Egos and slogans confound the collective triumph at the 2019 Turner Prize

Here is a dilemma for a financially struggling artist with principles. You are nominated for a prize that could win you £25,000. Your three fellow nominees want to make a political gesture of solidarity that would require you to evenly split the £40,000 prize pot. Being risk averse you wonder whether a guaranteed £10,000 would be better than your chances of winning the top prize outright. Your friends and supporters all tell you your work is so much better than the others. Several betting websites and art experts place you as the favourite to win. When you meet your fellow artists you feel a subtle unspoken pressure to succumb to the emerging group consensus. If you stand alone the plan cannot succeed and you will risk the ire of your fellow nominees. With a heavy heart and an unsettling sense of suppressed resentment you sacrifice your ego for the wider good. Yes it feels right to laud the collective over the individual. I imagine the four nominees for the 2019 Turner Prize may all have felt something like this.

However as they approach the televised prize giving event, an individualist imperative is bubbling under. Some kind of distinctive gesture is needed. One wears a pendant with a highly visible partisan political slogan. Another sports a badge that is less easy to discern but social media confirms it is a Vote Labour message. One by virtue of her age gets to read out their joint statement decrying the political divisiveness that prompted their decision to form a collective. The last gets an opportunity to raise the profile of the Tory hostile environment policy that is barring his wife’s entry to the UK.

The solidarity of the oppressed against the oppressors is the common motivation behind their art. Unfortunately nine days later the oppressed electorate use their democratic rights to give a thumping majority to the party that stands for everything these artists abhor. Such is the power of art. Is there a dawning realisation that art motivated by political aims is incapable of achieving political change? After all, the visitors to the Turner Prize exhibition are already on-board. If they were not, they would regard the hijacking of the event for overt political messaging as damning evidence of the entitlement of the media-savvy, metropolitan elite.

Art is never politically neutral. It will always (but usually implicitly) embody some kind of political ideology. As noted in earlier posts, I particularly admire Forensic Architecture and Lawrence abu Hamden who are effective campaigners as well as artists. However the takeaway message from an artwork is as much in the viewers’ hands as the artists’. Take the Tories Out pendant. Although I share the sentiment, it chimes with other angry invocations like Demons Out and Immigrants Out, classic examples of othering. This is the political and psychological bear-trap that got us into this mess in the first place. Interesting that three-word slogans like Get Brexit Done sound more rational than the brutal two-word Britain First of the ultraright shouted by the Jo Cox murderer. If the Tories go for a two-word slogan at the next election then we will really have something to worry about.

Helen Cammock. Still from The Long Note (2019). Courtesy of he artist

Moving image art featured less prominently than in the 2018 Turner Prize. Helen Cammock’s documentary on women’s role in the Northern Ireland Troubles was more engaging than last year’s winning autobiographical film from Charlotte Prodger. Unfortunately like most art that represents armed struggle it risks aesthetisising violence. My post on the representation of military hardware in the work of Richard Mosse and Fiona Banner examines this question in more detail. Archive footage of the flames of exploding petrol bombs and the illuminated spray of water cannons are eye-catching. But this undermines the horror of violent conflict as does the cheery nostalgia expressed by a Republican woman who proudly recalls that the efficiency of their petrol bomb factories vastly improved when the women took over from the men. This show of sentimentality is arresting as it is more typically associated with male veterans. However it also demonstrates the contradictions behind the film’s argument that the feminist cause was furthered by women’s involvement in the Republican campaign.

Tai Shani. Installation view of DC Semiramis 2018. Courtesy of the artist 

Perhaps the most worrying deployment of moving image was in Raj Shani’s work. A screen hanging above her sculptural installation plays a seven and a half hour video of a talking head reading Shani’s very personal response to the writers of utopian matriarchies which inspired her work. The length alone gives ammunition to the sceptics. To compound this, the audio track is only accessible if you request headphones from the gallery assistant. Art fans under 18 are banned because of its “sexually explicit content”. The section I heard was riffing on the link between eroticism and the heat death of the universe. Are Shani’s attempts to explain the symbols in her sculptural installation cheating the viewer of their own right to interpret her art? As it happens, when I was there very few people were listening in.

I would have given the top prize to Lawrence abu Hamden whose recent work is explored in earlier posts but it seems that highlighting one artist is out of fashion and that the future of the Turner Prize is in question. When next year’s four nominees meet up their first decision will be whether to bury their egos and split the prizemoney. Would you not love to be in on that meeting?

