Jesse Darling, Gorgon (Britannia), 2023. Turner Prize 2023, Towner. Photo: Angus Mill
Artillery Row On Art

Does the Turner Prize still matter?

This year’s exhibition offers a diversity of style if not of ideology

The crisis of the Turner Prize is an art world trope nearly as old as the competition itself. Each year, the problem is different. In the 2000s, a group of painters known as The Stuckists protested that the art on show just wasn’t art. In 2019, the shortlisted artists turned their backs on the competition and declared each one a winner. During the pandemic, Tate did away with judgement altogether and handed out participation trophies to ten others. In 2021, the shortlist was made up of collectives and group projects, some only tangentially interested in art. This year, the Prize returns to some balance by combining all these issues into one shortlist of four — a conceptual artist, an activist, an ideologue and a community organiser. In trying to show something for everyone, it risks pleasing few.

The ground floor of Eastbourne’s Towner Gallery, where the Prize is on display this year, is home to Ghislaine Leung’s installation of steel air ducting and toy replicas of domestic appliances. Leung doesn’t so much make artefacts as she issues instructions. The score for Violets 2, the duct piece connected only to itself and blowing no air, for example, is that “all parts of a ventilation system [be] removed from [Belgium’s] Netwerk Aalst Bar during its 2017 refurbishment [and] reinstalled within the space of the exhibition and fixed from the floor, using as much of the material as possible whilst keeping it all interconnecting”. There is a steel water fountain “installed in the exhibition space to cancel sound” loud enough to obscure another work, “a baby monitor installed in one room and broadcast to another”.

Leung shares her directions not only with the gallery technicians but with the audience, too. Conditioned by a rich lineage of geddit? conceptual art, visitors nod approvingly as though the commands compensated for the austerity of the objects. A line of toys borrowed from Reading Central Library and installed directly on the floor (“A group of toys in the collection of a public library are given a catalog [sic] or call number”) offer some reprieve, but only because these objects bring colour. One can imagine that a child might make better use of them elsewhere.

Leung, instead, thinks of the institutional conditions of making and displaying art. She wants us to reflect on the gallery air conditioning system and the labour of art shippers. In this, she follows in the footsteps of artists like Michael Asher who in the 1970s moved gallery walls, doors and ceilings to dispute their neutrality. Today, these gestures have all the originality and charm of an Excel spreadsheet. Hours, a wall painting with another verbose score, tracks Leung’s limited studio time. In even more words, the exhibition guide reveals that the artist is also a mother. Whilst Leung’s critique of the artworld’s gender politics isn’t baseless, her work is all procedure and thus commands no empathy.

This presentation has a folksy undertone of an am-dram rehearsal

She could find solace in the work of fellow nominee Rory Pilgrim, who believes that everyone can and should be an artist whether they have the time or the talent. His multifaceted project RAFTS is shown at Towner as an hour-long video with an assembly of paintings and objects from the everyday. In a disjointed arc, the film follows Pilgrim’s work with an amateur choir which he convened in East London. Together, they wrote a seven-song oratorio reflecting on the frayed social safety networks through whose holes some of the participants fell. One describes struggling to find work. Another reflects on the climate crisis. Yet another speaks of finding solace in nature. They mourn their pandemic isolation and remember the rafts that kept them afloat in dark times.

Together with the cutesy paintings and drawings (not all of them by Pilgrim) of forests, seas and groups of people coming together like in the crayon scene of Putting The World to Bed, this presentation has a folksy undertone of an am-dram rehearsal. These kinds of social, confessional projects have proliferated in the publicly funded art sphere for the past two decades. Pilgrim’s RAFTS has been both the community front of high-profile institutions like the Serpentine, and the bread and butter of far less glamorous organisations like Dagenham Youth Dance and Project Well Being.

