Helen Marten wins Hepworth prize for sculpture

Artist applauded for recent Serpentine show receives inaugural award at Hepworth Wakefield gallery

Helen Marten, considered one of the most exciting British artists of her generation, has won the inaugural Hepworth prize for sculpture.

The award, presented at a ceremony in Wakefield on Thursday, comes in what is proving to be quite a year for the 31-year-old artist. Her show at the Serpentine in London has attracted much critical praise and she is one of four artists in the running for this year’s Turner prize, to be announced next month.

It took judges about two hours to decide on the Hepworth winner. “Frankly I would have enjoyed having a lot longer because the debates and arguments were fascinating,” said Simon Wallis, director of the Hepworth Wakefield gallery and chair of the judging panel. He said there was something “fresh, exciting and new” about Marten’s work; she was an artist who was “one of the strongest and most singular voices working in British art today”.

Sculptor Helen Marten pictured at the Carl Kostyál gallery, London.
Sculptor Helen Marten pictured at the Carl Kostyál gallery, London. Photograph: Richard Saker/The Observer

He added: “We are seeing something that really does expand the boundaries of this protean art form that is sculpture.”

The artist, who was born in Macclesfield, was given her £30,000 prize by Christopher Bailey, chief executive of the fashion house Burberry. She was named winner from a shortlist that included Phyllida Barlow, David Medalla and Steven Claydon.

Accepting the prize, Marten said she thought art prizes were, to some extent, flawed and she would be sharing it with the other shortlisted artists. “Here’s to a furthering of communality and a platform for everyone,” she said.

Artwork by Marten for her show Drunk Brown House, at the Serpentine gallery
Artwork by Marten for her show Drunk Brown House, at the Serpentine gallery, London. Photograph: Annik Wetter/© Helen Marten/Courtesy of Sadie Coles HQ

Marten is known for using a dizzying amount of materials in odd and unexpected ways. Her work is slippery and hard to follow but infectious. In her work on display at Wakefield she has used steel, wood, a toy snake, tennis ball, cast bronze, wicker, leather, shell, fired clay, dried vegetables, cigarettes, milk cartons and cherry stones. And that is barely the half of it.

Wallis said Marten’s work always became more than the sum of its parts and you could sense her enjoyment of materiality. “There is a lot of complexity. The sheer amount of material that she orchestrates is always amazing to me. It is a filigree. There are so many little moments of incident in the work and I like these curious unresolved narratives. It does place demands on the viewer. But all ambitious art does.”

Wallis said Marten’s work demanded that people spent time with it. “It has an immediate appeal but there is a mystery too ... not all is revealed and the greatest art always does have a kernel of mystery.”

Knockoff Venus, 2015, by Marten.
Knockoff Venus, 2015, by Marten (cropped). Photograph: Annik Wetter/© Helen Marten/Courtesy of Sadie Coles HQ

The Wakefield gallery says it believes sculpture is the art form of the moment and hopes the prize, created to mark the gallery’s fifth birthday, will go some way to “demistifying” it. It aims to reward a sculptor, at any stage of their career and of any age, who has made a significant contribution to the development of contemporary sculpture.

Each of the shortlisted artists was asked to exhibit their work, some of it new, some of it not, but the prize – named after Barbara Hepworth, one of Britain’s greatest sculptors who was born and brought up in Wakefield – was then judged on the artists’ wider work.

Bailey said he was proud to have been part of the ceremony. “I am so excited for not only Helen Marten on winning the first ever Hepworth prize for sculpture, but also for the rest of the incredibly talented nominees. Their work on display at the Hepworth Wakefield is a shining example of their creativity and outstanding contribution to the development of contemporary sculpture in the UK.”

Judges for the prize, which will be given every two years, were Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, director of the Turin museum; David Chipperfield, the architect; Sheikha Hoor al-Qasimi, president of the Sharjah Art Foundation; Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, a collector and patron; and the critic Alastair Sooke.

The exhibition of the work of the four artists will continue until 19 February.


Mark Brown Arts correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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