The Turner Prize 2016 phase of the pulse of what's happening

Posted December 7th, 2016

This is not the first time I've expressed an opinion on the Turner Prize. When it comes up, as it has for 2016, I want to do it again even though my opinion is the same as the year before. Coincidentally we were in the Tate Britain art gallery a week ago where pieces by the nominees were on display but we didn't feel like paying an entrance fee. In the free hall however was a pile of red dust put there by Anish Kapoor, the Turner Prize winner from 1991; the same kind of thing as the pile of penny coins in the bit where you had to pay (I am assuming Anish put it there himself; we know from the pile of bricks, it doesn't always follow).

I don't object to people spreading material on the floor of empty rooms or making crappy models of someone's else's much better model of buttocks or putting a mundane series of photographs on the wall. I don't even mind them doing it in Tate Britain as long as paintings are still displayed in the other rooms, which they were for our visit. I object to Turner Prize exhibits being referred to as fine art.

For all I know the 2016 Turner Prize nominees (Josephine Pryde, Helen Marten, Michael Dean, Anthea Hamilton) have talent. Maybe they can draw, or paint, or sculpt marble and bronze, or take photos of outstanding depth and beauty or make films that move and thrill. There is just no evidence of it in Tate Britain or the work for which they were selected. They are interested in other things.

From Tate Britain's Turner Prize curators:

On Helen Marten's installation, kind of mundane everyday or unusual or surprising items ... gathers them all together and kind of collages them in surprising ways ... so we can invest them with new meanings or ideas

On Anthea Hamilton's model buttocks, kind of physical research (after Gaetano Pesce's 1970s original cast of Ulderico Manani's backside) because she's trying to recreate the experience for someone of what that would have felt like

On Josephine Pryde's photos of hands using mobile phones, the hands are often touching themselves ... she's called that a vocabulary of gestures in which people might be asking how they sit within the world around them

On Michael Dean's pile of coins, unusual for an artist to talk about poverty and class ... we had one that said "Michael Dean for Prime Minister" which shows, kind of, the huge support for his work

From Alex Farquharson, Director of Tate Britain and Chairman of the prize jury, difficult to identify what phase we're in but this year's feels very on the pulse of what's happening

Alex doesn't know what phase we're in but whatever it is, he's on it. Close by at the British National Gallery there are several 'phases' on display, all the way from Van Eyck to Van Dyck to Van Gogh. When 'phases' last longer than the interval between one Turner Prize and the next they are normally called 'periods'- the Flemish / Italian Renaissance, Neoclassicism, Romanticism, Impressionism, Art Nouveau, Expressionism and so on. We are now in a period that begun in the 1940s (or I think it did) when art colleges began to expand the idea that it doesn't matter how bad an artwork looks. You can see this in 1940s/50s room at the National Portrait Gallery where the paintings are crap. I assume that is because the colleges were more interested in student numbers than the quality of art.

This period is still running its course, so to speak. Perhaps it will end with a rise of populism in politics. Hardly anyone remembers who won the Turner Prize a couple of years ago because nobody cares, if they even knew in the first place. If the 2016 prize is remembered at all it will be for Anthea's massive theme park buttocks, ugly, artless, social media joke (which I suppose makes it populist). I am aware that the Turner Prize is not awarded on the exhibition itself. However, the curators from Tate Britain are involved in what is on show. Overall, Tate Britain is responsible. I am also aware that the competition is not about great art but to encourage interest and stimulate debate. Unfortunately the debate is not about new meanings of mundane objects or how we sit in the modern world. Michael Dean will not become Prime Minister and nobody living below the poverty line gains anything from his pile of pennies.

To be fair, Helen Marten is not a populist. Of the four nominees she seems the most thoughtful and sincere and there is some beauty in the dangling sausage thing she made. Nor does she appear to want fame and fortune from her Turner Prize so if there must be a winner I'm pleased it was her. If she can draw and paint I wish she would do more of it and not waste any more time with installations.

She went to the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art (like my mother did for a few months in the late 1940s) so perhaps Helen could paint pictures about things she says matter in the modern world, like diversity, tolerance, alt-right extremism and (to suggest a few more) environmental destruction, democracy, the loss of species, scientific progress, human generosity/greed, famine, war.

Page last modified: December 09, 2016


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Patrick Elsewhere

The art of Françoise Taylor:
paintings & drawings by my mother, vécue 1920-2007