The Turner Art Prize: Challenging the Definition of Art

By Eleanor Dye, Second Year English Literature Undergraduate.

The Turner Art Prize is the UK’s most publicised art award. Organised by the Tate art gallery and awarded annually to a British visual artist, it has often made headlines for controversy more so than for innovative mediums. Famous past winners include Anish Kapoor and Martin Boyce with artists using methods ranging from (but not limited to) video to painting, photography, pottery and architecture.

Cultivated with the intention of bestowing prestige to the UK’s most honourable works, the prize has in actuality, invited widespread criticism, with Brian Sewell in The Evening Standard calling it an ‘annual farce’, with the whimsical ‘turnip prize’ being erected in its place – a satirising spoof award honouring the innovators of deliberately bad art. In the past, the prize has notoriously attracted attention from the media, with a special mention given in 1990 when the prize was cancelled due to a withdrawal of commercial sponsorship.

However, perhaps the most controversial winner of the prize thus far is British contemporary artist Damien Hirst. The artist encapsulates various mediums into his work in the aim of exploring the complexities of art, religion, science, life and death. His 1995 work entitled ‘Mother and Child Divided’, showing four glass tanks housing a cow and her calf severed in half, is the most controversial of Turner Prize winners. With contributions invited in from the public, the uniqueness of the nominees and winners of the prizes challenge the definition of art and bring to light innovative techniques of new artists.

This year’s prize was awarded on 4th December to the Glasgow-based Charlotte Prodger, who has been making moving-image works for 20 years. All four nominees were video-centric, with the Guardian commenting that there was ‘no painting or sculpture, but the best line-up for years’. As well as moving-image, Prodger works with printed image, sculpture and writing to express issues of queer identity as well as landscape, technology, time, and the body through her works. Bridgit is a half hour film shot entirely on an iPhone, which Prodger, due to her interest in the relationship between the body and technology, described as an extension of her body. In her interview for the Tate gallery, Prodger described her desire for the body to be enmeshed with her work in a kind of ‘symbiosis’.

A still from Bridgit. Original Image.

The camera records her movements and shows everyday scenes such as Prodger’s cat with a lamp, a stream, the deck of a ferry, a T-shirt on a radiator and the Scottish countryside. The film is accompanied by excerpts from her journals read aloud by close friends in which Prodger discusses coming out, going under anaesthetic and working in a care home. The film is personal, whilst also examining the place of a person in the world. More so, it encompasses concepts of identity fluidity from a queer perspective: it claimed victory as the jury deemed it an impressive presentation of lived experience. A special mention was given to its expansive and innovative nature – an unpredicted quality given its capture on an iPhone.

A still from Bridgit, described as ‘an exploration of the intertwining between landscape, technology and time’.  Original Image.

In the category of artists tackling pressing issues in society today, Forensic Architecture received the commendable honour. Described as an ‘architectural detective agency’, the interdisciplinary team are a collective of architects, filmmakers, lawyers and scientists. Their aim? To investigate state crimes and human rights abuses across the world, using the built environment as a starting point. Their winning project recreated a 2017 raid by Israeli police in a Bedouin village, using real footage with the aid of computer modelling. Naeem Mohaiemen was one of the notable runners up – a creative who uses films, installations and essays to create artwork about transnational left politics in the period following the second world war. With an average duration of three hours, Mohaeiemen’s works manage to persistently ooze poignancy. This is exemplified by ‘Tripoli Cancelled’ – the showcasing of a lone passenger stranded in an airport in Athens, composing imaginary letters to his wife.

As earlier stated, with the Turner prize comes controversy, and 2018 was no exception. This year the polemic took the form of final nominee Luke Willis Thompson. His video work, ‘Autoportrait’, shows a silent film of Diamond Reynolds, the girlfriend of Philando Castile, who was shot dead by police in Minnesota. Thompson uses film, performance, installation and sculpture to explore histories of social and racial inequality applied to the already litigious topic. Silent black and white films are projected onto a wall rather than on a screen, unembellished and with the aim of a stark exploration of ‘cut offs’ of lives and history.

For more information and for examples from the films, see the Tate gallery website.

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