Turner Prize 2017

J.J Charlesworth argues that the annual prize is showing its age

By J.J. Charlesworth

Lubaina Himid, A Fashionable Marriage, 1987, installation view. Image: David Levene Lubaina Himid, Swallow Hard: The Lancaster Dinner Service (detail), 2007. Image: David Levene Hurvin Anderson, Is it OK To Be Black? 2016. Image: David Levene Rosalind Nashashibi, Electric Gaza, 2015, installation view. Image: David Levene Rosalind Nashashibi, Electric Gaza, 2015, installation view. Image: David Levene Andrea Büttner, Turner Prize 2017 installation view. Image: David Levene

A female British prime minister being courted by an American president? It may be the most abrasive, political work in this year’s Turner Prize exhibition – which for the fifth time in its 33-year history is being presented outside London, at Hull’s elegant Ferens Art Gallery – but Lubaina Himid’s A Fashionable Marriage, from 1987, is also the oldest work here, alongside work by fellow nominees Hurvin Anderson, Rosalind Nashashibi and Andrea Büttner. A stage-set of crudely comedic cutout figures painted and collaged on chipboard, it’s inspired by William Hogarth’s Marriage A la Mode (1743–45). No Theresa May or Donald Trump to be seen – the protagonists in this work are a haughty courtesan, her face made up of newspaper clippings of Margaret Thatcher, being wooed by a swooning Ronald Reagan dressed as a nuke-laden Superman.

Himid’s A Fashionable Marriage is about a lot else – mixing race politics and feminism in which the artworld is itself indicted as incorrigibly white and male. It’s a raucous, angry and complex piece, immersed in the politics and polemics of its moment. That it should be here at all was only possible because of the prize’s decision, this year, to abolish the age rule that had previously limited nominees to those artists under fifty. Himid is sixty-three, fellow nominee Hurvin Anderson is fifty-three. The prize’s Tate organisers have made much of this, suggesting that the under-fifty rule was no longer so relevant – apparently the idea of youthful energy and young emerging art is less important these days.

That’s all good, but it means that work that was made three decades ago is presented in the same context as work made in the last couple of years, and that has a big impact on the experience of the show. Shouldn’t the Turner Prize be attending to artists who are contributing to the development of art now? To, as its blurb explains, ‘promote public debate around new developments in contemporary British art’? Since the other element of its remit – that it’s awarded ‘to a British artist for an outstanding exhibition of their work’ – is now missing the ‘under fifty’ bit, it begs the question of how we might understand what counts as ‘new developments’.

There are plenty of new developments here, nevertheless. Hurvin Anderson presents some of the newest work here, with paintings straight from the studio (some of which, according to the exhibition’s curators, are barely dry). These paintings are mostly of the outdoors, of woodland scenes or particular clusters of trees. Anderson’s technique balances the looseness of his fluid medium with the highly ordered process of marking up the canvas in grid squares. They’re dense and opulent surfaces, yet artificial and constructed, focusing in and out, as it were, between something recognisable and nothing. Anderson’s paintings are all about place and memory, of sites the painter recollects or invents as a substitute to recollection; they’re about multiple places coming together (the son of Jamaican parents, Anderson was born in Birmingham and lives in London). Another group of paintings are set in what might be a barbershop: a man sits in the barber’s chair, a long, brightly striped gown over him. His features are indistinct and he’s surrounded by a room of even more indistinct objects. There’s a sense of nostalgia, and Anderson harnesses the visual typology of abstraction – simple shapes and surfaces – to another agenda: that of remembering and forgetting –things become indistinct, things fall away, and the image of what we have lived, of what we were, is hard to hold on to.

There’s a hint of a political world outside the barbershop in Anderson’s Is it OK to be Black? (2016), a seemingly anodyne composition presenting the wall above a shelf of hairdresser’s products – bottles of shampoos, conditioners and suchlike. The scattered collection of squares seen there might be an arrangement of photographic prints a barber would pin around his shop to remind him of what is dear to him – sporting heroes, film stars, his family. Here these are indistinct, ghostly white smudges on black. The ones that stand out are particular – one of Martin Luther King Jr, the other of Malcolm X. Another, less recognisable, is of the interwar Pan-Africanist campaigner and industrialist Marcus Garvey.

