It’s not unusual to find film and video work in the running for the Turner Prize, one of the most talked about annual awards in the art world. Steve McQueen, for example, who’d go on to direct 12 Years a Slave and Widows, won in 1999 for, among other works, Deadpan (1997), a restaging of the stunt Buster Keaton pulled off in Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) in which the facade of a house collapses around him but leaves him miraculously unscathed. What is unusual, though, is for all four finalists for the Prize, awarded exclusively to British visual artists and named after painter J. M. W. Turner, to be up for their moving image work. That’s a first.
This year’s round is also the most political in the thirty-four-year history of the Prize, according to Alex Farquharson, director of Tate Britain, where an exhibition of the finalists’ work opens tomorrow. “The artists shortlisted for this year’s Turner Prize are tackling some of today’s most important issues, from queer identity, human-rights abuse, and police brutality, to post-colonial migration and the legacy of liberation movements,” says Farquharson. That won’t be to everyone’s liking. “What a miserable, tedious, poker-faced display the Turner is this year!” exclaims Michael Glover in the Independent. But Guardian art critic Adrian Searle calls the show “one of the best and most demanding in the exhibition’s history.”
If the critics could pick a winner, they’d likely go for Forensic Architecture, a self-described “interdisciplinary team of investigators,” including “architects, scholars, artists, filmmakers, software developers, investigative journalists, archaeologists, lawyers, and scientists.” Their digital work The Long Duration of a Split Second is “by far the most hard-hitting piece” in the show, finds the Telegraph’s Mark Hudson. Video footage captures the chaos of last year’s forced evacuation of a Bedouin village in the Negev Desert by Israeli police, an incident that resulted in the deaths of an Arab teacher and an Israeli police officer. “It’s a compelling presentation,” writes Hudson, but “while it is technically innovative and undeniably thought-provoking, does it employ the imaginative function or question the nature of its own structures and materials enough to be considered art? Or does the mere fact that it is forcing us to ask these questions somehow make it art?”
Adrian Searle’s favorite is Bridgit, a half-hour video Charlotte Prodger has shot on her phone. A montage of diary-like footage is accompanied by audio excerpts of the artist’s journals. “Literary, lyrical, and confessional, Bridgit is both a personal work and an attempt to analyze one’s place in the world,” writes Searle. The Financial Times’ Jackie Wullschlager vehemently disagrees, arguing that “in this show giving presence to some of the world’s most vulnerable people, those killed, bereaved, or dispossessed by state brutality, Prodger’s implicit claims to victimhood come across as self-indulgent, irritating and, globally, trivial.”
After Forensic Architecture’s piece, Wullschlager’s second favorite would be Naeem Mohaiemen’s “tender, arresting” Two Meetings and a Funeral, an “enthralling blend of archive footage—Indira Gandhi, Fidel Castro, Yasser Arafat—family history, architectural excavation and lively interviews. The story is the failure of developing countries in the 1970s to unify around socialism, particularly Bangladesh, where Mohaiemen, forty-nine, grew up.” Mohaiemen has another work on view as well, Tripoli Cancelled, a feature-length fantasy in which Iranian-Greek actor Vassilis Koukalani portrays a man stranded alone in Athens’ abandoned Ellinikon Airport for years. Times critic Michael Prodger doesn’t think much of this year’s exhibition on the whole, but he does grant that “Mohaiemen’s slow explorations have the quality of a dream.”
New Zealander Luke Willis Thompson presents three relatively short works: _Human, which examines a tiny sculpture that the late British artist Donald Rodney made with his own skin; Autoportrait, which focuses on Diamond Reynolds, who broadcast the killing by police of her boyfriend, Philando Castile, on Facebook Live last year; and Cemetery of Uniforms and Liveries, a four-minute, black-and-white portrait of two British black men, Brandon, the grandson of a woman shot in her home by police in 1985, and Graeme, the son of a woman who died while being deported in 1993. “Four minutes in acute grief is an eternity,” writes Wullschlager, “yet to me Willis Thompson’s revisiting of Warhol—the 1960s film portraits—in this terrible context feels not like an act of empathy but of art profiting, raw and direct, from the spectacle of another’s suffering.” And of course, Searle disagrees. “Thompson has been accused of turning his subjects into a spectacle,” he writes. “Nothing feels further from the truth. His work appears to me as a kind of witnessing, an attending.”
The winner of this year’s Turner Prize will be announced on December 4 during a ceremony carried live by the BBC.
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