Because the work mixes emotions with material demands, it’s not clear if Pilgrim helps his singers to build their rafts or simply records their struggles for the artworld’s amusement. This film and the live performances of RAFTS at Cadogan Hall with London Contemporary Orchestra must have been well-funded, because the participants believed that art alone would save them. As one of them speaks of his creative desires and calls for universal basic income, Pilgrim’s raft sinks in a sea of palliative.

On Towner’s upper floor, Jesse Darling’s exhibition finds the world mid-apocalypse. Outside the gallery, an Embarrassed Billboard faces the wall as though it had no message. To enter, one must pass a colonnade of crumbling faux-Hellenic columns and follow a path marked out by a line of crowd control barriers, themselves arbitrarily distorted and unstable. Inside, there are remnants of a once thriving empire: bunting torn to shreds and a Maypole wrapped in plastic red and white hazard tape instead of ribbons. The village fete is long over. The history of this domain remains only in books that slip off the shelves because their contents have turned to stone.

This could be the set of Derek Jarman’s 1987 film The Last of England, which lyrically painted the punk scene in battle with the conservative forces of tradition. Darling denounces grandma’s lace doilies, the flag and the crucifix. The protest turned violent, though; what look like body parts lie abandoned in flight. The only thing missing to complete this vision of the end times is a raging fire.

Yet, Darling offers some hope. Suspended over the display is a rickety steel ladder which could, perhaps, lead Jacob to heaven. To climb it, one needs to endorse Darling’s Covenants — a series of wall-mounted stoneware sculptures of hands outstretched to receive sacrament — and adopt a new religion. The Deeds of this faith are on display in another sculpture, in felt-backed cabinets that showcase ornamental hammers and ribbons on which bells dangle like testicles. Together with a couple of phallic arrangements (one mimics a prayer candle) and Boring from within (the artist’s self-portrait with a hand drill), this is redemption through extreme body modification. The communion, shared only with those familiar with Darling’s personal life, is synthetic testosterone.

One can bemoan this marriage of art and ideology, and Darling’s politics is unlikely to win favour with readers of The Critic. However, as sculpture — and that is how most visitors will consider it — this is a false prophecy wrapped in compelling, well-considered aesthetics that tries to contend with something larger than itself.

Their expressions are sombre and fatigued, their attire undistinguished

Next to this field hospital scene, Barbara Walker’s contribution looks refreshingly conventional. Five portraits of middle-aged black men and women hand-drawn by the artist in situ watch over the gallery. Their expressions are sombre and fatigued, their attire undistinguished. The same faces appear in ten pencil and charcoal drawings on paper. In each, the background is a supersized reproduction of an official document: a Home Office certificate of the subject’s registration as a British citizen, a letter from their MP, an Army discharge form. The figures blend through the text to become one with the narrative.

Burden of Proof is the story of the people caught up in the 2017 Windrush scandal. Walker’s subjects used these documents to prove their rightful residence in the UK when the Home Office demanded that they produce three forms of identifying evidence for each year of their life here. The men and women are named in the documents, and details of their lives like birth dates and home addresses are made public for all to inspect.

The Windrush affair is an indisputably low point in the story of the British state. What small role art can play in bringing solace to its victims can only be encouraged, and Walker’s masterful and subtle hand makes a fitting tribute. Still, the exhibition prompts a question of the artworld’s sincerity in its interest in this project. Walker had been making similar drawings for over a decade, for example, overlaying street scenes on copies of Police stop and search chits. These works won few accolades. Somewhat ironically, the 2022 Turner Prize winner Veronica Ryan went on to create a Windrush memorial sculpture in East London’s Hackney.

If there is a frontrunner in this shortlist, they are so subject to the ideological biases of the judges. It would be naïve to imagine that any prize could be assessed differently in the politicised world of contemporary art. Nonetheless, this year’s exhibition more than most illustrates the diversity of art’s ways and means with which museums and galleries must contend. No longer is the shortlist united by a singular idea of what art is for. For that reason, the Turner Prize is once again a competition.

The exhibition continues at Towner, Eastbourne until 14 April 2024. The winner will be announced on 5 December 2023.

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