Turner Prize 2021: A Very British Collective (of Disappointment)

This year’s Turner Prize nominations are now on display and, for the first time ever, only collectives have been shortlisted.

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This year’s Turner Prize nominations are now on display at Coventry’s Herbert Gallery. For the first time ever, only collectives have been shortlisted in an exhibition which may make you want to be a better person, but ultimately fails to live up to the artistic heights of Britain’s premier art prize.

The Turner Prize is viewed by many as a barometer for the nation’s mood, shining a spotlight on artists who reflect the challenges of our epoch back to us.

Artists, like Tracey Emin, who dare to present their unmade beds, which could be any of ours; or voice our existential concerns in a haunting, vegetative shark as Damien Hirst did. Or, as Mark Wallinger’s State Britain conducted in 2007, directly confront Britain’s policymakers.

This year’s competition unfortunately falls wide of the mark

This year’s competition – should it even be deemed one when everyone wins something (£10,000 for all; £25,000 for the winner) – unfortunately falls wide of the mark.

When the jury announced in May that this year would consist purely of collectives, rather than the typical selection of four individuals, it appeared to be almost on-the-money.

Clap for carers, Captain Tom Moore, food deliveries for the vulnerable. Many of our lockdown experiences may have been an immense challenge, but arguably one thing grew stronger: community. So the decision to reflect this through a display of collectives could have proved wise.

The problem, though, is simple. For what’s supposed to be Britain’s leading art competition, nothing takes you by storm. The works make you think, but never stun you with aesthetic pleasure.

The works make you think, but never stun you with aesthetic pleasure

‘There is a spine that runs through them,’ Hammad Nasar, the show’s lead curator, tells me, ‘They’re all engaged with the act of living, and I think that’s something that I’m sure will come across with audiences.’ That may be, but should art not also show technical brilliance?

Gentle/Radical’s piece, for instance – the first on display – has worthy roots. The Cardiff-based cultural project consists of youth workers, faith ministers and community activists. But it’s main screening amounts to little more than an exercise in letter-reading, as members read to each other in a series of ostensibly personal, yet actually distant monologues.

This epitomises one of the exhibition’s key issues: when so many are involved, it’s hard to access a single member’s world and feel a human resonance.

Cooking Section’s spinning fish farms, which are projected onto the floor, certainly touch on a vital subject. But it is a far less penetrating watch than the Netflix documentary Seaspiracy. And, after all, this is supposed to be art.

When so many are involved, it’s hard to access a single member’s world and feel a human resonance

Project Art Work’s piece no doubt asks you to be a little gentler, a little kinder, by showing more than 4,000 works from the neurodivergent artists they work with. But something appears slightly unfinished about this open-plan archive.

Works from Black Obsidian Soundsystem (B.O.S.S.) and Belfast-based Array Collective momentarily make you feel at the Science Museum and an historical re-enactment, respectively; the former’s soundscape creating vibrations through a bowl of liquid, and the latter having built a síbín (‘pub without permission’) to tell folkloric tales in.

There are strong social causes attached to these works, of course. That much is obvious. But the problems are vaguely stated without fully cutting through. Were they to make a clearer statement on current social issues – and there is plenty to be impassioned about – they could certainly have been bolder, more in ’yer face.

At risk of being scathing for scathing’s sake, some moments do bring joy.

Were they to make a clearer statement on current social issues they could certainly have been bolder

The display of artworks from across Britain’s four nations, is worthy of celebration. The Herbert’s conscription to Cooking Section’s CLIMAVORE campaign shows genuine action (and makes for a delicious pesto, seaweed pasta). And the residencies provided for the neurodivergent artists within Project Art Work’s exhibition space itself is touching. The curation is cleverly designed to at least give space to each of the projects – in whatever shape they may be.

But ultimately, it is the art that must speak. And like the paradox of Gentle/Radical’s name, these do little more than a whimper. They may have captured the nation’s mood in one regard: that of mild disappointment.

The Turner Prize is on display from today (29th September) until 12th January.

The winner of the £25,000 prize is announced on 1st December.

For more information and to book your free tickets to the events, click here.

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