Eye on the Prize (Part 1)

As the world swings more and more towards automation, humankind’s capacity for creativity remains one of our greatest assets. We wonder at things; we ponder; we try to make sense of the world; we create. This year’s Turner Prize nominees demonstrate the breadth and possibility that art can provide in the 21st century, engaging directly in debate and dialogue — and, in the case of the Prize, becoming the debate in itself.

Turner Prize Winner 2016

Anthea Hamilton, "Project for Door (After Gaetano Pesce)", 2015 installation view
Anthea Hamilton, "Lichen! Libido! Chastity!", SculptureCenter, 2015
Courtesy the artist, photo by Kyle Knodell

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Portrait of Anthea Hamilton, photo by Lewis Ronald

First established in 1984, the Turner Prize has grown over the decades to become one of the world’s best-known visual arts prizes. Organised by the Tate, its mission from the outset has been to reward a British (or British-based) artist for an outstanding exhibition or presentation of their work from the preceding twelve months. Recent winners have included Duncan Campbell (2014), Assemble (2015), Anthea Hamilton (2016) and Lubaina Himid in 2017.

Each year, the nominees are decided on by a four-person jury — a line-up which changes from year to year, and which is completely independent of the Tate itself. For 2018, the jury consists of art critic Oliver Basciano, writer Tom McCarthy, Elena Filipovic of Basel’s Kunsthalle and Lisa LeFeuvre of the Henry Moore Institute.
How the jury decides on the shortlist lies outside the jurisdiction of the Tate’s curators. But for the curators themselves, this only adds to the sense of drama and anticipation. Speaking in the weeks leading up to the opening of 2018’s exhibition, Linsey Young and Elsa Coustou (respectively, Curator and Assistant Curator of British Contemporary Art at the Tate) were excited and optimistic about the impact the nominees’ work will have. Responsibilities for the shortlisted artists have been divided between them, with Young taking care of Forensic Architecture and Charlotte Prodger, whilst Coustou handles Naeem Mohaiemen and Luke Willis Thomson.

“The intensity of putting together an exhibition, where everything has to happen so quickly, can be emotional.” Coustou says. “There is a huge amount of pressure on us. We reach out to our colleagues for support, and to talk things through. And everyone has an opinion! There are so many opinions, but that is brilliant – we want people coming here and engaging in deep, relevant, political conversations. That is what a public institution should be for.”
“It is thrilling to work on the Turner Prize” Young agrees. “It is essentially a show with four different artists — often people you haven’t met before, but who have to trust you immediately.”

For the period between the shortlist announcement and the opening of the exhibition, both curators are fully committed to the artists, as they work together to best showcase each finalist’s work and adapt it to the Tate — somehow of particularly importance this year, given that the majority of the work on show will be in a film format. “We have been thinking a lot about this point,” Young agrees, “and it is really important. It’s a lot of film — but actually it’s 35mm film, digital film, film shot on iPhone, archival film, plus something similar to surveillance film from Forensic Architects. So it just blows open the notion, and shows the kinds of layers and textures that film can use. And there has been an interesting dialogue about how you refine content — which is a big question for curators and artists.”

There are also considerations such as the Tate’s audience size and language style (which can be more controlling than artists are used to). And for some, like London-based practice Forensic Architecture, the idea of displaying their work as art is a relatively new experience in itself. “I would say, ‘Maybe you want to present language in this way.’” Young explains, “‘because, as a curator, I have found this to be more impactful to an audience.’ Whereas usually you are working with an artist who only does exhibitions, and they don’t need that from you as a curator. So working with an organisation such as Forensic Architecture has been rewarding from that perspective as well. And they are very open to this.”

When it comes to putting together the Turner prize exhibition, the artists are never asked to come up with new pieces; instead, they are asked to collaborate with the Tate’s curators to come up with a reconfigured body of work. This provides challenges on many levels, not least with regards to the time constraint; the curators only learn who the artists are in April, at the same time as the public. This gives them a five-month lead-in, whereas a normal Tate exhibition would take around three years (Tate Britain’s recent Rachael Whiteread exhibition, curated by Young, took five). Plus there’s the critical fact that this is a competition, as well as an exhibition.

All of this feeds into the energy and intensity that surrounds the lead up to the winner’s announcement. It is most definitely an event — and one of the few art events that bookmakers take bets on. It gets mentioned in the tabloids. People have heard of it. People have opinions about it. It becomes part of the national conversation in a way that no other art event does.

“Art can still be seen as elitist,” Young reflects. “You have to go to public school, or go to the Courtauld. And even a gallery can be intimidating. But the Turner Prize is the one moment it gets into the tabloid newspaper! It has a reach that nothing else does. When I got this job, my mum, who is a nurse, finally understood what I did — because she had heard of Turner Prize. That is emblematic of what it means.”
“It’s also important because people can argue back. It becomes more of a conversation, not just something being handed down. When else do you have your mum or a 16-year-old saying ‘No, you (the institution) are wrong’? This is very healthy, really important in today’s culture”.

Turner Prize Winner 2017

Lubaina Himid, "Naming the Money", 2004
Installation view of Navigation Charts, Spike Island, Bristol 2017
Courtesy of the artist, Hollybush Gardens, and National Museums, Liverpool
Photo by Stuart Whipps

Turner Prize Winner 2015

Assemble Group Photo, 2014
Copyright Assemble


While we speak, the 2018 exhibition installation was taking place. It’s one of the most complicated builds the Tate’s team have done in a while, with all four artists using moving images — three of which also include sound, providing the added challenge of soundproofing rooms that are adjacent.

But all that frantic activity is neither seen nor felt by the artists. The curators are there, behind the scenes, ensuring all runs to plan, so that everything is ready for the big day — right up to the moment when the exhibition is finally handed over to the public, to judge for ourselves.

The Turner Prize Exhibition runs from 26 September 2018 to 6 January 2019 at Tate Britain, Millbank, London, SW1P 4RG.

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