On Saturday the 2019 Turner prize exhibition opens at the appropriately named Turner Contemporary in Margate. The prize is hosted by venues outside London in alternate years, and this institution feels like a particularly appropriate home. The David Chipperfield-designed gallery, which opened in 2011, has had a transformative effect on Margate and its patch of Kent. This has not been easy. But an art scene has flourished. From now until January, locals and visitors will be able to enjoy not just the Turner prize exhibition itself, but a whole town’s worth of celebration: shows, workshops, walks, performances and community events under the banner of Margate Now, guest curated by the actor and art lover Russell Tovey.
The Turner prize exhibition, for which British or Britain-based artists are eligible, does what it ought to do: acts as a snapshot, rough and ready though it may be, of what the most interesting artists are doing now. It goes further by presenting a lens through which to understand our troubled times. In this sense, it should be taken as a whole, and it hardly matters who wins on 3 December. Tai Shani offers a lush, luxuriant installation inspired by Semiramis, the ninth century BC queen of Assyria, and Christine de Pizan’s 1405 allegorical work, The Book of the City of Ladies, is a fantasy of a post-patriarchal world, a sidelong look at the state of gender relations today. Oscar Murillo’s installation consists of a creepy congregation of papier-mache figures sitting on church pews. They gaze out of the gallery’s window to sea expectantly, but their view is hidden by a black curtain. All they can see is a chink of light, perhaps of hope. One thinks of Britain’s own present, a nation gazing out into an obscure future.
Helen Cammock presents a film commissioned by the exemplary Derry gallery, Void, commemorating the role of women in the Northern Irish civil rights struggle in the 1960s and 70s. Listening to Bernadette Devlin McAliskey, the activist and former MP, speaking about the importance of language, about the slippage from protest to resistance to violence to armed struggle, it is hard not to feel a shiver of disquiet. Finally, Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s work arises out of the Syrian war and his experience taking testimony from survivors of the notorious Saydnaya prison, where it is estimated 13,000 prisoners have been killed by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, but extends to consider border walls, the deceptiveness of aural testimony, and the apparently boundaryless but surveilled world of the internet.
The exhibition does something else too: it offers a hopeful and inclusive vision of Britishness. One of the shortlisted artists, Abu Hamdan, was born in Jordan; another, Murillo, in Colombia. Recent Home Office policy, and an undercurrent of white nationalism in parts of British society, may be intent on narrowing the definition of “British”. Fortunately, the cultural world is still intent on broadening it – to this country’s immense benefit. That may be another sliver of hope.