wed 22/03/2017

Turner Prize 2016, Tate Britain | reviews, news & interviews

Turner Prize 2016, Tate Britain

Turner Prize 2016, Tate Britain

Poetic and utterly baffling, this year's shortlist is as eccentric as it is divergent

Unknown shores: Michael Dean's bleak but poetic vision of post-Brexit Britain

While the Turner Prize shortlist can reasonably be expected to provide some sense of British art now, the extent to which British art can or should attempt to reflect a view of British life is surely a moot point. Art that is socially or politically engaged can all too easily tend towards the artless, its functionality placing it uncomfortably close to pamphleteering, with the certainties of propaganda drowning out the possibilities of art. Curious then, that the best of this year's four finalists are loosely united by an unmistakeable sense of life now, an engagement with the status quo that is as bleak as it is madcap.

Josephine Pryde’s beguiling, but ultimately empty explorations of artistic agency are fatally deflated by the clumsy bathos of her centrepiece, a scale model of a train stranded in a siding, that relates far too literally to current railway fiascos. In contrast, while Michael Dean’s reference to the poverty line is nothing if not direct, his pile of pennies is suffused with poetic possibilities, a shingle beach marking the edge of some new or forgotten reality, a mountain of scrap metal in a junkyard, or a hoarder’s stash (main picture).

Helen MartenTo get to it you have to pick your way through oddly familiar objects, strips of rusty metal bent into shapes that hint at the human form. Black bags bulging with unknown contents, sheets of corrugated metal and fragments of concrete, approximations of legs and feet and hands and heads materialise before us – perhaps seeking the human in the inanimate is how we comfort ourselves in the face of a grim, depopulated landscape. But then there are hands, little fists threaded like beads onto metal poles, looking less like casts made from life than fossilised remains dug from the ground. Books printed with something like an alphabet formed from cannabis leaves appear as if washed up with a tide, while official-looking stickers warn against “shoring”, the inadequacy of our own suddenly redundant language powering this vision of urban desolation.

The relentless consumption of stuff haunts Helen Marten’s three vignettes, populated with baffling arrangements of objects that suggest some unknown activity interrupted (pictured above right). Familiar things appear strange in the service of some new and unknown purpose, the mood teetering between light and shade as eccentric, junkshop inventions absorb us in mental gymnastics, growing slowly more menacing as our confusion builds.

There is nothing nuanced about Anthea Hamilton’s presentation, and the huge arse that serves as her centrepiece, a replica of a door design made for a New York apartment, sounds a bum note. What had panache as an appallingly tasteless architectural feature loses all resonance here, while the other elements of Hamilton’s presentation lack the coherence to appear convincing. Inventive and visually exciting, Helen Marten would undoubtedly be a worthy winner, but for me, Michael Dean's bleak poetic vision makes him the clear favourite.

@FlorenceHallett

Junkshop inventions absorb us in mental gymnastics, growing slowly more menacing as our confusion builds

rating

Editor Rating: 
3
Average: 3 (1 vote)

Share this article

Add comment

Subscribe to theartsdesk.com

Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £2.95 per month or £25 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take an annual subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters