The 2016 Turner Prize exhibition brings together works from an exceptionally strong group of nominees working across a range of media. The Turner Prize may not be familiar to non-British readers, so, to provide as concise as possible a description of the award, it is a prize given annually to a British artist – historically, The Turner Prize has also been given to non-British artists based in the UK, but the press materials seem to suggest this may be changing (#brexit?) – under fifty years of age, in recognition for an exhibition presented over the course of the previous twelve months. Though its not a formal criterion, if the artists make work that annoy self-consciously philistine rightwing tabloid journalists, well, so much the better. This year’s nominees are Anthea Hamilton, Helen Marten, Josephine Pryde and Michael Dean.
The nominees all present robustly interdisciplinary works, with an emphasis on immersion and the dynamics of interface. This is particuarly true of Josephine Pryde’s entry. Taken from an exhibition in San Francisco’s CCA Wattis space, the works come are from a show entitled lapses in Thinking By the person i Am, Pryde presents a set of photographic images and a replica of a graffitied German freight train. The images feature the hands of various models as they touch objects, sometimes technological objects, sometimes their own skin. These moments of contact serve to reenchant the most banal of quotidian interactions. Few acts are more familiar than the tapping of a touchscreen, but Pryde’s works foregrounding of such instants of contact between the biological and technological systems highlight how profound and strange such interactions are. Our bodies are as close to a biological miracle as it is possible for an object to be, and these devices would have seemed nearly supernatural even a few generations ago. Wonders are now so common that they are fully subordinated to commercial imperatives and exist primarily to alleviate the boredom of contemporary life.
Michael Dean’s works, from a South London Gallery show called Sic Glyphs. The works are all rooted in Dean’s long standing interest in language and materiality. The Turner exhibition is a series of structures and more overtly worked pieces that wobble between the boundaries of anthropomorphic sculptures, buildings and written ligatures. At the centre of Dean’s scarred linguistic topology are £20,436.00 worth of pennies, the official financial figure characterising the pvoerty line for a family of two adults and two children in the UK. Here language, material objects, social science and emotion collide. These coins are a powerful visual image, but also a neat impercation addressing the question of economic value and art. A sculpture with an intrinsic value of more than a family of four can expect to live on is both indulgence and indictment.
Helen Marten’s installations are often agglomerations of objects created, found or simply conceptualised. Her works are the first the viewer encounters in the Turner exhibition. Messy and sleek at once, these pieces touch on the preciousness, high-finish imperatives and gnomic, even hermetic, practice inscribed in the performance of the role of the contemporary artist. They resist intellectual digestion in fruitful ways, but the display of the works somehow cuts against the force of any critique they may present in other contexts. Again the interface is critical, in this case as a matter of restriction: Getting too close to the works triggers an alarm which summons a guard to come in and belatedly look for the transgressor who has often already moved on. This emergent property of the display of Marten’s works turn them into highly interactive, even performative pieces; the alarm went off so frequently the day I was at the show, it could easily be mistaken for part of the work. Such precautions may be necessary, but they nullify some of the most potent elements of Marten’s work as exhibited elsewhere.
No prize will be awarded for guessing which exhibition in this year’s Turner will result in the most selfies. Anthea Hamilton’s “Project for a Door (After Gaetano Pesce)” will, at the very least, be assured of this distinction. The sculpture is an homage to a dream-door conceived of as a potential entry into a New York City apartment block. Who could object to entering their home via a substantial pair of toned buttocks gripped by a shapely pair of hands? History will never record the answer, but Hamilton’s Turner exhibition is infused with so much humour and delicacy that one could almost forget the robust research base from which her pieces have emerged. In the adjoining room of her exhibiiton, a series of fetching chastity belts hang against a hazy, beatific sky. Hamilton’s capacity for assimiliating and reinventing information is formidable, but her capacity to not be subordinated to the history she evokes, or to simply appropriate the history of others for her own uses sets her exhibition apart in a strong field. I’m just a civilian, but if it were mine to give, Hamilton would be this year’s Turner winner, despite strong challengers, particularly Michael Dean.
Turner Prize 2016
Until 2 January 2017
Installation images: Anthea Hamilton, 2016; Michael Dean, 2016; Josephine Pryde, 2016; Helen Marten, 2016
Courtesy Joe Humphrys © Tate Photography