The Turner Prize Wrestles With an Identity Crisis
LIVERPOOL — A multisensory apocalyptic ecoscape. Assemblages of crocheted sacks and fruit sculptures. A K-Pop-style boy band in ostentatious drag. Racist pub signs and menacing moving sculptures. This is the Turner Prize 2022 exhibition at Tate Liverpool, featuring a series of eye-catching and intelligent contributions by its four nominees: Sin Wai Kin, Heather Phillipson, Ingrid Pollard, and Veronica Ryan.
The exhibition is a feast for the eyes. The gallery space loops around so that all the artists have their own mini-exhibitions, marked out from one another with statement wall and floor colors. First up is artist-cum-musician-cum-poet Heather Phillipson with her maximalist and anxiety-inducing installation “RUPTURE NO 6: biting the blowtorched peach.” Monstrous animal eyes blink, a violent wind shrieks, and a tin cabin tips to one side on a sandy bed. In contrast, Veronica Ryan’s neighboring yellow-walled display is quiet and contemplative. Her elegant works engage with urgent questions of our time (consumerism, the environment, the legacies of British colonialism), but always with a poeticism and light touch.
In another room, Sin Wai Kin shape-shifts across different works in the guise of various comically named characters. The best piece in their display is a mesmerizing music video featuring a four-piece boyband, all played by the artist, alongside branded merch such as wallpaper, posters, and cardboard cut-outs. The artist conducts a sharp takedown of celebrity culture and brings viewers along for the ride. There’s another tonal shift on entering Ingrid Pollard’s space, which features an array of racist British memorabilia and powerful archival photographs, meticulously researched and compiled by the artist over several decades. In a small final room are three kinetic sculptures by Pollard made from rope and saws, which look (and sound) like torture instruments.
Despite the obvious differences, each year there’s a certain synergy among the shortlisted artists, a shared preoccupation or approach which somehow captures the current mood. This year it’s polyvocality, an intermingling of multiple voices and an encouragement of diverse readings. “I see my selves in you, reflected back at me; it’s always you, you show me I’m many,” chants Kin’s boyband. Phillipson’s installation is abuzz with disparate colors, images, objects, and sounds. Pollard mines archives and histories to create her multilayered installations, and Ryan turns familiar household objects into surprising and enigmatic sculptures.
But this year’s shortlist also feels quite imbalanced. Pollard and Ryan are in their late 60s and 70s, artists who have made art for many decades but have only recently been recognized by an art world that systematically overlooks women and artists of color; indeed, much of their work draws on their feelings of invisibility and exclusion. The other two — 45-year-old Phillipson and 32-year-old Kin — are in the early stages of their careers, working on their first major shows and commissions. In 2017, the rules were changed so that artists over the age of 50 could be shortlisted — a necessary intervention to combat ageism, but one that means artists at very different points in their careers are compared on an equal footing.
More controversially, this year’s prize has been leveled with accusations of jury bias. Each year the judges are supposed to spend 12 months visiting hundreds of exhibitions across the world before making their shortlist. This year, though, the nominated exhibitions were very close to home: three of the artists were nominated for shows at museums where members of the jury serve as directors — Ryan for her solo exhibition at Bristol’s Spike Island, Pollard for her retrospective at MK Gallery, and Phillipson for her commission at Tate Britain. The nominees’ individual merits speak for themselves, but this type of favoritism does nothing to dispel the prize’s reputation for insiderishness.
As well as emphasizing how arbitrary the shortlisting process is, it begs the question of whether the prize has become a bit of an anachronism today. How does a selective competition fit with the contemporary art world’s aspirations toward greater inclusivity? The idea that one artist can be “the best” seems strange in a time when ideas about artistic value are being radically redefined and many museums are making efforts to become more democratic.
The last three Turner Prizes have thrown this into light. The 2019 nominees — Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Helen Cammock, Oscar Murillo, and Tai Shani — decided to form a collective and share the prize as a “statement of solidarity and collaboration.” The 2020 exhibition was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic and instead 10 artists were awarded £10,000 ($12,061). All five 2021 nominees were collectives whose work focuses on social justice issues. Although this showed an expansive definition of what art can be, it may have gone too far: One of the groups had never even publicly displayed their work in an exhibition.
The paradox, however, is that a prize, which is inherently exclusive, appeals to the broadest kind of audience. People who usually do not engage with contemporary art go and see the Turner Prize exhibition, just as people who usually do not consume contemporary fiction read the Booker Prize shortlist. Other than its obvious popularity, there is a sense that justice should belatedly be done for artists who have been historically passed over. When Ryan was named as the winner last December, she shouted, “Power! Visibility! We are visible people!” from the podium. Her point is a political one: If for 38 years the Turner Prize was (predominantly) awarded to the Damien Hirsts and Grayson Perrys of the world, why shouldn’t artists like Ryan finally have their turn in a high-profile, heavily publicized exhibition? Why shouldn’t these artists be visible too?
The jury knows this. That’s why this year’s shortlist includes women artists, an artist who identifies as non-binary, artists of color, artists over the age of 60, artists who deal with politically charged issues. At the same time, it’s a competition that necessitates that the jurors and curators must stoke a sense of rivalry. At the end of the exhibition, there are four boxes with the names of the shortlisted artists where visitors can vote for their favorite with a plastic token. Without this competitiveness, the exhibition wouldn’t have the same mass appeal. And that’s the source of the Turner Prize’s current identity crisis. On the one hand, it embraces artists who up until now have been ignored; on the other hand, it pits them against each other. It’s an inner conflict at the heart of the prize — one which may not be resolved any time soon.
The Turner Prize 2022 continues at Tate Liverpool (Royal Albert Dock, Liverpool L3 4BB) through March 19. The prize was juried by Irene Aristizábal, head of curatorial and public practice at BALTIC; Christine Eyene, lecturer in contemporary art at Liverpool John Moores University; Robert Leckie, director at Spike Island; and Anthony Spira, director at MK Gallery.