fair shake

Tai Shani, Oscar Murillo, Helen Cammock, and Lawrence Abu Hamdan: let’s get ready to rrrrrumbleeee for that £25k. Each year, the Turner Prize is awarded to one of the four shortlisted artists in December. But before the winner is announced, those four artists all present their work in a group show, opening in September. Usually, the inevitable victor was clear from the start, but this year, the odds are even. With the risk of sounding aloof, the artistic practices are all interesting. So what do we know so far?

In true 2019 fashion, this year’s iteration got off to a turbulent start, when the Guardian took a quick look on there the money came from. One of the lead sponsors was Stagecoach, a company co-founded and chaired by a businessman Sir Brian Souter,  who gave £1m to a campaign to keep the anti-gay section 28 in Scottish law in 2000 (da fuq). Naturally, protest arose, and the Turner Prize ended the sponsorship deal with Stagecoach South East a day after it was announced. The Tate had stated it didn’t know about Sir Brian’s views on gay rights when it agreed on the deal. “The corporate agreement was between Turner Contemporary and Stagecoach,” it said.

Imagine all the people living in a post-patriarchal world
So about the artists, let’s start with Tai Shani. I don’t like surreal feminist art, I freaking *love* it. Working across many disciplines, such as performance, film, photography and installation, the artist experiments with narration. Playing with familiar and fiction, the artist creates an alternative reality, one that negates the patriarchy. She does so in her on-going project Dark Continent, based on the proto-feminist book “A city of women” by Christine de Pizan from 1405(!). Dark Continent takes the same structure of an allegorical city of women to explore ‘feminine’ subjectivity and experience, the feminine not as female but as “a kind of radical otherness to any conception of the real,” as well as the potentials of a realism defined by excess and the irrational, qualities traditionally surrounding ideas of “femininity.” It’s an installation which combines text, film, sculpture, a series of three staged performances and a window through which to see. Imagine an un-patriarchal world, it’s easy if you try.

Tai Shani, “Dark Continent,” an ongoing project. Rights of the artist. 

What to do with the loss of humanity
Easily the most famous one of the bunch, Oscar Murillo is many things. A painter, a creator of good investments, a pusher of the boundaries of materials, a performer. While still in art school, he got exposed – some say overexposed – to loads of attention when mega collectors Donald and Mera Rubell went on a shopping spree in his studio. This resulted in a dramatic increase in the value of his work. The versatile artist is obviously not shortlisted because of this, but because of the way he “pushes the boundaries of materials, particularly in his paintings,” and how he incorporates a variety of media. Such as painting, drawing, performance, sculpture and sound, and often uses recycled materials and fragments from his studio. Murillo’s work reflects on his own experience of displacement and the social fallout of globalisation. His different guises can be made compatible in one encompassing concern: “the loss of humanity within our society, whether in my family or other communities.” It’s not hard to imagine there’s a demand for art dealing with this amplified sentiment due to our hyper-capitalist society.


Oscar Murillo, installation view of “Violent Amnesia” at Kettle’s Yard. Photo by Jack Hems. © Oscar Murillo. Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner..jpeg
Oscar Murillo, installation view of “Violent Amnesia” at Kettle’s Yard. Photo by Jack Hems. © Oscar Murillo. Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner.

Che Si Può Fare – “what can be done”
Helen Cammock, the social worker, turned artist who in fact, remained a social worker. She is a visual poet whose drawings, prints, photographs and films, juxtapose word and image and has collected the testimonies of activists, migrants and refugees. She is nominated because of how she explores social histories, creating layered narratives that reveal the cyclical nature of history. The artist patiently combs through archives, libraries, and conducts interviews and ultimately, transforms these marginalised stories into works of art. In The Long Note, she deals with the history and the role of women in the civil rights movement in Derry Londonderry and tells the forgotten story of women’s role in the struggle for civil rights during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. The work highlights how the complexities of the politics of Northern Ireland have overshadowed the social history of the region and the variety of political positions taken by women during that time. Addressing geopolitics in all its complexities, reactivating stories that have been erased, without regressing to presenting a monolithic point of view, hats off to you Helen Cammock.


Screenshot 2019-08-22 at 17.41.50.png
Helen Cammock, Still from The Long Note, ca 2018. Rights of the artist.

The Private Ear
And last but not least, Lawrence Abu Hamdan, the so-called “Private Ear.” Interested in sound and its intersection with politics, his artworks are about *listening* rather than looking. In his Earwitness Theatre (the exhibition that got him nominated), he questions how rights are being heard, and the way voices can become politically audible. And uses art to do so. In collaboration with Forensic Architecture and Amnesty International, he investigated the violations taking place at the Syrian regime prison of Saydnaya. The artist uses sound to retrieve memories in interviews with the few survivors. The “earwitness descriptions” such as a building collapsing sounding “like popcorn” or a gunshot sounding “like somebody dropping a rack of trays,” were exhibited in multiple locations.  People might be quick to raise issues about the “art-ness” of this endeavour. Last year, the shortlisted research agency Forensic Architecture who research crime and present it to an audience, but do not consider themselves artists, didn’t bring the prize home. But Forensic Architecture got loads of attention last year (Whitney Biennial anyone?), so they might have helped to pave the way for art as a crime investigating tool.

Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Earwitness Inventory (2018). Commissioned and produced by Chisenhale Gallery, London, in partnership with Witte de With, Rotterdam; Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis; and Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Andy Keate. 

So these are the candidates. I honestly have no clue who’s going to win. With Brexit, gentrification, global warming, war, sexism, racism, a rise of alt-right presidents, it was to be expected that this year’s Turner Prize exhibition would be saturated with political art. But, I’m fond of the way these artists resist didacticism and straightforwardness and invite visitors to make up their own minds.

The Turner Prize exhibition featuring the four artists’ work will open at Turner Contemporary in Margate on September 28th, and the prize’s winner will be announced on December 3rd. The recipient will receive £25,000, while the other finalists will each get £5,000.

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