Turner Prize 2018 at Tate Britain, London

By J.J. Charlesworth

Luke Willis Thompson, autoportrait, 2017, 35 mm film, 4 min. Photo: Matt Greenwood. Courtesy Tate Photography, London Charlotte Prodger, bridgit, 2016 (still), single-channel video with sound, 32 min. Courtesy the artist, Koppe Astner, Glasgow, and Hollybush Gardens, London

In recent years the Turner Prize has struggled against the nagging criticism that it has lost its relevance and that its selections have been too ‘insiderish’. But following last year’s shortlist, when the prize abolished its fifty-year age limit while emphasising a greater ethnic diversity (including Hurvin Anderson and prizewinner Lubaina Himid), this year’s selectors have made an unabashed turn to artists who, as the Tate’s blurb puts it, are ‘tackling pressing issues in society today’.

And so prizewinner Charlotte Prodger’s video-essay is about queer identity and its fluidity. Luke Willis Thompson’s film portraits are about police violence and the politics of race. Forensic Architecture’s digital reconstruction of the violent eviction of a Bedouin settlement by Israeli forces is about activism speaking truth to power. Naeem Mohaiemen’s two feature-length videos are about remembering the receding political histories of the Middle East and the Global South. And this is a turn that reflects the broader shift of an artworld increasingly concerned with art’s capacity to intervene in culture and society.

There are risks in curating a (prize) exhibition that is more intent on making a point about itself, or about art’s role, than it is about identifying the best examples of the art that’s being made at the moment. There are other artists working on other subjects, which, though not the ‘pressing issues’ that motivate the prize’s selectors, may still generate great work. So while it feels like good PR, the question of a wider idea of artistic value is sidelined in favour of pushing an agenda.

Putting the issues tackled ahead of how artists tackle them also risks overlooking how their work operates on its own terms: how an artwork excites or engages its audience, how it handles the conventions of its genre, how it conceives itself as an object in the institutional and cultural space of the gallery. Because whatever is said about the issues they tackle, these are often uneven, unresolved works that do both more and less than the focus on issues supposes them to have done.

Prodger’s Bridgit (2016) is a voiced-over video-diary of sorts in which her narrator twines the mutable names of pagan goddesses, Scotland’s Neolithic stone circles, shots of the country’s landscape and seascape, into the narrator’s diaristic experience of coming out, of being misrecognised as a man, discussing theories of lesbian separatism, while an account of the oblivion and reawakening from a hospital general anaesthetic threads through it all. It’s the most immersive, subtle and suggestive work here, yet there’s a ‘message’, about the fluidity of selfhood, and it’s as if Prodger’s rhetorical impulse to assert this is frequently at odds with her lyricism. After 33 minutes, it ends strangely abruptly, as if satisfied with the point it has made.

If Prodger is the subject of Bridgit’s introspection, introspection of another sort defines Thompson’s silent, monumental, black-and-white cine-portraits of subjects whose private tragedies are also the public outrages of race politics: Diamond Reynolds (who witnessed her boyfriend shot dead in their car by Minnesota police) is the subject of Autoportrait (2017). Cemetery of Uniforms and Liveries (2016) depicts Brandon Groce (grandson of Cherry Groce, whose shooting by police in 1985 sparked the Brixton riots) and Graeme Burke (son of Joy Gardner, who died of injuries sustained as UK immigration officers bound and gagged her to deport her to Jamaica, in 1993). Groce and Burke stare impassively to camera, Reynolds looks out of frame stoically, or at one point is singing, though we cannot know her words.

Without these backstories they could be anybody, but Thompson’s films depend on that priming, which presents us with a kind of trap; framing our response to them in political terms encourages us to think of them as memorials, or denunciations. This sets up Reynolds, Burke and Groce as stand-ins for a bigger issue. Yet, ironically, it is their right to retain their own image – to be seen as oneself rather than one’s public tragedy – that unbalances these films. The insistent attempt to make a point is a problem that haunts Thompson’s other film, _Human (2018), which features a closeup of a model of a little house made by artist Donald Rodney (founding member of the BLK Art Group) from the artist’s own dead skin (Rodney died of sickle-cell anaemia in 1998). Again, the monumentalising of this fragile object, already photographed by Rodney, seems freighted with good intentions. The problem is not, as some identitarian critics have pretended, that Willis’s collaborators are black and he is not. It is that ventriloquising the histories of others to make a political statement grates against the agency of those for whom one attempts to speak.

Still, if Prodger’s and Willis’s works don’t align fully with the claims made for them, it’s maybe because there’s a sense that, in their attention to form, they’re not simply vehicles for position-taking, and that their aesthetics might produce something more than their rhetoric. It’s harder to say the same of the other shortlisted artists. Why is Forensic Architecture’s sophisticated investigative activism, succinctly represented by the projection and documentary installation The Long Duration of a Split Second (2018), presented here rather than, say, located in the battles for human rights being fought in the media and through the courts? As for Mohaiemen’s Two Meetings and a Funeral (2017), a three-screen essay on the history of the Non-Aligned Movement, it might be a valuable contribution to the subject, but it’s not clear why any similar docu-essay, by a ‘non-artist’, could not equally be presented here.

If this at first sounds like outmoded gatekeeping, it in fact reveals that, in their preoccupation with appearing politically and socially engaged, art’s curatorial agendas are often more concerned with reductively celebrating hot-topic content than with celebrating the varied complexities of artworks and artists. That itself is a form of gatekeeping. And that might also be a pressing issue in society today.

Turner Prize 2018, Tate Britain, London, 26 September – 6 January

From the January & February 2019 issue of ArtReview