WHEN an organisation seeks and gains a reputation for being ‘cutting edge’ and wishes to retain that reputation, it runs a significant danger of becoming a parody of itself. Regardless of the danger, the Turner Prize committee has gone full throttle for Monty Python territory.
Many of us are genuinely thankful that the Turner Prize is returning after being cancelled last year. During such depressing times we all need some amusement. True to form, the Turner committee have once again turned to gimmickry that will soon be forgotten.
In a year of enforced social isolation they focus on entries from collectives. No individual artist is included in the shortlist of five, which comprises Array Collective, Black Obsidian Sound System (B.O.S.S), Cooking Sections, Gentle/Radical, and Project Art Works. Needless to say all the collectives are ‘socially engaged’.
The Array Collective ‘create collaborative actions in response to the socio-political issues affecting Northern Ireland’. The work of the 11-strong group of Belfast-based artists encompasses performance and protest in support of the decriminalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland, queer liberation, mental health, gentrification and social welfare. They were praised by the judges for their ‘use of DIY sensibility to tackle issues facing Northern Ireland’, as if Northern Ireland had not suffered enough from DIY approaches to solving its issues.
The Black Obsidian Sound System was formed by and for QTIBPOC community (queer, trans and intersex black and people of colour). The 17-strong B.O.S.S. have produced a work which ‘challenges the dominant norms of sound-system culture throughout the African diaspora through club nights, art installations, technical workshops and creative installations.’ Their innovative art projects include a 24-hour fund-raising rave.
The smallest of the collectives is Cooking Section. Daniel Fernández Pascual and Alon Schwabe are a London-based duo who examine the systems which organise the world through food. Their art work includes organising dinners in the sea off Portree on the Isle of Skye using a table made from metal oyster cages. At high tide the oysters thrive in the cold Atlantic waters and get ready to become the starter at low tide when up to 150 diners come together for ‘conversation, workshops and tastings’.
Cooking Section’s purpose is to ‘use food as a lens and tool to observe landscapes in transformation’. This is exemplified in another of their projects which explores ‘the deceptive reality of salmon as a colour and as a fish’. As part of this project they collaborated with the Tate to remove farmed salmon from the restaurant menus at its four galleries.
Gentle/Radical are ‘an artists-and-others-run project’ with a central ethos that ‘the marginal is our mainstream’. Established in Cardiff in 2016, the artists, community workers and faith practitioners ‘connect community, politics, spirituality and social justice’. Among their activities is Doorstep Revolution, a project to share neighbourhood stories during lockdown. Judges praised the group for their ‘deep commitment to the hyperlocal community of Riverside in which they are based’.
The final contender is Project Art Works, a ‘collective of neurodiverse artists and activists’ based in Hastings, East Sussex. The judges praised their continuing work through the pandemic with passers-by able to see examples through the windows of the closed gallery Hastings Contemporary. Among their activities is the film ‘Illuminating the Wilderness 2019’ which follows members of the collective with their families and carers as they walk through Glen Affric in the Highlands.
The ‘art world’ elite place great emphasis on what they see as staying relevant. The result is depressingly unengaged and narcissistic work pandering to their own sense of reality. This is possibly important for the people participating, but leaves the rest of us cold. Is a group of people sitting in a cold bay at low tide eating their dinner off smelly oyster cages of interest to anyone other than the participants?
We are forced to acknowledge that the experience of the audience is held in disdain. In today’s art world the general public simply have no other purpose than to pay the taxes which subsidise the art. The more ‘relevant’ today’s art becomes, the less interested the mass of people are.
The ascendency of conceptual and performance art has its twin sources in wealthy collectors who make shrewd investments and can manipulate the art market to their financial advantage and the herd behaviour of those desperately keen to be part of the ‘knowing’ in-crowd and as a result are unable and unwilling to acknowledge that the emperor has no clothes. The result is the exaltation and promotion of immature, self-indulgent, banality.
Today art can be anything and anywhere, cooking a meal, walking down a street or 24-hour raves. At the beginning of the twentieth century we asked ‘What is art?’ today we also ask ‘Where is art?’ The answer is that art is anything and everywhere. When a word such as ‘art’ can mean anything it means nothing, as the Turner Prize proves.
For those eager to experience this significant contribution to Britain’s cultural landscape, the exhibition will be held at the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum in Coventry as part of its 2021 City of Culture events.