inside this year’s turner prize
A giant arse, a pile of pennies, a miniature train… That might be the tabloid interpretation of Britain’s “most controversial” art prize, but this year’s selection of artists actually reveals the depth, beauty and political force of Britain’s world...
How many people at this year's Turner Prize exhibition at the Tate Britain, which opens today, will come ready prepared with a witty Instagram caption for Anthea Hamilton's giant sculptural arse? It's the obvious, wonderful, iconic highlight of this year's show. Overall, this exhibition is sure to confound, as much as it will delight or amuse, the public. There's no easy answers to the problems posed by the artists included, many of which are hardly household names, but the work on display shows, if anything, the rude creative health and diversity of art practices in the UK right now.
But of course, where else could we begin but that giant arse? Standing about 12 feet tall, made of fake tan coloured polystyrene and epoxy, giant disembodied hands gently teasing the arse cheeks apart. What does it mean? Why? The obvious questions, once you tire of the cheekiness of it. It's titled, Project for a Door (After Gaetano Pesce), Pesce being an Italian architect and designer most well known for his singular use of material and colour in his buildings and objects. This sculpture is the realisation of a project the architect, you can only imagine jokingly, tried to work into a posh block of New York apartments. In a London dominated by luxury flats with poor doors for "affordable housing" Door works as a political glyph.
And like Pesce's door before, Anthea's "door" leads nowhere -- the arse rupturing out of a "brick wall" -- the space beneath the cheeks a black void, disappearing up the arse. Around the Door; a series of boots on plinths, a series of stylised, patterned, chastity belts crafted from silver and leather hang from the ceiling. A suit with a brick pattern hangs next to trompe l'oeil brick wallpaper.
Yet, like Mona Lisa's eyes, that giant arse follows you around the room, overwhelming everything. There's something quite weirdly unsexual, unsexy, unprovactive and unthreatening about Project For A Door; maybe it's because it's just so marvellously funny? So over the top? It's hard not to read it as everything we expect, in our most tabloid instincts, The Turner Prize to represent. Even if Anthea's work is really about politics, perversity, imagination, surrealism, materialism, it's skill is that it manifests her concerns, research, and ideas into such striking motifs that they becomes not merely glib statements, but something Sphinx like, inscrutable, unreadable.
At the opposite end of the scale at this year's exhibition was the work of Helen Marten, only 30, the youngest of the four nominees for the £25k prize. Her installations are dense and perplexing and require a kind of intensity and willingness to immerse to find meaning from their assemblages of fragments. Archaeological might be the most apt word to describe the process of trying to understand them, piecing together the fragments yet feeling like you might be missing something incredibly important. Or divination maybe, because there is no correct process, it's all interpretation, all in the viewer to find some semblance of sense from detritus pulled together in the four sculptural objects. They are kind of infuriating in their beguiling beauty, in how close they come to narrative unity, how they always dissolve as you feel you are close to making sense of them.
The final two finalists sit somewhere in between. Josephine Pryde, who I would possibly say most deserves to win and Michael Dean, who, if pushed, I would say is most likely to win.
Firstly Josephine, whose work combines photography and sculpture as a way of investigating art itself, specifically the history of image making and the luxury of images. Here, there's a series of wooden table tops, left to be bleached by the sun in various cities (London, Athens and Berlin, specifically) to create a constellation of patterns upon their surfaces. They resemble those early works of photographers like Man Ray or Lazslo Maholy-Nagy, who experimented with photograms, creating images without a camera by directly exposing film to create collages and juxtapositions. The works here were begun after Josephine's nomination for the prize, marking the time between then and the opening of the exhibition. This creates another layer in the collage their surfaces show, that is between archaic measurement of time, like a sundial, and also, possibly, memento mori, as one is branded with "JO" in block capitals.
The next step in Josephine's history of photography (skipping quite a large chunk of time) takes us to our present obsession with the luxury surface of fashion and advertising images. Titled Hands Fur Mich, Josephine arranges female hands holding tablets, mobile phones, placed over monitors, using notebooks; prioritising a bodily gesture of interaction with technology. They are all surface, or often two surfaces, with the black mirror of technology reflecting back the body, and the image inscribed often with a kind of Instagram-ready equally all-surface slogan; "a friend is someone who can see the truth and pain in you even when you are fooling everyone else" reads one particularly memorable one.
The centrepiece of Josephine's installation is also reflective of these images' intangible, inflexible, unreality. A replica model of a train, replete with graffiti, on tracks that run nowhere, the train unmoving. Suggesting what? The possibility of movement in the future or a memory of movement in the past? At the train's original display in San Francisco, visitors could ride it around the exhibition. Shorn of its reason for being it lends it an uncanniness, uneasily slipping out of praxis and into sculpture (or maybe it's just health and safety).
Lastly, Michael Dean. He's strewn Tate Britain's floor with 20,436 pennies; £20,436 being the amount of money the government states is what a married couple and two children can survive on for a year. When installing the work Dean symbolically removed one penny, meaning that the work's pile of pennies is one penny under the poverty line. The family here are rendered blankly and mutely in corrugated totems of rusting iron, with drilled in eye holes; observant watchers of their unusable pile of poverty. Arranged around this is a series of more sculptures, more totems, more detritus; plaster hands, stickers that play on the word SHORE, little drug baggies, amorphous wire sculptures. It's barren and haunting in a way that lends the explicit politicality of the pennies piece a metaphorical weight, that helps it not get lost in literalness.
It's his work's political element though, yes it's blunt, forceful literalness, that makes me feel that he might be the one to take the prize. Anthea Hamilton might be more iconic, Josephine Pryde might go deeper, Helen Marten the most beguiling, but Michael Dean's makes the most impact, even if it's not the best in show.
Text Felix Petty
Photography Joe Humphrys © Tate Photography