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Turner Prize shortlist: now showing in Coventry

Turner Prize 2021 The Herbert Gallery until January 12th 2022.

LES GRAFTON takes a long, hard look at the five contenders for the Turner Prize and sees a clear-cut winner. But that’s just his view, his aim is to tempt you along to The Herbert to see for yourself and form your own opinion.

The annual Turner Prize is one of the country’s cultural big hitters and always newsworthy. The live televised award show used to be unmissable telly. Celebrity guest presenters are a feature with Madonna, Yoko Ono and Dennis Hopper among them. Its sponsor went bankrupt in 1990. Another was dropped in 2019 in an LGBQT row. On the plus side it had an all-female shortlist as far back as 1997 and a cross dressing winner in 2003. It has moved out of its London base, the Tate, and now tours the provinces to a new location each year.

Given its controversial history (see below) it was with some trepidation that this reviewer ventured upstairs at The Herbert to view the five shortlisted entries.

The first 'environment' encountered at the exhibition belongs to Gentle Radical. This Welsh-based group was trying to give voice to a variety of facets of the local community in Cardiff’s Riverside. They have attempted to give everyone a chance to participate by knocking on every door in the locale. But the videos of people talking about their personal situations were individually rather long, showing in an uncomfortable environment and all twelve chosen running consecutively over two hours. A worthy endeavour, which sadly proved to be one of the least accessible exhibits due to poor sound quality and small screens with even smaller subtitles.


The next space could not have been more different. A short walk through some metal poles lit from above brings you to the entrance to a theatrical Irish pub, courtesy of the Array Collective. They have worked hard to recreate an authentic looking bar with drinks and walls with pictures, posters and memorabilia above wooden pews. The ceiling is hung with flags and banners. Nevertheless, all is not what it appears to be. Looking closer you see the cans are branded “Stouts Out”, the bottles “ Black Pigs Dyke”. There are framed Balaclavas on the wall and chairs and tables with packets of Taytos, fake chips and ash trays with sculpted fag ends. A stuffed figure sprawls in one corner. Another video screen is playing and you are encouraged to sit and watch. I am reminded of my childhood, going to the cinema and arriving in the middle of the film, scrabbling for meaning. Note to self, read the explanatory intro first before entering. We are in contemporary Belfast. The film shows Druithaib’s Ball where a variety of acts, many in drag, performs pieces about their experiences of politics, religion and homophobia. It’s funny and moving and out there in every way, featuring, for example, a monologue regarding “Fairies versus Christians”. There are pipes, singers, recitation, a bit of stand up with a comedian lamenting the days when he could cross the border to fill the “Mazda from Asda” and later one performer, dressed like Leigh Bowery in a spiral Slinky, emotes “I really want to win this Turner Prize”. I leave where I came in.


Next, the source of the deep sub-bass that has pervaded all the other exhibits, from the Black Obsidian Sound System whose acronym BOSS looks like they are sponsored by the German design house. Demonstrating the power of sound, as if audio isn’t enough, two bowls of water throb with patterns of bubbles created by the audio waves. There are films (again) of dancing and speaker stacks in situ coupled with a commentary on the evolution of the sound system. This display by a collective of queer, trans and non-binary Black and people of colour seems less overt than the social context of what has gone before, and again the setting and visual environment somewhat restrict engagement.


Moving across to the next space I am startled to see a canvas with a vigorous application of paint in a sub-Pollock style stretched across the far wall. Project Art Works, based in Hastings, work with people with autism, learning and other intellectual disabilities. Since the 1990’s they have helped their students/clients create art that characterises their neurodiverse perspective. This gallery space is much more familiar; there are large canvases all-round the walls. In the centre is a structure which resembles an art stockroom, storing rolled and framed canvases, some blank, but most are finished works . Within there is yet another video, this showing the mentors/enablers with the artists, but thankfully on a big screen with surround sound and large clear subtitles

On one of the external walls of this structure are cases with some of the group’s small sculptures, another screen is scrolling through hundreds of pieces of their 2D work , moving so fast they are almost animated, a flash of Rothko, a fleeting glimpse of Lowry. The hung paintings speak to the scale of the work. The material costs must be phenomenal but it is money well spent. There is a portrait hanging at the far end that could be entered for Turner as an individual piece. The video in the room is riveting and one I choose to stay and see all the way through. It shows the members of the group at work. Here one is painting with finesse and fine brushwork, there another daubing with his fingers, a third making pen marks staccato across a large sheet of paper. We see their facilitators preparing studio spaces with large tarpaulins, and then stapling paper for the artists to work on. Briefly, we see another of the artists, Carl Sexton, begin a piece of calligraphy with a small Sharpie, changing colours. On the wall outside is one of the finished pieces, at once a coloured swirl of pattern and movement but also a personal message with the tiny words running into one another, repeated in variations.