The dissonant beauty of boy’s toys: Mosse and Banner

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Copyright Richard Mosse- still from  three screen film installation Incoming (2017) courtesy of the artist

In the early seventies, when Cold War rhetoric cast its all-pervasive gloom over our teenage angst, we all reacted in different ways to the existential nuclear threat.  I remember a rather intense fellow student, middle-aged before his time, who had stockpiled a forensic knowledge of the missile technology acquired by the opposing sides. After regaling me with arcane differences in missile range, payload and propulsion mode, he got me thinking.  What did he find so absorbing about the technical  details of these murderous weapons?  Was it glorification of war or a fear of it? Did focussing on the machines rather than the potential victims provide a means of controlling the terror we all felt? Are the “boy’s toys” collected by adult males such as weaponry, games consoles, cameras and cars a defense reaction to the uncontrollability of their destinies?

I wondered the same during Richard Mosse’s current spectacular three screen video installation at the Barbican Curve, Incoming (2017), the title itself hinting at the parallel between missiles and human traffic. He has not ignored the victims of war but much of its unsettling visual impact derives from the dramatic and poetic “boy’s toys” imagery: missiles being loaded, fighterjets launching from aircraft carriers, ships ploughing through the ocean, trucks rumbling through the desert, firefighters hosing blazing refugee encampments. They have been captured using the latest hi-tech supergadget for the video artist, a thermal imaging camera sensitive to objects 20 miles away usually deployed for military surveillance. Mosse is clear about the irony of using a camera that in borderforce hands might be deployed to locate and eliminate incoming migrants. However we cannot ignore the strategic motivation that underlies an artist’s desire to create work that will stand out from the welter of art films vying for our attention. The shock value of novel technology to represent the  visual world is a great help. But when refugees are the focus there is a danger that such an approach converts them into lost souls wandering in a netherworld constructed by the artist.

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Copyright Richard Mosse – still from  film installation Incoming (2017)

To be fair to Mosse his edit ensures that this is far from an arms dealers promo. A truck carrying refugees is comically overloaded but we fear it might topple. The movement of a man bowing in prayer mirrors a later shot of a man stooping to load a missile. A blur in the sky that might be a plane turns out to be a bird. In this way Mosse firmly locates the technology in a human context. He  carefully rejects sentimentality or sensationalism in representing the refugee crisis. Life goes on as usual even in a refugee centre with a cheerful exchange between women about the size of their respective broods using hand gestures  while the children are transfixed by their handheld screens. Two refugee boys are seen wrestling in a desperate tussle that seems to express a  frustrated need for resolution. Among its many breathtaking images is a sunset where the clouds and sun appeared to be tacked to the sky like fabric cutouts. Some of the more brutal footage was excluded from the final version, but it is still a harrowing experience. It runs until 23 April.

Another artist who has contributed to the beauty of weaponry debate in her deliciously understated work is Fiona Banner. The Harrier jet fighter suspended from the roof of the Duveen Gallery at Tate Britain in 2010 with its nose cone inches from the floor will not be quickly forgotten by those lucky enough to have seen it. This absurd installation reduces the war machine to a helpless puppet or trussed bird that we can toy with at will. Like Mosse, Banner does not shy away from the unsettling, functional beauty of these killing machines.

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Installation view of Fiona Banner’s Harrier and Jaguar (2010). Photo credit: angelgil.co

Her exhibition Buoys Boys, at the Bexhill De la Warr last December explored this unreality of warfare through the story of the Red Baron, the infamous WWI  German fighter pilot who kept a meticulous tally of the pilots he downed in his dogfights.  He entered popular culture as the sworn enemy of the much-loved cartoon beagle Snoopy. In her film black balloons in the form of five large inflatable full stops, each in a different font, float ominously on the skyline like a parody of a fighter plane formation with the sea below and only the seagulls as absurd spectators. On the soundtrack a schoolboy’s choir sweetly sing the 1960s hit  Snoopy vs the Red Baron  with the ridiculously chirpy chorus:

Ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty or more, the Bloody Red Baron was rollin’ up the score.

Eighty men died tryin’ to end that spree of the Bloody Red Baron of Germany.

Art can convey the absurdity of war far better than any other creative form and for me Banner has nailed it in the most original way. Mosse  has focused on the tragedy of war but ironically its impact is more aesthetic than thought-provoking.

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Image copyright SabellaMai 2012-17