The Turner Prize
When the great Swedish soprano Birgit Nilsson was asked how a singer should prepare for the role of Isolde in Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde she is said to have replied, ‘Get a good pair of comfortable shoes’. Similar advice might be offered to visitors to this year’s Turner Prize exhibition at Tate Britain, London.1 The four shortlisted artists are showing video works and the gallery warns that to see them all will take four and a half hours, so ‘plan your visit accordingly’. Luke Willis Thompson’s three films, shown continuously, last twenty seven and a half minutes, for which the audience has to stand or lie on the floor; Naeem Mohaiemen’s two films together last just over three hours, but there at least the organisers have been merciful and provided seating.
Physical discomfort is reinforced by mental unease: most of the exhibits draw attention to issues of political and social oppression. This is especially explicit in the work by Forensic Architecture, the name both of a research agency based at Goldsmiths, University of London, and of the form of investigative practice that it has pioneered.2 The collective works across a number of media – including video, photography, animation and model-making – to publish the results of its research into allegations of state and corporate violence. The work on show at Tate Britain, The long duration of a split second, deals with an attempt by Israeli police to clear an unrecognised Bedouin community from the Negev/Naqab desert in southern Israel on 18th January 2017, an event that resulted in the deaths of two people.
The works by the other artists are more elliptical. One of Mohaiemen’s films, Two meetings and a funeral, combines archival footage and recent interviews to explore the way that post-colonial societies – Mohaiemen grew up in Bangladesh – chose during the Cold War period to unify around religious identities rather than the socialist ideals with which many of them set out. Charlotte Prodger’s Bridgit, a half-hour video shot on the artist’s smartphone, intersperses footage of her home with images of the Scottish Highlands – the deck of a ferry, a standing stone – accompanied by a soundtrack of excerpts from Prodger’s diary, reflecting on the way that her life has shaped her queer identity. Thompson’s silent films address racism and violence in close-ups of the faces of Black people with links to incidents of brutal death, including Graeme Burke, son of Joy Gardner, who died when police tried to deport her during a dawn raid in London in 1993, and Diamond Reynolds, whose boyfriend, Philando Castile, was shot dead by a police officer in Minnesota in 2016.
On the whole, the exhibition has been well received by critics,3 but it has nonetheless been controversial. On the first day of public viewing it was picketed by members of BBZ wearing T-shirts reading ‘Black pain is not for profit’.4 BBZ, which describes itself as a ‘Club night/curatorial collective from SE london, prioritising the experiences of Queer Womxn, Trans & Non-Binary POC [people of colour]’, explained that it had decided to take this stand ‘against the utilisation of Black Death and Black pain by non-black artists and arts institutions for cultural and financial gain’. The focus of their protest was Thompson, whose nomination for the prize had already drawn criticism from a member of BBZ: ‘Thompson is [. . .] a white-passing male, making work and profiting off the violence and suffering of black and marginalised people’.5
This sort of criticism is not new. The protests over the Turner Prize seem tame compared to the argument that erupted over the display at the Whitney Biennial in 2017 of Dana Schutz’s painting Open casket, based on a photograph of the body of Emmett Till, an African-American boy killed in a racially motivated attack in Mississippi in 1955. Although such protests are often lumped in with debates about identity politics and cultural appropriation, the objection is specific: the suffering of minority or oppressed groups should not be exploited for personal gain by artists who are not members of that community.
There are problematic issues here, especially in defining ‘exploitation’. To take a historical example, was Josiah Wedgwood exploiting the suffering of Black people when he produced his celebrated anti-slavery medallion Am I not a man and a brother?. Wedgwood’s participation was a significant asset to the anti-slavery movement and it is possible to argue, therefore, that the highlighting of abuse is more important than the identity of the person who brings it to attention. Thompson emphasises that his films are produced with the full co-operation of his subjects, yet objectors to his work argue that he is taking opportunities from Black artists, who have a greater right to address the subjects with which he deals. The exclusion of racial minorities from full access to the production and exhibiting of art is a major issue, but it seems unduly restrictive to insist that it must be resolved before it becomes acceptable for the oppression of such minorities to be a permissible subject for any white artist. It might be added that there is something distasteful about the questioning of Thompson’s racial identity (he is a New Zealander of both Fijian and European descent).
The protests have drawn attention to a wider issue, the way that art with a political content is valued. Responding to the news that Forensic Architecture had been shortlisted, its deputy director, Christina Varvia, commented that ‘there are a few cases that we are working on that we are having struggles with, at the same time there is the recognition from an art institute. There are a lot of mixed feelings about that’.6 She was alluding to the fact that the announcement had coincided with news that an Israeli court had decided that the shooting of a protestor by police, as highlighted in The long duration of a split second, was accidental. For Forensic Architecture, art has a primarily instrumental purpose. Should the agency win, that belief may yet prove the most contentious issue raised by this year’s Turner Prize.
1 Turner Prize 2018, Tate Britain, London, 26th September–6th January 2019. Catalogue: Turner Prize 2018. 96 pp. incl. numerous col. and b. & w. ills. (Tate, London, 2018), £5. ISBN 978–1–5272–2916–7. The winner will be announced on 4th December.
2 All its projects are freely available on https://forensic-architecture.org, accessed 19th November 2018.
3 See, for example, Adrian Searle, ‘Turner prize 2018 review – no painting or sculpture, but the best lineup for years’, The Guardian, 24th September 2108.
4 See A. Armstrong: ‘“Black pain is not for profit”: collective protests Luke Willis Thompson’s Turner Prize nomination at Tate Britain’, www. artnews.com, 25th September 2018, accessed 19th November 2018.
5 Rene Matic: ‘Luke Willis Thompson’s Turner Prize nomination is a blow to artists of colour’, https://gal-dem.com, 3rd May 2018, accessed 19th November 2018.
6 Quoted in T. Ravenscroft: ‘Forensic Architecture has “mixed feelings” about Turner Prize nomination in week of setbacks’, https://dezeen.com, 27th April 2018, accessed 19th November 2018.