Turner prize 2019: thrilling shortlist offers sci-fi sculpture and gunshot sonics

There’s not a dud among this year’s contenders, from Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s mesmerising acoustics to Helen Cammock ‘ventriloquising’ the Caribbean sugar trade

The Turner prize has had some lacklustre years, uneven rosters and years when only one possible winner has been apparent from the time the shortlist has been announced. But winning isn’t everything, and what really matters is an interesting show that reflects the particular vitality of the moment, rather than mere fashion or the fortitude of the older artists who are now eligible for the prize. This year, all the artists are under 50.

With its procession of complex film installations, last year’s exhibition was marked by the degree of concentration and time all of the works needed. This year’s judges clearly wanted to shift the focus, and are probably mindful that Turner Contemporary in Margate, where the current exhibition will be shown, is a very different venue to Tate Britain. It is a smaller space with a different core audience – and the variety of works has to be distinct, too.

A live performance of Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s After SFX.
A live performance of Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s After SFX. Photograph: Jarred Alterman/courtesy the artist

Voice and sound play a role in the work of all four contenders on the shortlist. Lawrence Abu Hamdan uses sound not only as a medium but also as an investigative tool. He has talked about “the collective acoustic unconscious” in relation to how difficult it can be to describe our experience of sounds – whether it is the impact of a punch, the closing of a door, the sonic ricochets of a bullet, or the perceptions of space a hooded prisoner might glean from muffled sound alone.

A former student of Eyal Weizman, Abu Hamdan has, like 2018 Turner prize contenders Forensic Architecture, worked with Amnesty International and given evidence as an expert witness (for a UK asylum tribunal). Abu Hamdan’s sophisticated approach is grounded in a belief in art’s capacity as a truth-telling vehicle. He is as interested in objects and in the creative discipline of the foley artist as he is in testimony and our vexed interpretation of the aural world. As with painting, Abu Hamdan understands that description and analysis are themselves a kind of interpretation.

Installation view of Tai Shani’s DC: Semiramis.
Installation view of Tai Shani’s DC: Semiramis. Photograph: Keith Hunter/Courtesy the artist

Tai Shani’s theatrical performances and installations are often bizarre and erotic restagings of a kind of surrealist-influenced sculpture, overlain with layers of declamatory text. (Polemics and feminism, sci-fi and sex are all in there.) Their convoluted storytelling and absurdist humour make for a rich stew. A key theme is how we lose ourselves in the acts of listening and looking, getting lost and finding the thread again.

For Helen Cammock, the voice, testimony and memory are devices to recount history, whether it is Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama, the Caribbean sugar trade, or the voices of Frantz Fanon and Enoch Powell. Multilayered and affecting, sometimes vulnerable, funny and full of pathos, Cammock’s work – which she describes as ventriloquising – has a directness and apparent simplicity that speaks directly to the audience, however complex the issues. Hers is the work I am least familiar with, and most intrigued to see.

A video still from The Long Note, by Helen Cammock.
A video still from The Long Note, by Helen Cammock. Photograph: courtesy the artist

In Oscar Murillo’s art, words are buried and disinterred in his paintings. One of the pieces he is nominated for is a recording of his father’s journey from his native Colombia to Britain. Murillo’s work has many guises. His perhaps overheated early career, following a show at South London Gallery in 2013 not long after he left the Royal College of Art, has not prevented him from developing in several directions at once. Of the nominees, he is the closest thing to a painter, although for him painting is a social practice as much as a studio-bound one. His art carries a cargo of metaphor and imagery that reflects both personal history and the story of departures and arrivals, nomadism and exile.

Installation view of work by Oscar Murillo.
Installation view of work by Oscar Murillo. Photograph: Ou Chia-Cheng/courtesy the artist and Chi K11 Art Museum.

I like this shortlist a lot, and there’s not a dud among them. But it raises questions that are as tantalising as they are problematic. Will Shani incorporate performance in her Turner show, and will the size of the venue curtail her sprawling imagination? Maybe concision will be key for her – no bad thing. Will Abu Hamdan’s presence be regarded as a kind of second shot at a forensic approach? Will Cammock’s directness and her socially engaged art make her the popular choice to win, or will Murillo rescue this year’s prize from all those annoying artists who make us think too much?

But beware such reductivism. Somehow, the shortlist feels collegial, serious and full of variety. There is no clear contender, only a surfeit of complexity. I’m all for it.

The exhibition will be at Turner Contemporary in Margate, Kent, 28 September to 12 January 2020. The winner will be announced on 3 December, at an awards ceremony broadcast live on the BBC.


Adrian Searle

The GuardianTramp

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