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?

Abu Hamdan explores “truth” through earwitness testimony

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Still of a spectrogram from video Rubber Coated Steel (2016). © Lawrence Abu Hamdan

“There are different types of truth: scientific truth, legal truth and artistic truth amongst them”

This was Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s response when I questioned whether his film might contribute to our increasingly insecure grasp on the “truth” engendered by Trump-era “fake news”. He was addressing an audience at a Whitechapel Gallery event I attended a year ago showcasing the Jarman Award 2017 nominees. His response seemed entirely cogent to me. His nominated film, Rubber Coated Bullets (2016), an artistic extrapolation of his work as an acoustic analyst for the human rights research group, Forensic Architecture, navigates a route between these three “truths” using material from their investigation into the shooting of two Palestinian youths by Israeli soldiers in 2014. He makes it clear that his work has a different aim, a less explicitly advocatory one than the original investigation, which is to raise the problems of defining reality when indistinct perceptual inputs have been filtered through our inbuilt unconscious prejudices.

Much of the film is set in a concrete shooting gallery where ominous streaks mark the walls. We are put in the position of the shooter with the spectrograms (visual representations of the frequency and duration of gunshots recorded by Abu Hamdan) replacing the silhouettes of bodies that are the marksman’s usual targets. An unseen, unheard but gripping courtroom drama unfolds through subtitled text. The spectrograms provide convincing evidence that the boys were shot by live ammunition, not rubber bullets as originally claimed by the authorities. The text of the legal and forensic arguments are fictionalised as the hearing that investigated the killing did not admit the forensic evidence which suggested that the replacement of rubber bullets with live rounds was intentional. The police officer who fired the fatal shot entered a manslaughter plea and was sentenced to nine months for  “causing death by negligence.” Abu Hamdan’s text neatly exposes the conflicts between political pressures and scientific evidence playing out in a legal setting.

Abu Hamdan’s originality and flair has already been recognised by winning a number of international art prizes. Although he did not win the Jarman Award I felt he was robbed: he was the strongest nominee by miles. His groundbreaking work has recently been recognised by a showcase performance at the Tate Modern and at a solo exhibition, Ear Witness Theatre at Chisenhale Gallery. I am delighted to see he has been nominated for the 2019 Turner Prize.This is a really exciting time for art as he has invented a fascinating new sub-genre that combines acoustic science, aesthetics, cognitive psychology and politics.

Walled  Unwalled (2018) shown at Tate Modern in early October is a film inspired by Abu Hamdan’s interviews with ex-political prisoners as part of an Amnesty International investigation. They had endured incarceration in the notorious Saydnaya torture/interrogation centre of the Syrian regime in which an estimated 13,000 people have been executed since 2011.  He found that since they were held in almost complete darkness their memories were encoded entirely in auditory form. As with the blind, their sense of hearing became markedly more acute and they were able to build up an accurate auditory map of the prison. As Abu Hamdan explains ” Hearing things meant making images in the mind…it really is cross-sensory”  The starvation diet they suffered led to distorted memories so their acute hunger massively attenuated the relevant sounds such as the thud of bread hitting the floor outside their cell doors. In the 20 minute film a wide range of examples illustrate the symbolic nature of walls  and the unreliable nature of auditory testimony collected through them. He also reaches the astonishing conclusion that the latest sub-atomic detection technology means that all walls are penetrable so now there is literally nowhere to hide.

The performance that followed was build around 95 objects that were associated with sounds generated by his investigation.  So for example a punch does not sound like we expect it to because the cinema foley artist substitutes a simulation for the real thing. These objects were named but unseen at the Tate. At Chisenhale the same text is used but here all the objects are on show as an installation, Earwitness Inventory (2018).

At Chisenhale his audio work, Saydnaya (the missing 19db)  is a powerful and moving experience. You listen in a darkened chamber recalling a prison cell with two narrow slits to allow us to see out into the gallery. It is filled with tense periods of silence highlighting the gruesome testimony of the prisoners whispered reenactments and their interview statements. Whispering was the only way to communicate with fellow prisoners. The 19 decibels refers to the drop in the typical whispering volume recalled by those prisoners who were detained after 2011 compared to the ordinary prison regime prior to his time.  It is a chilling physical manifestation of the degree of terror imposed.

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Still from video Walled Unwalled (2018) © Lawrence Abu Hamdan

Forensic Architecture’s investigations and the spin-off work by artists like Abu Hamdan give hope to those of us who are keen to see the dissolution of the art/science divide and the blurring  of the boundary between art and advocacy.