On my first trip to the Turner Prize I did not know what to expect other than greatness, and the show’s own heavily advertised intentions, to “Show Me Something New” and “Take Me Somewhere New.” Founded in 1984, the Turner Prize is hailed as Britain’s most prestigious contemporary art award. It is an arbiter of taste; anything it presents is current and good, the best even. Nominees are short-listed for an outstanding exhibition in the past year; they must be under the age of fifty, and living and working in the U.K. Every two years, the Turner Prize is exhibited in an out-of-London gallery to attract new audiences. This year’s venue: Tramway gallery in Glasgow, is significant; Glasgow School of Art’s alumni have dominated in the past with five Turner wins and nine nominations, a feat advertised as a marker of the school’s quality. Tramway’s large, open space has been divided into individual galleries housing the work of this year’s four nominees: Nicole Wermers, Janice Kerbel, Bonnie Camplin, and the collective Assemble.
On ViewTramway Gallery
October 1, 2015 – January 17, 2016
First, viewers encounter Wermers’s installation, composed of chairs arranged in groups, and ceramic sculptures of blank tear-off posters. The room is a ghostly rendition of a busy café or restaurant stripped bare, where only customers’ coats placed on the back of their seats claiming their spots, remain. Despite empty spaces between the chairs encouraging movement across the space, the room feels austere and impenetrable. The chairs, replicas of Marcel Breuer’s iconic Cesca design, have silver velvet seats and concealed backrests sewn into the lining of secondhand fur coats. Though shiny, their overall connotation is one of sterile monotony rather than sparkly newness. Are the fur coats a caricature of the wealthy? An upper-class presence takes over Wermers’s space. I imagine an alternative variety of coats suggesting individual personalities, perhaps one I could relate to.
Wermers’s wall sculptures stem from a similar concern, fossilizing a fleeting practice—this time a nostalgic mode of communication lost to technology. They offer a valid observation, but these purposefully heavy entities, foils to their flimsy paper originals, are clumsy in their thickness. These remain blank, instead of being inscribed with notices for freelance babysitting or tutoring. Both bodies of work—the chairs and the notices—are stronger in their juxtaposition: historical appropriation vs. DIY, luxury of materials vs. advertisements for modest services. Wermers’s selection primarily succeeds in the tensions it stages, rendering transience permanent and bringing the everyday and design tradition into the white cube.
Performed six times a day in varying order, Janice Kerbel’s musical composition DOUG aims to capture human experience of accidents in nine songs titled ‘BLAST’, ‘FALL’, ‘HIT’, ‘CHOKE’, ‘BEAR’, ‘CRASH’, ‘STRIKE’, and ‘SLIP’. Though the lyrics are lost in the intricacy of her compositions sang by six voices, they are helpfully displayed on a wall in the gallery. The performances are beautifully masterful at times, but fittingly painful to listen to with startling shrieks at other instances. It is much easier to turn away from visual than auditory unpleasantness. DOUG remains audible through installation headphones in other rooms. Kerbel’s media is magnetic, curious visitors flock over even for the twelve-second-long performance of ‘SLIP’, only having to turn back in disappointment, since the piece usually ends before their arrival.
Bonnie Camplin’s Patterns (2015) is a study-space with five TV interviews, tables laden with literature, and a photocopying machine. Five people recount personal experiences of extraterrestrial activity, witchcraft, and the superhuman in testimonial interviews. Camplin includes the public in this discourse by presenting a dense archive of compiled research viewers can read, photocopy, and take home. Conceived as a collection of dialogues rather than a dismissal of fictions, Camplin’s alternative archive questions how reality is formed by consensus: why are these testimonies often ignored as fantasy, why isn’t subjective experience considered primary evidence? Wikipedia articles are reminders of this irony: the server presents a wealth of general knowledge, but it is constantly deemed dubious in its credibility by administrations. Patterns entertains and intrigues; Camplin succeeds in sparking discussion. Nonetheless, as a tool of source reproduction and knowledge proliferation, it remains rather one-sided. There is no room for edits, and the books are allocated specific spots marked by an array of rectangles on the tables.
Assemble’s Granby Workshop is a refreshing departure from the cold and sterile displays of the other nominees. The architectural collective has created a skill-sharing platform with residents of Granby Estate in Liverpool to render their desolate neighborhood livable, create jobs, and generate income. The showroom is filled with templates of home-ware products including furniture, tiles, fabrics that can be pre-ordered; videos and a catalogue accompany the project and reveal the processes behind their creation. It beautifully showcases the hand-made, which is absent in the rest of the exhibition. Familiar craft techniques of collage, wood stamping, paper marbling, and pressed terracotta are used innovatively on a variety of surfaces. The products are not groundbreaking in their design or unprecedented in their decoration, but they are efficient and effective in their simplicity, as well as visually appealing in an array of colorful patterns.
Assemble are an unconventional choice for the Turner. Even the artists themselves expressed shock at their nomination, stating that it made their daily practice “uncomfortable” in a short interview screened upon exit. Assemble’s work is relevant on multiple layers: craft, DIY, community, social awareness, and saleable products are all brought into the gallery space. For £250, the Marbled Table, with a cement surface and oiled steel legs, can be acquired in Monochrome, Blues, Reds, Greens and Mixed palette in two sizes.
Assemble’s Granby Workshop is a refreshing anomaly to gallery agendas, and tops my shortlist as a celebration of creativity and collectivity for the greater good. The final verdict, announced on December 7th, will grant the winner a prize of £25,000, and £5,000 to the other nominees. The reward sustains individual creativity, but since the Turner Prize exists as a liaison between one of the world’s largest art institutions, the Tate, and the wider public, it is only fitting the money goes to a good cause.
After two visits and careful consideration, I am still uncertain about this exhibition. The work on display may be of quality, but the Turner’s monolithic reputation casts a shadow over the show’s content. The award places the nominees and their work on a pedestal by default. This uncomfortable sense of untenable grandeur is exacerbated by the TateShots— video interviews showcasing the artists speaking about their work and practice— that close the show. These shorts glamorize the Turner nominees, particularly Kerbel, who is filmed in slow motion walking across London rooftops. Nonetheless, it is problematically easy to criticize the establishment, and I remain aware that viewing the work in its original context would be completely different, particularly Assemble’s work. In fact, in an interview with The Guardian, member Lewis Jones, voiced concerns that their community housing project would be seen as “art.” It is a bold move, rejecting the label while utilizing the prestige of the Turner Prize to generate attention and profit for their cause. Overall, the Turner Prize succeeds in “[Showing] Me Something New” and “[Taking] Me Somewhere New,” but Assemble’s concern rings true: has our definition of contemporary grown too wide, or am I right in giving them my vote for bringing art to the people, for the people?