Turner Prize 2017

Ferens Gallery, Hull; 26/09/17 to 07/01/18

As part of a study visit to the HIP 2017 photography festival in Hull (student-led, so thanks to Hazel Bingham and Nicola Hampshire for organising) we spent the first couple of hours looking at the shortlisted artists for this year’s Turner Prize.

Though none of the four bodies of work were exclusively or even predominantly photographic, I found something that made me think of photography in all of them.

I wasn’t aware until afterwards that this year the prize dropped the upper age limit (50 years old), and pleasingly the average age of the finalists is 56! Though I’m not in position to personally comment (it’s my first Turner Prize show), I saw that various art critics applauded the comparative depth and richness of the bodies of work on the shortlist, due in part to the greater life experiences of the artists, one presumes.

I’m not aware to what extent it was an intentional selection approach, it was pleasing to realise that in the (rather divisive and uncertain) current socio-political mood in Britain, the shortlist celebrates multiculturalism and minority viewpoints. There’s a German artist, films set in Guatemala and Gaza, two artists examining black British culture and the female-to-male ratio is three-to-one :-)

Hurvin Anderson is the closest to the everyday notion of a ‘traditional’ artist as he paints on canvas. His subject matter references aspects of community and identity around being British-born of Jamaican heritage.

Is it OK to be black?, 2016 by Hurvin Anderson

His work investigates a variety of classical art genres but always through the filter of his own cultural experience. For example, his still life work includes displays from Afro-Caribbean barbershops, scenes which often come across as oddly photographic in composition and content (sometimes including paintings of photos).

Interestingly I found I projected my photographic preferences onto his paintings: I liked the still life and portrait paintings the most, the landscapes less so.

With hindsight I wish I’d spent more time in the Anderson section of the exhibition; I found myself thinking about it more after I left than when I was there.

Andrea Büttner works in various disciplines such as sculpture, painting, printmaking and film, with some connecting themes such as poverty and vulnerability. Much of her work is very textural or tactile, such as the Beggar 2016 primitive woodblock prints and various fabrics stretched into large squares and rectangles.

There is a very discordant note in her section: a huge amount of the wall space is taken up with a mixed media display of the words of philosopher Simone Weil combined with photographs from iconic photographers such as Ansel Adams. My issues with it are twofold: firstly, there’s a huge amount of text to read, making it more like an educational museum presentation than an artwork; more problematically, it’s an existing display from Berlin’s Peace Library – Büttner has not curated it, but borrowed it wholesale to present amongst her own work. Very odd.

Lubaina Himid is a painter concerned with the representation of black people in society, overlapping in some way with Anderson’s work but creatively and aesthetically quite different. Himid appropriates existing artworks, objects and media and overpaints them to bring out her messages about the under-representation and the misrepresentation of black people.

Negative Positives (installation view) by Lubaina Himid

The work that really made an impression on me was Negative Positives (2007–09), a series of overpainted pages from the Guardian newspaper. Himid took pages where a black person was depicted or discussed in a way that subtly undermines them (by way of mockery, demonisation, aggressive or patronising choice of words, etc), and overpaints to exaggerate this negative tone. It highlights the (presumably unintentional, unrecognised) institutional racism on the part of journalists and editors. I think using the Guardian was a masterstroke – the Sun or the Daily Mail would have been too easy. Himid seems to be saying “look, even the Guardian does it…!”.

The reason this sticks in my mind is less about the work itself (clever and impressive as it is) but rather the way in which its significance unfolded for me. At first viewing I really didn’t get it, so I perused the whole set again. Once I had understood the concept from one particular artwork I revisited all the others and suddenly discovered new depths of signification and juxtaposition, an accretion of meaning that made the message of the whole set really come across. I’m very glad I gave it a second chance.

Rosalind Nashashibi is a British-Palestinan artist who makes short films, two of which are showing as part of this exhibition. I confess that I only managed to get to one of them – Vivian’s Garden (2017) – but it was my highlight of the exhibition, for reasons I will attempt to explain coherently.

Still from Vivian’s Garden, 2017 by Rosalind Nashashibi

The film features recreated vignettes from the lives of a Swiss-Austrian mother and daughter, both artists, living in adjoining houses with a wild, jungle-like garden in Guatemala, with a couple of domestic staff. It’s often more photographic than cinematic, with lingering static shots of interiors, and a striking colour palette. Long scenes are silent apart from background noise, interspersed with a couple of key conversational scenes.

Going in, another student who’d already seen it remarked that I would find it interesting as it is, in part, about memories and reminiscences. With this pointer front of mind, I watched it particularly looking out for significance to concepts of memory.

What followed was a fascinating experience. Having been primed to look out for references to memory, I found the film to be rich with multiple visual signifiers. Everywhere I looked there was something that I could relate to memory. For example, the overgrown, foreboding garden that butts right up against the windows seemed to serve as a metaphor for the past, while the house itself came across as representing the present. Items of furniture feature heavily early on, in lingering shots. I read these as representing the continuity from the past to the present, especially when scenes showed items of interior furniture (e.g. a mattress) in the garden.

A scene where the pair discuss bad memories of a male figure from their past (presumably the husband/father) reinforces this sensation that dark memories prey heavily on their minds. The overgrown garden starts to resemble a prison during this conversation; they are trapped by their shared past. Following this scene the garden is shown increasingly in dappled or brighter light, signifying a gradual letting go of the past? Following this, a servant is seen repairing the house’s roof, which I interpreted as symbolic of starting afresh, rebuilding a life, moving on.

The second conversational scene is more upbeat, as mother and daughter reminisce about happier times whilst the latter packs clothes for a holiday. Both dialogue scenes are overtly memory-focused, which supports my theory that memory is the underlying theme here.

What I found particularly interesting is that neither the artist’s own statements / interviews nor the various art critic reviews describe the work as being particularly about memory. They talk about the film examining the mother-daughter relationship, and the colonial overtones of the relationship between them and their domestic staff, and about tensions in isolated communities – but none of these themes jumped out at me. For me this was all about memory.

Main takeaways

Three things stand out. The first, to recap something mentioned above (regarding Himid’s Negative Positives), is the importance of properly looking at a piece of art before dismissing it as meaningless. There’s always meaning :-)

The other two realisations came from watching Vivian’s Garden. One is that as a viewer I can interpret the artwork in a way that is satisfying to me, even if it isn’t quite the artist’s intention (very Death of the Author).

The other is that there are a multitude of ways of signifying concepts of memory, and that I should stretch my creativity more in my assignment experiments to include more non-literal visual vocabulary. Memory can be an overgrown garden…


Turner Prize 2017, Ferens Gallery, Hull; 26/09/17 to 07/01/18

Hull City of Culture YouTube channel https://www.youtube.com/user/Hull2017 (accessed 22/11/17)