Intercut with the studio work is footage on location in some Highland retreat, a remote bothy set in a stunning landscape. We see one of the group navigating this environment with some physical difficulty. We also see the group working, enjoying a candlelit supper and hear their voices: sometimes responding to conversation and questions, sometimes in solitary dialogue describing what they are doing and how they feel. With some, it is just sounds and raw emotion.

You can tell from this description that this exhibit has resonated with me the most. It carries a potent emotional kick in the value of the “social” work the group is doing, the outcomes are stunning and they take a traditional form. It is well put together in curatorial terms and the joy on display in the film and the work is inspiring. On entry to the Herbert you are given a yellow plastic token to vote for the collection you want to win. For me, no contest. Even with another set of work to see I feel a strong connection to these artists and their enablers. It is what making art is about and what galleries and exhibitions, even prizes, should celebrate.

Main picture at top of page also by Project Art Works


Moving through closed curtains into a long space lit with eerie light, the last display, Cooking Sections, is visually spectacular with a second dose of throbbing of water, this time projected. Eight circles of blue pulsate across the length of the floor, fading and reappearing and an eerie voice over, with electronica in the background, talks about biodiversity with specific reference to salmon. It was all a bit “Devs” for me, but I was impressed to see this collective had persuaded a number of museum cafes to adopt a more sympathetic and sustainable attitude to food, especially from marine sources. However, calling it Climavore meant my vote for Project Art Works remained unchanged.

Overall, despite some weaknesses, this Turner Prize exhibition continues its on-going challenge to the norms of what we expect from artists. It raises questions about art and society, and how they relate to each other. Compared to the heyday it seems a little safe and lacking some of the radical incarnations of the past, but in this it continues the trend of recent years. It is useful to have this annual audit of what’s current and I would urge anyone with a curiosity to see why art is so important to make the trip upstairs in the Herbert. It is free to enter, just book in advance. If nothing else, there is a clear display of some of the many ways art and the making of art can touch and change lives and involve communities. I hope visitors will be encouraged to choose their favourite contributors and, while you are at it, press for more funding and curriculum time for art in schools.

Results are announced live from Coventry Cathedral on December 1st.

The Turner Prize - a short history

The Turner Prize carries much baggage, some historical, some more recent. The exhibition, which was a huge boost to the City of Culture programme, has a long back catalogue (literally) of controversy almost since its inception in 1984. Originally, only artists under the age of 50 were eligible for the Prize. The Turner found its feet with Howard Hodgkin, Gilbert and George and Richard Long as relatively conventional winners in the early years

In the mid-nineties came the era of the YBA’s (Young British Artists) whose infamous “Sensation” exhibition at the Royal Academy brought art from the culture section to the front pages. This exhibition introduced a slew of conceptual artists that came to dominate British art for a generation. Among others it featured Damien Hirst, who had won in the Turner in 1995 with his bisected cows (having been nominated in ‘92) and Tracey Emin, with her embroidered tent entitled “Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963–1995” fanning the flames of controversy. Emin was later short-listed for the Turner in 1999 with “My Bed”, another piece absolutely guaranteed to put her and the Turner on the map, though many would claim her sweary drunk exit from the live Turner after-show on Channel 4 in 1997 had already done that. Thereafter the Turner became a must-see annual celebration of British Art or pretentious freak show depending on your viewpoint. Hence my trepidation.

Thankfully, things have changed a little since the heady days of Blur and New Labour. Sculptor Rachel Whiteread, who won in 1993 with “House” went on to create the very moving “Holocaust Memorial” in 2000, in Vienna, with a very similar concept as her nominated piece. Antony Gormley, who won in 1994 with his sculptures “Testing a World View” created the iconic “Angel of the North” a few years later, both giving Turner winners some much needed credibility. Anish Kapoor, Chris Ofili (despite the elephant dung), Steve McQueen and national treasure Grayson Perry have all had very successful careers built on their early Turner Prize success. Lately there have been fewer well-known artists, coupled with a switch to the use of less conventional materials and more multi-media installations. Indeed one of the last painters of recent years was Coventry’s own George Shaw, whose enamel paintings of local neighbourhoods made him very much the people’s choice. Of course, he did not win. Inevitably, collaborations have followed the move away from traditional media and in 2019 the nominees eschewed the notion of “competition” and “winners” choosing to win jointly as a Collective. With no prize awarded last year the trend has continued with all five nominees for 2021 being group entries. A common theme of social conscience is also to the fore.

WORDS & IMAGES UK   presents....

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