The Turner Prize is always one to stir up a hornet’s nest, but these are my four big takeaways from this year’s show of the shortlisted artists at Tate Britain
1. Each of the nominees had film-centric work – one of the hardest mediums in contemporary art. So easy for visitors to wander in and out, the video barely making an impact. Did these artists overcome that challenge?? Hmmm, in part;
2. The longest film submitted was 90 minutes long!! You will need to set aside a hell of a lot of time if you want to fully immerse yourself in all the works running on loop. As it happens, the longest film is also one of the best so that’s a start;
3. I’m finding it increasingly common that the way contemporary artists talk about their work and their viewpoint is a lot more interesting than the art itself;
4. I genuinely don’t know how Charlotte Prodger won.
Not that you think the latter at the start of the show for, outside the main exhibition galleries, the two-minute Tate Shots videos on each of the artists, run on loop. Up close and personal, the artists explain what interests them, what they’re trying to interrogate.
Charlotte’s approach sounds fascinating – a blend between an examination of how modern technologies fit and shape the body, blurring the distinction between man and machine, and how gender and specifically challenges to gendered expectations has become commoditised, the crucial political element largely erased or ignored.
But she is not the only one with an interesting approach…
Naeem Mohalemen isn’t just a speaker – it’s so easy to get drawn into his world so passionate is he about archive videos and found footage – he has a challenging viewpoint, using and sewing together these clips to look retrospectively at the rise and fall of left-wing political movements, the legacy of colonialism, and even how our architecture is shaped by such forces.
He is not the only one with such an explicitly political focus. Forensic Architecture explain how they are using artistic and design practices to challenge government-controlled versions of events, exposing miscarriages of justice and state-enforced lies. Surely a team comprised of lawyers, architects, filmmakers and scientists pushes at the invisible lines of what constitutes art, but their challenge and their method is brilliantly innovative.
Luke Willis Thompson’s tape, in contrast, feels like a bit of an outlier. Explicitly political too, Luke’s focus though has been on the racism and police brutality meted out to Black Americans and Brits. Only Luke is not Black – he is a New Zealand artist of Fijian and European descent (as Wikipedia explains). And having such an artist co-opt black trauma – even though he would argue for benefit – is not a good look.
So, ruling Luke’s work out (and his video close ups of survivors is not the best piece of work here anyway, irrespective of the inappropriateness of his actions) that leaves three remaining – and Charlotte’s work is the poorest one of them.
Given such strong ideas the result is a tepid collection of banal video clips of a ferry crossing or a sleeping cat with extracts of her teenage diary being read out over these. Not only is it oddly dull, but this average-ness is only exacerbated after seeing her talk so eloquently about the ideas that power her work. I loved her ideas; I didn’t love the resulting artwork.
And, certainly, compared to Naeem Mohaiemen and Forensic Architecture, I felt her work suffered in the comparison.
The works from these two nominees are the stand out draws in this exhibition.
Forensic Architecture have a multi-media display of iPhone footage, architecture surveys, newspaper headlines and extensive computer and physical modelling that rips apart an Israeli account of a night-time attack on a Palestinian village deliberately being cleared to make way for a Jewish settlement.
The footage is harrowing but the analysis is piercing. From the way the Israeli trucks are positioned during the attack to the words and language used by the soldiers, from the amateur footage to professional analysis of the built environment and topography, Forensic Architecture’s approach is ground breaking. Is it art? Good question. But since none of us really know what art is…
And I can’t help but think maybe such concerns turned the judging panel away from Naeem Mohaiemen too. Perhaps his film, Two Meetings and a Funeral, seemed too much like a documentary. After all, this is a film that considers the collapse of the non-aligned movement of the 1970s and the failed Third World project.
If it was then that’s such a shame as the intricacies of the film clips brought together is ingenious – the interrogation of ‘gigantism’ in transnational architecture, specially in Algeria, by Marxist historian Vijay Prashad is a fascinating backdrop to the clips from the 1973 summit held in the very same building by the Non-Aligned Movement. And nor are these clips the predictable ones of big speeches and big names, but more the ‘leftover’ clips of disinterested delegates half asleep.
So maybe I don’t agree with the decision of the judges – not an uncommon situation for many of us – but I definitely enjoyed this exhibition, well, half of it any way. Contemporary art has its naysayers but there are artists out there producing great work and challenging work too.
Tate Britain, London to January 6, 2019.
1 Charlotte Prodger, BRIDGIT, 2016. Single channel video with sound, 32 minutes. All images courtesy of the artist, Koppe Astner, Glasgow and Hollybush Gardens, London. Video Still.
2 © Forensic Architecture, 2018. Killing in Umm al-Hiran, 18 January 2017 (still). Annotations by Forensic Architecture on Israeli police footage.
3 Luke Willis Thompson at Chisenhale Gallery. Photography by Andy Keate.
4 Naeem Mohaiemen, Two Meetings and a Funeral, 2017, three channel installation.