Every year the Turner Prize shortlist generates controversy, and the selection for 2018 is no different. This year all four shortlisted works are, at least in part, film and/or video installations, which has prompted the kind of articles you would expect about the ‘death of art’ in some of our nationals [I get the impression Michael Glover from the Independent was not a fan, and Mark Hudson in the Telegraph was only slightly more impressed]. From Caroline Prodger’s meditation on consciousness and existence, and the role we all play in an ongoing human narrative, to Forensic Architecture’s rigorous and distressing analysis and reconstruction of the circumstances surrounding two deaths in a Bedouin village in the Negev desert, the Turner Prize shortlist challenges viewers’ assumptions about what constitutes art in the 21st century, and asks questions about the role art spaces should or shouldn’t play in promoting work that falls outside the traditional scope of an ‘art gallery’ and that can be highly political in nature.
I’m not going to review the works, because I’m not an art critic and anyway I think you should really go and see them yourself, but I do want to write about how they made me feel, and some of the questions I think they throw up about what art is.
I normally try to do a whistle-stop tour of the Turner Prize, flitting through all the shortlisted works in a single visit. It’s not exactly conducive to gaining an understanding of the works on display or of forming considered views on them, so this year I took advantage of my more flexible diary (and an accommodating boss… me!) to undertake separate visits to see each work in turn over a period of a couple of weeks.
More than any Turner exhibition before, you really do need to allocate time to this year’s entries. Naeem Mohaiemen’s two films alone constitute over three hours of viewing. Whilst none of the others are anywhere near this length, they still require time and attention to take in. The Forensic Architecture installation in particular deserves careful consideration as there are several filmed sections, but also detailed written analyses of the work that was done to reconstruct the events that form the heart of the piece (and the impact this ongoing work had on traditional and social media at the time).
Of all four works, I found Luke Willis Thompson’s three films to be the most visually powerful. Two of these pieces are black & white silent film portraits of victims of racial and police violence. I found these images to be beautifully shot, but at the same time felt guilt at enjoying them on an aesthetic level when they clearly portray the psychological damage done to their subjects. There is so much going on, on so many layers, in this work and the others too. The relationship between the artist, the subject and the viewer in each case is complex, thought provoking and difficult. This isn’t art that you can enjoy purely on an aesthetic level – it prompts you to think about a range of issues, all of which are relevant to us in the here and now. In part, I guess this is why works like these prompt such negative responses from some quarters. Some people want their art to be beautiful (to them) and to make the world a better place. Others want art to shock people out of their comfort zones and make them confront uncomfortable issues. I think there is room for all of these and more, and I got a great deal out of the Turner Prize shortlist this year. I genuinely felt all the works were absolutely worth the investment of my time.
I recognise that some critics point to these works as being so contemporary that they won’t stand the test of time in the way that ‘great art’ is supposed to. I agree that they may well not be valued to the same extent at some point in the future, but I think they totally deserve their place in the Turner exhibition, and in our consciousnesses, today.