Art gifts

But is it art? The Turner Prize 2021


In the summer of 2018, I went to Utrecht to cover the city’s annual Gaudeamus International Composers Award. The day before the award was announced, I was in a drinking bar with some of the nominees. You should all get together and insist on sharing the prize between yourselves, I told them, because the congratulations on calling you a Gaudeamus winner would probably mean more, in terms of future commissions and so on, than any prize money than you could receive tomorrow. They laughed heartily at my suggestion. (The next day the winner was announced and it wasn’t one of my drinking partners.)

A year later, I was satisfied and somewhat amused when the four nominees for the Turner Prize 2019 – Helen Cammock, Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Tai Shani and Oscar Murillo – insisted on being seen as one collective and sharing. the price between them. I imagine the organizers were less amused. After all, all of the rewards drama hinges on the tension generated as we await the judges’ decision, the fun of guessing, the cheers of a table at a black tie event – and the sheepish looks at a other – when the results are finally announced.

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Installation view, Black Obsidian Sound System at the Turner Prize 2021, Herbert Art Gallery and Museum, Coventry. Photo: Doug Peters

With the 2020 edition canceled (instead ten artists have been selected to receive a £ 10,000 scholarship), this year’s Turner Prize is truly the first since Murillo, Shani, Abu Hamdan and Cammock have won their common victory. The choice of this year’s nominees, each an artist collective between two and 70 members, affects a kind of fidelity to this gesture by once again bringing to the fore the work of groups on individuals. But the list might also have been meant to act as a bulwark against such a thing happening again. One of the nominees (Black Obsidian Sound System; BOSS for short) has already bristled in an open letter about being “instrumentalised” by the jury in order to reinforce the radical image of the Turner Prize – an image that its main organizer, the Tate, is not up to the task. The museum group, they say, refuses to properly recognize the collective action of its own staff, many of whom went on strike last year in response to a wave of layoffs.

All of the artists in this year’s Turner Prize exhibition, held at the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum in Coventry, have practices aimed beyond the walls of the museum. As Juliette Jacques wrote in Frieze when the nominees were first announced, the art here is reused “to fill in the gaps in [public] service delivery ”after a decade of austerity. This introduces questions of representation: not only how to represent, inside the white cube, a work that takes place largely outside it, but also for which larger groups these collectives are called to express themselves. During the press preview, Chief Curator Hammad Nasar highlighted the geographic distribution of the nominees. With BOSS in London, Gentle / Radical based in Cardiff, Array Collective from Belfast, Cooking Sections largely working on the Isle of Skye (at least recently) and Project Art Works coming from Hastings, it feels like a tick. cardinal points. Likewise, in the exhibition catalog, Black Obsidian Sound System is described as “bringing together a community of queer, trans and non-binary blacks and people of color”; Project Art Works in response to the “gifts and impacts” of neurodivergency. The more time I spent in the exhibition, the more bizarre I had the impression that someone was going to choose a “winner” from among these groups – an act that seems to force these collectives into a logic of competition and rivalry so far removed from their stated aims and intentions seem almost perverse.

Installation view, Gentle / Radical at the Turner Prize 2021, Herbert Art Gallery and Museum, Coventry.

Installation view, Gentle / Radical at the Turner Prize 2021, Herbert Art Gallery and Museum, Coventry. Photo: David Levene

The lists of precepts and objectives occupy a preponderant place in the works exhibited, which testifies less to a certain latent authoritarianism than to the sheer difficulty of working in large groups so as to make everyone’s voice heard. A wall diagram in the Gentle / Radical room presents a list of “Principles”, which include “slowness”, “solidarity” and “spirituality”; Drawing by Kate Adams for Project Art Works, Cosmologies of care – Drawing III – Navigation systems (2021), lists strategies such as “acting according to one’s free will”, “being in wild places” and “loving” in a sort of spiraling roadmap; a flag bearing “Rules of Array” in the installation of the Northern Irish collective urges viewers to “go out and campaign with your local activist groups” and have a “geg” (Belfast slang for “laughs “). Rarely has an exhibition of contemporary art been so explicit. All these artists are happy to show and tell. Narrators and voice-overs of all kinds are present in each installation.

There is frankness here, but that doesn’t imply a lack of artistry. BOSS’s twin monoliths – a sphere of black obsidian and a tower (also black) of speaker boxes – are a bold sculptural presence full of mythical symbolism and barely contained energies. Gentle / Radical’s three-channel video portraits draw on a rich heritage of art history, from Byzantine triptychs to the films of John Akomfrah. As I walked into the Project Art Works room, dominated by a wooden shelving structure containing piled-up stacks of painted canvases, I immediately remembered Marcel Broodthaers Nineteen small paintings in a stack (Nineteen small paints in a pile; 1973). Such comparisons are superficial. These artists do different things. But they show something of the futility of an extractivist gaze that seeks to extract work from subjects outside the art world for a pungent local color. These artists are not as “external” as that either. There are familiar names in this exhibit, though buried deep in the credits: filmmaker Andrew Kötting and his daughter Eden (Project Art Works); artists Phoebe Collings-James and Evan Ifekoya (BOSS). Alon Schwabe and Daniel Fernández Pascual from the kitchen sections teach at the Royal College of Art, while many members of the Array Collective have MFAs and extensive individual exhibition histories.

Installation view, Project Art Works at the Turner Prize 2021, Herbert Art Gallery and Museum, Coventry.

Installation view, Project Art Works at the Turner Prize 2021, Herbert Art Gallery and Museum, Coventry. Photo: Garry Jones

Perhaps it is simply structurally impossible to think beyond the traditional boundaries of art from the center of one of its most august institutions. Still, that’s no problem for these artists, who are all clearly doing a good and important job. For over 20 years, Project Art Works has served a large community of people with complex care needs, providing inclusive studio training and infrastructure, building support networks, and organizing field trips and workshops. exhibitions. Array Collective has been a tireless advocate for LGBTQ + rights and abortion, alongside local community projects in Northern Ireland: their work as an artist is inseparable from their activism (including the film and the pub scene where it is). screened at the Herbert offer only a glimpse). Gentle / Radical has built a broad coalition of artists, youth workers, ministers, teachers and activists whose workshops, clubs and seminars in Cardiff have made a palpable difference. BOSS has established a valuable infrastructure that has spread joy across South London while documenting and supporting the legacy of British black culture. Cooking Sections’ ecological goal went far beyond raising awareness: they worked with large professional kitchens to change their supply chains and intervene in particular ecosystems to improve soil and water quality – far more meaningful feats than the rather polished aerial videos of Scottish salmon farms featured as their contribution to this exhibit.

I have no doubt that all of these people deserve this cash award. Just give it to them. All. And let them continue what they were already doing anyway.


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