The Guardian view on the Turner prize: art as politics | Editorial

It has been a year when artists have had no choice but to be part of the wider debate

The judges of the Turner prize have issued a challenge by awarding it to Charlotte Prodger this week. The challenge is to pay attention, to stay alert, and most of all, to devote time to what can seem a demanding shortlist exhibition. There are no warnings of flashing lights, or scenes of a sexual nature, for this year’s show at Tate Britain in London. Instead, the museum’s website cautions: “To see all the films in the exhibition from start to finish it will take 4.5 hours. Please plan your visit accordingly.” The reason for this admonition is that all the work in the exhibition is film, video or moving image. By coincidence or not, none of the artists here is producing work that is readily saleable. There is nothing here that would readily adorn an oligarch’s yacht, or be easily considered an asset.

The Turner prize exhibition captures the mood of the times – and especially a growing sense among artists and curators that the aesthetic tools at their disposal can to be put to political use. Some of the more ludic work shortlisted in previous years would look frivolous in this company. This is a show in which the multidisciplinary collective Forensic Architecture has applied a number of patient, painstaking techniques to unpack precisely what happened on a night in 2017, when Israeli police attempted to clear a Bedouin village, an action resulting in two deaths. It is a show in which Luke Willis Thompson has presented a controversial filmed portrait of Diamond Reynolds who, in 2016, used her mobile phone to livestream the killing of her partner by police in the US state of Minnesota.

Not that the work on show at Tate Britain is heavy going, or lacks wit. Prodger’s poetic, gentle iPhone film, which plays with the notion of queer identities and the shifting self, has plenty of moments of tender charm. There’s a bleak comedy at play in Naeem Mohaiemen’s film Tripoli Cancelled, in which a solitary man wanders through the ruins of an abandoned airport, like a character from JG Ballard but with a suit that never crumples. At times he is angry or frustrated. At others, he pretends to fly a grounded helicopter. Then he is dancing to a tape of Boney M that he finds among the place’s detritus.

When historians look back at the 2018 Turner prize, they will see an art that is full of uncertainty, foreboding and seriousness of intent. Beyond the prize, they might look at artists such as Turkey’s Banu Cennetoğlu, who has focused on refugees’ plight (she worked with the Guardian this year to catalogue those who have lost their lives trying to reach Europe). They might also look to Tania Bruguera, who undertook this year’s Tate Modern Turbine Hall commission and who was this week detained by police in Havana. She was protesting against decree 349, an alarming new law asserting control over artists’ activities which, they fear, will crush freedom of expression. As with today’s chaotic politics, it would be a fool’s game to predict where all this is heading. But it is increasingly clear that artists are leaving the sidelines and entering the political fray.



The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The Guardian view on the Turner prize: hopes and fears | Editorial
Editorial: In its snapshot of art now, the show offers a lens through which to see our troubled world


27, Sep, 2019 @5:25 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on the Turner prize: too worthy for its own good? | Editorial
Editorial: The competition was set up to be populist. In its current introspective mood, though, it risks pushing away the public


03, Oct, 2021 @5:25 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on ‘discovering’ overlooked artists: look to the present, too | Editorial
Editorial: It’s wonderful when artists are given the attention they deserve late in life – but there’s little cause for self-congratulation


26, May, 2019 @5:25 PM

Article image
Turner prize shortlist – the expert view
A critical look at the work of the four candidates: two very different types of painter, a video artist and a sculptor

Adrian Searle

04, May, 2011 @7:22 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on access to art: drifting away | Editorial
Editorial: As redundancies loom and opportunities for cultural experiences narrow, the arts risk regressing into a pastime for the elite


14, Aug, 2020 @5:25 PM

Article image
Politicians can learn from Turner prize togetherness | Letters
Letters: Readers respond after all four artists shortlisted for the 2019 Turner prize were named winners


04, Dec, 2019 @5:55 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on Steve McQueen’s Year 3 project: a portrait of hope | Editorial
Editorial: A new work consisting of class photographs of 76,000 London schoolchildren shows the way forward for public art with depth and dignity


13, Nov, 2019 @6:50 PM

Article image
Makes you think? Turner prize show opens

Exhibition features Wile E Coyote, slow-motion crockery smashes and a mannequin on the toilet

Mark Brown, arts correspondent

29, Sep, 2008 @11:01 PM

Article image
Turner Prize winner Susan Philipsz: an expert view | Adrian Searle
Susan Philipsz' work makes you think about place, space, memory and presence: it opens up your feelings, says <b>Adrian Searle</b>

Adrian Searle

06, Dec, 2010 @7:45 PM

Article image
Rachel Whiteread: Turner prize winner criticises 'plop art'
British artist about to get major retrospective at Tate Britain says public art is often ill-conceived and works should suit locations

Mark Brown Arts correspondent

11, Sep, 2017 @3:22 PM