Like the Man Booker Prize is to literature and the RIBA Stirling Prize is to architecture, the Turner Prize is not just one of the world's most renowned awards for contemporary art, but a useful indicator for the most pertinent socio-cultural preoccupations existing in today's globalised world. Officially, the Turner Prize aims to promote public debate around new developments in contemporary British art. Established in 1984, it is awarded to a British artist for an outstanding exhibition or other presentation of their work throughout each respective year. Unofficially, it serves to galvanise public debate about the state, accessibility and effectiveness of contemporary art. But whereas most years' discussions are led with the question "is this really art?", this edition's contenders elicit a set of questions that rise above that kind of inner-art-world discourse. Instead they ask, "is this really happening?".
This year's nominees represent a range of themes relevant to contemporary audiences – abuses of human rights, the plight of immigrants, identity politics, grief. Their treatment is varied and inventive – although film is a prevalent medium – some drawing on history and traditional mediums in art, some on personal narratives, and some on technology and the future. Each of the nominees have compellingly showcased the strength of contemporary art as a masterful critic, poetically addressing an ailing world.
Cover: Luke Willis Thompson, autoportrait, 2017. Installation view, Chisendale Gallery. Commissioned by Chippendale Gallery and produced in collaboration with Create. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Andy Keate.
1. Forensic Architecture Building landscapes of evidence in post-truth societies
Counter Investigations: Forensic Architecture at the Institue of Contemporary Arts, installation view. Photo by Mark Blower.
Forensic Architecture is the second architecture group to be nominated in recent years (Assemble were nominated, and went on to win the prize in 2015 for their project in Liverpool’s Granby Four Streets), The group's work stood out to the judges for developing highly innovative methods for sourcing and visualising evidence relating to human rights abuses around the world. Its members describe themselves not as architects or artists per se, but as an interdisciplinary team of investigators which includes architects, scholars, artists, filmmakers, software developers, investigative journalists, archaeologists, lawyers, and scientists. The link to architecture comes in the form of the realities they meticulously construct through layers of multi-media evidence, each working to expose hidden truths related to social injustices.
By way of example – one of their recent projects collects pieces of evidence surrounding the Grenfell Tower fire tragedy from the summer of 2017. The group assembles the crowd-sourced evidence and uses it to extrapolate a 3D model of the residential tower, with an aim to "create a powerful and freely-available resource for members of the public to explore and better understand the events of the night of the fire". At a time where factual information has been polemically disparaged, disputed and mistrusted, Forensic Architecture have zoomed in on a reality which returns to an unequivocal truth – yielded by first-hand evidence – and takes steps to tangibly visualise it.
4. Luke Willis Thompson Reframing human dignity through victim portraiture
Luke Willis Thompson, autoportrait, 2017. Installation view, Chisendale Gallery. Commissioned by Chippendale Gallery and produced in collaboration with Create. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Andy Keate.
In autoportrait, a silent film shot in 35mm black-and-white, Luke Willis Thompson creates a new narrative for Diamond Reynolds – a woman who became known to the public after having filmed the moments following her boyfriend's shooting by a police officer in Minnesota, USA. The film, which recalls the visual set up of Andy Warhol's Screen Tests, reframes the image of Reynolds, pulling her identity away from the tragic footage, and re-casting it in a stoically dignified pose.
The issue of police brutality towards African-Americans has and continues to receive mounting attention in recent years, with the subject's focus being spread from critically-recognised documentaries (O.J. Made in America; 13th) to mainstream advertising (pulled Pepsi advert). Thompson's film strips away the noise, erratic motion, and impulsive emotion that is associated with the content consumed by the public in relation to Reynolds' loss. Similarly to the lyrical documentary, Strong Island, this material offers a contemplative, measured viewpoint of the consequences wrought from a widespread and historic cultural issue.
3. Naeem Mohaiemen Juxtaposing histories to reveal a post-colonial fallout
Name Mohairen, Tripoli Cancelled, 2017, single channel film.
Mohaiemen has been recognised for his participation in documenta 14 and solo exhibition Naeem Mohaiemen: There is No Last Man at MoMA PS1, New York. He was born in London and raised in Bangladesh, which is at the centre of his much of nominated work. Since 2006, Mohaiemen has made a series of films that seek to draw focus to post-colonial identity and its shaping through history.
Specifically in Two Meetings and a Funeral, an 85-minute, three-channel digital video documentary made for documenta 14, he refers to two transnational summits occurring since Bangladesh became independent from Pakistan in 1971 – the fourth summit of Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in Algeria in 1973, and the conference of the Organization of the Islamic Cooperation (OIC) held in Pakistan in 1974. Mohaiemen's film points to the shift from socialist to Islamic allegiances occurring in between the meetings, highlighting the consequences of failed politics and their polarising effects. His work is important for its insistence on focusing on consequences – on how the failure of political movements can lead to catastrophic results.
4. Charlotte Prodger Redefining the message through the medium
Charlotte Prodger, BRIDGIT, 2016. Single channel video with sound, 32 minutes. All images courtesy of the artist, Koppe Aster, Glasgow and Hollybush Gardens, London. Video Still.
Charlotte Prodger's nominated work, BRIDGIT, was shot on an iPhone and references the name of a Neolithic deity whose history is traced throughout the spoken narration of the film. It meanders between personal narratives and reflections on ancient history and philosophy, ultimately reflecting a search for one's own identity in a landscape of accepted histories and mythologies.
The medium of the work in BRIDGIT is especially relevant in terms of the themes Prodger hits upon. The iPhone is a stand in for the individual. It portrays her personal worldview, her physical position within a landscape. In doing so it speaks of the way the smart phone has become an extension of human expression – providing those who belong to minority groups or marginalised identities an equal platform to those who have historically enjoyed unchallenged acceptance by mainstream society.
This year's four nominees steer clear of intellectual naval gazing, putting cause first, art second. In doing so they collectively dissect through the current status of the world, and the turmoils it is grappling most ardently with. The most enthralling aspect to this year's selection is not merely their singular theses, but the way in which they also converse with one another.
Currently, the Forensic Architecture group is facing a setback in an Israeli court, where the killing of an unarmed Palestinian at a Nakba Day protest by a border police office was determined accidental, while the group had aimed to prove it was intentional – a turn of events that mirrors the themes presented in Thompson's work. Similarly, by creating film portraits, both Prodger and Thompson have dug up major problems with conventional identity spectra – highlighting the need to include new chapters of acceptance in today's society. Each nominee alone is wildly deserving of its recognition. Together, they are deserving of our undivided, anxious attention.