action over the cult of individualism, as well as the Turner’s own chameleon-like tendencies and willingness to move with the times.
This follows on from the 2019 award, when the four short-listees requested that they share the award between them rather than sanction a sole winner. This show of unity between the disparate quartet of Beirut-based sound-led artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan, British multi-media artist Helen Cammock, Colombian painter Oscar Murillo and British installationist Tai Shani was a political response as much as an aesthetic one.
This spirit of collectivism was in keeping too with Assemble, the design collective who won the Turner Prize’s 2015 edition, held at Tramway in Glasgow. This was for Granby Four Streets, an ongoing community design and architecture project based around the multi-cultural Granby area of Toxteth, aka Liverpool 8.
There is strength in numbers too in the Turner Bursaries, which highlight an expansive set of reflections and inquiries on the world today in all its complexity. The selections made by this year’s Turner jury, chaired by Tate Britain director Alex Farquharson, are rooted in social and political concerns that go far beyond any perceived notions of radical chic.
While there may be no exhibition either physically or online to show off the work of the ten, profiles of each bursary winner on the Tate webpage gives off the air of a virtual global village in a radically reimagined state run on self-determination and power.
With three of the winners from or based in Scotland, the result feels especially close to home. This continues the well documented run of Scottish, Scotland-based or Scotland-trained Turner winners over the decades. This is book-ended thus far at least by Douglas Gordon in 1996 through to Charlotte Prodger in 2018, taking in Martin Creed (2001), Simon Starling (2005), Richard Wright (2009), Susan Philipsz (2010), Martin Boyce (2011) and Duncan Campbell (2014) en route.
This year, three of the ten Turner Bursary winners are based in Scotland. These are Edinburgh-based political arts organisation, Arika, Glasgow-based artist and singer Jamie Crewe, and Alberta Whittle, who lives and works between Barbados, Scotland and South Africa.
Arika was founded in 2001, initially to present experimental music festivals in Scotland. Over the last decade, however, as driven by Barry Esson and Bryony McIntyre, Arika has focused on a series of multi-faceted ‘episodes’ involving lectures, films, discussion and performance based around particular themes. Arika was awarded a Turner Bursary for Episode 10: A Means Without End, a five-day programme at Tramway, Glasgow. As the Tate website describes it, the event explored ‘ideas in maths and physics as analogies for the desires and struggles of social life and existence.’
Crewe uses video, sculpture, drawing and text to explore ‘notions of identity, power, desire, community and history’ as the Tate website explains it. They were selected for a Turner Bursary for their ‘sister’ exhibitions at the Grand Union in Birmingham and the Humber Street Gallery, Hull. Both shows were inspired by Radclyffe Hall’s 1928 novel, The Well of Loneliness and its prevailing influence on generations of LGBTQIA+ people.
Whittle’s work focuses on ‘the experiences of the diaspora’, as the Tate website highlights it, and ‘incorporates performance, video, photography, collage and sculpture to look at anti-blackness and the trauma, memory and ecological concerns that linger in the aftermath of slavery and colonialism.’ Whittle’s Turner Bursary was awarded following How Flexible Can We Make the Mouth, her exhibition at Dundee Contemporary Arts that ‘thoughtfully focused on healing, writing and speech as means of self-liberation.’
From these projects alone there is a sense of idealism at play, a questioning of the status quo that reflects some of the wider concerns going on in the world right now, and which have arguably been amped up by the Covid-19 crisis.
This is something the Turner has always done, even as many of the artists championed by the award bite the hand that feeds them. It is this uneasy relationship with the establishment, both in the art world and its high-profile corporate sponsors, that has created some of the tensions surrounding the award since its inception in 1984.
The Turner Prize, named after pioneering and wilfully singular nineteenth century painter William Turner, arrived in full public view during an already symbolically loaded year, with Margaret Thatcher’s free-market glory years in full swing. On the flipside of this, the society the then Prime Minister claimed didn’t exist was attempting to fight back against the calculated ideological destruction of communities that stood in her way.
The inner-city riots of 1981 had already flared up in economically deprived areas, including Liverpool 8’s Granby Four Streets neighbourhood. With other pockets of resistance ongoing, by 1984, the focus was on the Miner’s Strike and a head-on confrontation between the trade union movement and the Westminster government.
With such explicitly ideological conflicts ongoing, to those outside its bubble, the Turner looked like so much top-range art-wankery co-opted by Loadsamoney sponsors and the new breed of wheeler-dealer spivs. Such eternal contradictions between art and commerce made their mark in different ways. While the lack of a commercial sponsor caused the cancellation of the 1990 award, the ever-expanding art market made household names of the Sensation generation, whose profile in the late 1990s chimed with New Labour’s Cool Britannia project.
