After a year in which the Turner Prize has been suspended due to foreclosure constraints, with scholarships awarded to deserving and needy artists, Britain’s most controversial art prize returns with a shortlist looking to put itself in the moment by not focusing on old-school individual artists – who are so pre-pandemic after all – but on artist collectives who have come together to advance a cause. It’s a fitting move at a time when we’re all meant to “come together” and parallel phenomena such as Black Lives Matter have encouraged us to look beyond conventional and socially constrained cultural channels.
So, the first Turner Prize exhibition in two years (is it only that? It’s like a lifetime) gives us Radical / Gentle, a Cardiff-based group who let their local community dictate the model of their work; Cooking Sections, whose conceptual installations address the environmental impact of intensive food production; Project Art Works, a Hastings collective of “neuro-diverse” artists, many of whom face difficult conditions such as autism; the Belfast Array Collective, which challenges traditional Northern Irish identities through anarchic performances; and Black Obsidian Sound System (BOSS), which brings together black and colored LBGT + people involved in art, sound and radical activism.
Unfortunately for the organizers, however, the cultural landscape has changed since the announcement of the preselection in March. The slightly cheerful mood of critical tolerance that prevailed during the lockdown, which this shortlist reflects to some extent, has all but evaporated, leaving the Tate, which organizes the prize, to face an attack from one of the collectives. , BOSS, for locking out and not supporting a black artist who made high-profile allegations of sexual abuse against a well-known figure in the art world. All of this means that this exhibition opens in a more combative atmosphere, but, dare I say it, much more interesting than initially expected.
Indeed, in approaching the exhibition, the visitor will be justified in wondering how the work of this admittedly utopian exhibition is intended to be judged: for its value as art (the way it was of course seen in all of Turner’s previous exhibitions), for her relevance at the moment or her accomplishments in making the world a better place. And if the latter, how to measure it?
Gentle / Radical from Cardiff, the group that embodies the most ‘benevolent spirit’ that emerged during the lockdown – I’m sure some readers will vaguely recall – have never mounted a show before. But they are doing all they can to make their case in a three-screen video installation in which members of their local community in the multi-ethnic district of Riverside in Cardiff read open letters on themes of identity and belonging, stories detailed and often moving that rewards watching and listening up close. The attempt to bring them to fruition, however, with a fiery but decidedly amateurish rendition of an ancient Welsh anthem, on the grounds that they represent different but complementary visions of what Wales can be, does not start.
Array Collective, based in Belfast, also draws inspiration from the ancient Celtic past in The Druthaib’s Ball, a “Centennial Trail of the Partition of Ireland”, involving ancestral protest chants and a routine of reading and singing. stand-up, a film of which is shown in a model of a síbín (shebeen) or an illegal den. Beside it, a circle of empty flagpoles referencing “ancient Irish ceremonial sites” – and, we suspect, more recent struggles – is lit by a shifting light evoking the passage from dawn to dusk. Frankly, I would take the flagpoles on the film, which leaves you feeling like you have to be there to figure it out.
Black Obsidian Sound System’s oral history of sound system culture in Britain is accompanied by instructions on how to create your own system, while a second ‘immersive’ space with pieces of video, music and large speakers suggest you’re about to be engulfed in noise and mega-visuals; unfortunately you are not. Considering how vigorously the band called out Tate, everything is surprisingly lukewarm.
Project Art Works’ recreation of their Hastings studio gives the impression of a fair use of their space, with works by the band members arrayed around the walls and shelves of paintings creating a viewing room in the middle for the film group activities. Considering the very serious daily issues that many members face, everything here is an achievement in itself. However, the finesse of the presentation of the group goes badly, in my opinion, with the rawness of this lived experience. Watching a beautifully shot film of a group trip to Scotland, I wasn’t sure if I was engaging with the artists on an equal level and totally empathetic, or watching them from an awkward and slightly voyeuristic distance.
Which leaves Cooking Sections, “space practitioners” Daniel Fernandez Pascual and Alon Schwabe, with their audio and film installation, CLIMAVORE, which explores “the environmental impact of salmon farming in Scotland”, and has already succeeded in having it removed farmed salmon on the menu in all Tate restaurants.
Considering that this was the collective whose work was referred to by the press as “not art”, it is the one that comes closest to merging their material into a cohesive whole. Far from providing an easily understandable argument, CLIMAVORE scrambles its complex background information into a barely unfathomable stream of consciousness that seductively exudes from the speakers. Eight circles, each representing one of the pens in which the salmon are raised, project to the ground, spinning, decomposing and reconfiguring, the tiny splashes evoking the movement of bacteria that thrive in these spaces. Although it is difficult to extract even the simplest information from the work, the sensual impact is utterly alluring. And was I convinced that I should stop eating farmed salmon? Yes, actually I was.
When you learn that Pascual and Schwabe are members of the Goldsmiths-based multidisciplinary collective Forensic Architecture, shortlisted for the Turner in 2018, and both teach at the Royal College of Art, this level of technical and formal achievement comes as no surprise. Indeed, given the handcrafted and genuinely local quality of most of the rest of the work, it’s a wonder they weren’t left out at the start for being too… what’s the word… professional. It seems against the spirit of this year’s Turner Prize to support one of the nominees simply because he or she has produced “the best art.” But in the absence of any other reasonable criteria, Cooking Sections seems to me the only credible winners emerging from this curious mishmash of a Turner Prize exhibition.