Turner prize 2019 review: Outrages of our age, in sound, vision and papiermache

Turner Contemporary, Margate
Fleeing figures wait, a city cries out for people, Derry women fight for peace, and an earwitness hears tortured Syrians … we give our verdict on this year’s gripping show

All four artists in this year’s Turner prize focus on the miseries of our time; on human resilience; on division and reconciliation; on despair and hope. None have neat solutions, nor do they ignore complexity. Their approaches are all utterly different, in an exhibition that has painting and sculpture, film and digital imagery, theatricality and documentary, horror and humour.

With the help of 40 volunteers, Oscar Murillo brought his audience of 23 clothed and painted papiermache figures to Margate from his London studio by train, in wheelchairs. Now the figures sit, in their workclothes, in rows of church pews, in front of a huge gallery window overlooking the sea. Except the view is obscured by a huge black drape that partially sags open, giving a small view on to the sky. Dumbfounded, expectant, laughing, gawping and bemused, they stoically wait for work, to travel, for something. Some have metal pipes driven through their stomachs, stuffed with burned corncobs and ashes.

Oscar Murillo
Oscar Murillo’s papier-mache figures. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

Two more drapes, of the same cloth, hang from the walls behind. On each is a roughly rendered seascape of rippled waves and light. Between these curtains hangs John Watson Nicol’s 1883 oil painting Lochaber No More, depicting a Scottish couple surrounded by their few possessions (and a dog) on the deck of a boat taking them from their homeland to America during the Highland Clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries. Murillo’s figures have a world behind them but nothing, not even the sea or the possibility of escape, before them. Bringing these figures to Margate, he strands them at the edge of the world.

Tai Shani takes us even further, to a voluptuous imaginary city whose fantastical architecture, all pink and laid out with ziggurats and cylindrical columns, resinous puddles and spheres, lies at our feet. Overhead dangle bejewelled udders and fleshy asteroids. A huge arm and outstretched green hand comes to rest in the middle of the spotlit metaphysical architecture. I am reminded of Giacometti’s surrealist 1932 sculpture The Palace at 4am, rejigged for a sci-fi space opera.

Shani’s tableau cries out for living, breathing, moving bodies. For now, we have a stage, filled with sculptural elements, an ambient soundscape by Let’s Eat Grandma, a video of a speaking head, whose words can be heard on headphones. There will be live performances of Shani’s long, 12-part DC: Semiramis at Turner Contemporary over three evenings in November.

Tai Shani
DC: Semiramis by Tai Shani. Photograph: Will Oliver/EPA

Shani’s feminist science fiction takes as its starting point Christine de Pizan’s 1405 work The Book of the City of Ladies. The book describes a city as sanctuary, an allegorical space for real, imaginary and mythical women from the past, present and future. Were it not for all the sex and violence, Shani’s is an almost childlike invention. Her cast of self-replicating characters impregnate themselves, slide lubriciously between genders, between life and death. Hugely disarmed by performances I saw at the last Glasgow International at Tramway, I couldn’t make sense of what I saw and heard, yet it stayed with me. Shani’s city sprawls, psychologically as well as physically. Without live performers, it is a bit arcane and lifeless.

Helen Cammock’s 2018 film The Long Note is, at an hour and 39 minutes, too long. Some of the longueurs – the camera sliding over the old cannons on Derry’s city walls, rainy views under a bridge crossing the River Foyle, and pylons in the mist – feel unnecessary. Focusing on the role of women in the Derry peace movement and in civil demonstrations and violence, The Long Note is full of silences and protests, news footage of petrol bombings and water cannons, humour, song and sadness. The interviews are its core.

A still from Helen Cammock’s The Long Note.
A still from Helen Cammock’s The Long Note. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

Bernadette Devlin McAliskey, the former MP and civil rights leader, talks about her encounters with feminists in the US in the 1970s. “My introduction to feminism was of white middle-class Americans who had women of colour cleaning their houses. It was the women of colour who gave me another way of looking,” she says. As McAliskey speaks, the camera slides away to Nina Simone, who walks to a piano, sits, and sings the 1960s civil rights anthem I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free, with a rising anger as the song progresses. There is such weight in this segue, but such telling moments get buried in this overlong work.

All three works in Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s installation derive from the investigation he took part in, with Amnesty International and the Forensic Architecture group (who were nominated for the last Turner prize), into conditions in the Syrian regime prison of Saydnaya, outside Damascus. Prisoners were blindfolded and kept in brutal solitary conditions. Speaking was punishable by death. The prison became a torture and execution centre, and more than 13,000 people are estimated to have died there since 2011.

Lawrence Abu Hamdan
Lawrence Abu Hamdan. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

Sound became the only way prisoners could begin to ascertain where they were and the space they inhabited. Hunger and sensory deprivation kept them cowed. Their guards played tricks on them by opening and closing doors, funnelling noise from one part of the prison to another, amplifying the sound of assaults. Working with former prisoners, Abu Hamdan had to resort to stock BBC and Warner Brothers sound effects, and to use foley artist techniques to help them remember – and describe – the aural world they had occupied. Abu Hamdan’s “earwitness” testimonies led the artist to rethink space in terms of its acoustic properties, and the way sounds are recalled in memory, and how a mnemonic as much as an original sound can trigger memory in an “acoustic flashback”.

Here, we, too, are in a darkened room, with sounds moving around and through us. Images and text scroll across a glass screen in the centre of the darkness. There is a directness to all this that makes the complexity of his work both unhinging and accessible. Images and text scroll across a glass screen in the centre of the darkness. As much as he has been involved in collaborations with NGOs, and has purposed his work as an investigative tool, Abu Hamdan’s art opens up a world to us, and makes us encounter it and begin to perceive it differently. This is why I think he should win this year’s Turner prize.

  • The Turner prize exhibition is at the Turner Contemporary, Margate, 28 September to 12 January. The winner will be announced on 3 December.


Adrian Searle

The GuardianTramp

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