It was such tensions that prompted The K Foundation, the duo of Jimmy Cauty and Bill Drummond, to name 1993 Turner winner Rachel Whiteread as the worst artist of the year. Whiteread was given this shortly after being awarded the Turner for House, a concrete cast of the interior of an East London Victorian terrace. With Cauty and Drummond yet to define their own anti-career by burning a million quid in an action on Jura a year later, they doubled Whiteread’s money, presenting her with £40,000 alongside what was then a £20,000 Turner win. Perhaps with portents of the current attempts to democratise the art world, Whiteread donated £30,000 of her K Foundation winnings to artists in financial need, and the other £10,000 to housing charity, Shelter.
Other protests have come from the Stuckists, who at the 2000 awards, won by German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans, dressed as clowns, and described the Turner as an ‘ongoing national joke’ and ‘a state-funded advertising agency for Charles Saatchi’. In 2002, the Turner, won that year by Keith Tyson, was derided by then culture minister Kim Howells as “cold, mechanical conceptual bullshit”. Support for Howells came from the unlikely bedfellows of Prince Charles and Banksy, the latter of whom stencilled ‘Mind the crap’ on the steps of the Tate.
This era was best summed up in the lyrics of If I Had Possession Over Pancake Day, a song on Half Man Half Biscuit’s 2002 album, Cammel Laird Social Club.
‘Outside Goldsmiths’ coughing up blood / Turner Prize Judge gasps “Christ, that’s good / Leave it as it is, it’ll get first place / We’ll call it A Full Shift at the Coalface / Oh, well, you’re neither a Stuckist or a YBA / And you’re no longer a miner as of today’
Beyond such Turner-baiting, look at some of the names of the winners and nominees in the Turner’s early years, and a set of provocateurs kicking against the pricks in a similar fashion to The K Foundation emerge. Gilbert and George and Richard Long were on the list the first year, won by Malcolm Morley. Ian Hamilton Finlay was there the following year, when it was won by Howard Hodgkin. In 1986, conceptualist collective Art & Language and the most painterly of film-makers Derek Jarman featured on a list won this time by Gilbert and George.
Perhaps it was partly the presence of such an individual-minded awkward squad that helped prompt what became an annual tabloid bunfight, whereby the Turner winners were mocked, satirised and yah-booed with epithets of cartoonishly indignant shock-horror outrage not seen since the filth and the fury of punk rock. This was done with full ’70s club-comic style, guffawing at what constituted art beyond the familiarity of an off-the-peg print from Woolworth’s, that assorted correspondents imagined hung on most people’s walls.
This reductively knee-jerk, lowest-common-denominator response was as tied in with the Thatcherite approach to culture as was closing the factories. With no attempt to engage with the complexities of what was on show, or how the work engaged with the world beyond the gallery, the Turner became a sideshow that allowed its opponents to fulminate at how tax-payers’ hard-earned cash was being wasted.
The Turner arguably got its own back on this in 2004 when the prize was awarded to Jeremy Deller. Deller’s exhibition at Tate Britain included documentation of The Battle of Orgreave (2001), his large-scale re-enactment of the confrontation between striking miners and police that took place in June 1984 in a South Yorkshire coking plant, when it looked part of a very real English civil war.
If such headline-making glory days are over for the Turner, the move also perhaps signals how things have changed both in the creation and perception of contemporary art, and how the award itself continues to shape-shift. Contemporary art is more embedded into mainstream culture than we sometimes like to let on, and that is only partly to do with the generations of art stars who’ve put it on the map over the last century. As the recipients of this year’s Tate Bursaries make clear in very different ways, their work and that by their peers is a recognisable part of everyday discourse, and indeed everyday living.
At the same time, those given this year’s Tate Bursaries are a reflection, not so much of how we live now, but of something to aspire to in the big bad world beyond. Unlike the 1980s when the Turner was founded, that sense of aspiration is towards a potentially more harmonious, forward-thinking goal than flying solo.
If anything, then, the work produced by the ten recipients of the Turner Bursaries, like the joint winners of 2019 and the collective approach of Assemble in 2017, are following in a tradition of the Turner’s own making, which, perhaps, has this year come of age.
All this comes at a particularly tumultuous moment in history which has had a seismic effect on everything, including the Turner. That moment will pass, as will the spotlight on the winners of the Turner Bursaries. That won’t make the artists or their work go away or be any less worthwhile, but a new wave will be along any minute, who will be scrutinised and championed by different juries and panels with different sets of criteria and concerns, and so it goes.
What happens beyond it in the world art is made from and the responses to the Covid-19 pandemic that result remains to be seen. In the meantime, like the ten recipients of the Turner Bursaries, who categorically aren’t in competition with each other, until things get brighter, one can only share the love.