If there’s an overarching sense to this year’s show, it’s the muted presence of social and political life

This one interjection of a bigger political world into Anderson’s otherwise intimate worldview carries a pathos of past heroes and conflicts. Against Himid’s historical work, it produces an odd sensation of a long history and politically tinged melancholia. Himid’s other works are similarly about the history of black experience in Britain. Alongside A Fashionable Marriage, there’s her suite of doctored porcelain tableware Swallow Hard: The Lancaster Dinner Service (2007); typically English chintz onto which Himid has painted satirical cartoons harking back to campaigns for the abolition of slavery in Britain. Opposite these is a series of amended newspaper pages from The Guardian (Negative Positives: The Guardian Archive, 2017–2015), all of which carry a photograph whose subject is black – university students, a fashion model, footballers, a woman shot dead for looting in earthquake-hit Haiti, a team of African midwives. Around these photos Himid paints over stories that aren’t important, while creating patterns or boldly stylised images that comment on those she thinks are. This highlighting makes stories out of the news, prodding at the types of representation of black people that appear in the press; the implication is that, even in the supposedly liberal Guardian, there’s a ‘white gaze’ at work in how black people get to be seen.

There’s politics of a slightly different sort in Rosalind Nashashibi’s films. Electric Gaza (2015), though set in the Gaza Strip, barely touches on the oppressive security situation. Rather, the subject is everyday life seen from the window of a taxi or in an apartment where three friends gather. They chat, share a song, make a falafel wrap. Out on the seafront, boys lead their horses into the water for a bath. Every so often, the camera shot is transformed into an idyllic cartoon version of the scene. Nashashibi’s film is about conviviality, sociability and care, even in straitened circumstances. As such, it partners her other work here, Vivian’s Garden (2017), a quite opposite space of domesticity. Vivian Suter and her mother, Elisabeth Wild, are both artists, European émigrés living in a small town in Guatemala. Why they live in their rustic compound, with their cook and caretaker, we never find out. Wild makes abstract collage, Suter more expressionistic canvases, mixing strange paints from natural ingredients. They discuss Vivian’s upcoming trip to a big exhibition of her work (it could be this year’s Documenta 14), and what clothes she should pack. They talk of their past, of Vivian’s ex-husband, hinting at his violent departure from their otherwise idyllic, if claustrophobic, little world. Rain falls on the garden outside and contented dogs snooze on sofas.

Nashashibi’s sophisticated take on personal life and its connections to the world beyond takes in the artworld in Vivian’s Garden; however modest her career in the Western artworld, it somehow affords Vivian and her mother a life here in rural Guatemala, and the domestic help that makes their lives possible. It’s a subtle and layered reflection on interdependence and necessity.

A kind of ethical concern seems to animate Andrea Büttner’s presentation also, though her work is a good deal more cryptic in its intent. Büttner’s works are primarily woodcut prints, lowly images made in a humble technique. Three large prints scale up the fingerprint smudges and greasy swipe marks from an iPhone screen (Phone Etching 2015–17); another series of prints vary a motif of a hooded figure begging, two hands outstretched. One of Büttner’s Benches (2012), made of plastic crates, a wooden plank and a handwoven fabric backrest, proposes contradictions between investment, value and use, and a complicated relationship of humility and indifference between maker and user. But half of Büttner’s space is given over to a standing display of photography and quotes by the Nazi-era leftwing activist Simone Weil, a display loaned from the Anti-War Museum of the Evangelical Church of Berlin. These rickety wooden frames juxtapose extracts from Weil’s writings with images by midcentury modernist photographers such as André Kertesz and August Sander. Weil’s writings are an odd mix of socialism and a quasi-religious moral fervour about how to shape society to give people ‘rootedness’ and inculcate in them a sense of good and evil. Some of the extracts have odd resonance with today. One reads: ‘The need for truth calls for protection against error and lies… every avoidable material falsehood publicly asserted becomes a punishable offence.’ In the controversy over ‘post-truth’, it sounds strangely contemporary.

If there’s an overarching sense to this year’s show, however, it’s this peculiarly muted and restrained sense of the presence of social and political life. These are mostly contemplative works, despite themselves, and Himid’s appears noisy and rebarbative in their midst. The looking-inward in Nashashibi’s films revel in human fellowship, while there’s a solemn, somewhat proscriptive feeling to Büttner’s ascetic ethical ruminations.

There is a distinct lack of the caustic and the provocative, the outrageous or the fiercely critical

There is, in other words, a distinct lack of the caustic and the provocative, the outrageous or the fiercely critical. Where is the younger equivalent of Himid, declaiming the crises of the present? With the Turner Prize staged this year in Hull, you have to wonder. Once an industrial centre for steel and shipbuilding, but, like much of the north of England, now marked by the long effects of deindustrialisation. The Brexit campaign got 69 percent of the vote in this city, and walking around its centre, you get a strong sense of the economic problems that beset it, evident in the vacant shops and deserted shopping malls. The prize itself seems timid in comparison to its moment; extending its remit further into older artistic careers and further into the past may allow it to laud previously unsung artists such as Himid, but the cost of this is its increasing distance from the cultural controversies and artistic innovations of the present.