It’s that time of year again. The kids have gone back to school, the days are getting shorter, and the art world, after a lazy summer, is cranking back into life. There’s the British Art Fair at the Saatchi Gallery, Frieze coming up in Regent’s Park and, of course, the Tuner Prize created, ostensibly, to promote public debate around new developments in contemporary art. This year, the exhibition is at the Towner in Eastbourne, a beacon of contemporary art that manages to hold its own amongst the retirement homes and day trippers visiting the oh-so-English seaside town. The Prize is the highlight of Towner 100, a celebration for the gallery’s centenary year.
It’s hard to believe that the Turner Prize was created way back in 1984. Named after the visionary painter J. M. Turner (he might have been bemused by some of the entries), the award is given to a British artist for an outstanding exhibition or body of work in the preceding year. The four finalists are Ghislaine Leung, Jess Darling, Barbara Walker and Rory Pilgrim.
The peripatetic nature of the Prize, which has been held in the Baltic, Newcastle, Ferens Art Gallery in Hull, Ebrington in Derry-Londonderry and the Turner Contemporary in Margate, gives it a different flavour and backdrop each year. Living through a recent pandemic has also had its knock-on effects, and this year’s Prize has abandoned some of the ubiquitous irony and hard-edged attitudes of previous years to examine what a fix we find ourselves in nationally and what it is that we actually mean by inclusivity and care.
Working with sculpture, drawing and installation, Jess Darling ( Top Photo) takes his cues from Eastbourne’s coastal location to explore notions of borders, the body, nature, nationhood and exclusion. Bits of what look like bent rail track that appear to lead nowhere in particular project out of the wall and curl onto the floor in a pointless roller coaster. Elsewhere, a frilly pelmet of crochet lace, the sort seen in many an Eastbourne window, seems to suggest the hidebound and the moribund. Hung together along with a line of razor wire, it might not be fanciful to read this as an oblique reference to Brexit and our closed borders. A shelf, also decorated with a trim of crochet, holds a mortuary of the white clay limbs of dolls. A reference to bodies broken, perhaps, on the wheel of political bureaucracy? Metal barriers, the sort used for ‘kettling’ as a form of crowd control, litter the gallery. The longer one stays around the work, the more uncomfortable and dystopian it feels.
Gislaine Leung elides the idea of musical scores and sculpture. The industrial metal pipes snaking through the gallery are the reappropriated ventilation system removed from the ceiling of a bar in Belgium when the smoking ban was introduced. Now, bolted together, they meander across the gallery floor: the industrial reconstituted as art. Leung talks of ‘score-based’ work. The ‘scores’ referred to are the text-based instructions to the gallery team setting up her work. Another work, Monitors (2022), Score: A baby monitor installed in one room and broadcast in another – speaks of the challenges of slipping between the roles of mother and artist. This reflects Leung’s overriding interest in labour and the support structures required (and often not offered) to maintain it. As with that one-time Turner prize winner, the late Grenville Davey, there’s an interest in industrial materials and everyday objects, but, for my money, these installations come across as dry and cerebral rather than felt.
The most accessible work is by Barbara Walker, who explores the scandal and injustices faced by the Windrush generation. Creating a palimpsest from the official forms and bureaucratic documentation used to deny a generation rightful immigration, she highlights the dubious practices of the Home Office. Drawn directly onto the wall with skill and compassion, her monochromatic portraits of the victims sit among the layers of documentation needed as evidence for their right to remain. The fact that her works will be removed from the walls at the end of the exhibition, simply washed away, is a potent reminder of the invisibility of those who suffered at the hands of our political decision-making.
But it is Rory Pilgrim‘s RAFTS that generated the most debate among those with whom I went to the Towner. This, more than any of the other works, seems to flag up a U-turn from the years of ubiquitous cool to spotlight the communal. The work, made over several years, is based on a project in Dagenham and Barking run by Green Shoe Arts for those who are vulnerable and deprived. Around the walls are Pilgrim’s whimsical paintings that made me think of the work of Richard Dadd, that ultimate outsider artist. In the film, we hear the stories of those taking part: the man for whom a hollow tree has particular emotional significance and the teenagers in their tie-and-die tops creating sinuous weaving dances. Running through RAFTS is a seven-song oratorio. The participants reflect what a RAFT means to them. They tell stories and compose ‘poems’ to share their visions for a safer, fairer world. There are interludes where we see Pilgrim – his name is ridiculously apt as the whole work has a softly evangelical, new age feel – playing the harp, his painted fingernails very visible, illustrating something of his queer, camp sensibility to which he refers. I came away from this hour-long film both genuinely moved and irritated in equal measure. It offers ways for living in a gentler, more communal, engaged way, where each person is seen as a valued member of society. But the poetry was awful, so it’s difficult not to wish that the inclusion of these heartfelt renditions had been used in some more oblique way. But there you are: I, the elitist, published poet wanting well-crafted literary poetry when all these people wanted was to get up and speak from the heart and be heard.
All Photos: P C Robinson © Artlyst 2023
Sue Hubbard is an award-winning poet, novelist and freelance art critic. Her latest novel, Flatlands from Pushkin Press, can be ordered here: https://pushkinpress.com/books/flatlands/
Her latest collection of poetry, God’s Little Artist: poems on the Life of Gwen John, can be ordered here: