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Turner prize 2021 review – lashings of creativity in a collectivist clash

·6-min read
<span>Photograph: David Levene/the Guardian</span>
Photograph: David Levene/the Guardian

Celebrating the creativity of people who see the world in a non-standard way has a radical history in art. It goes back to the German doctor Hans Prinzhorn and his collection of asylum patients’ art that inspired the expressionists and surrealists. And let’s not forget the greatest outsider artist of all, Vincent van Gogh.

Yet it’s one thing for art experts to hail outsiders. It’s another to abolish the line between outside and inside, to include such art in the culture of the establishment on equal terms. But that is what Project Art Works do in their emotional room in this year’s Turner prize exhibition. Project Art Works provide the materials, space, tutoring and exhibiting opportunities for people they term neurodiverse to make art. They get my vote and I suspect the popular vote too.

Jack Denness, Self Portrait, 2105. Project Art Works.
Inidividual artists are the stars … Self Portrait, 2105, by Jack Denness, part of Project Art Works. Photograph: David Levene/the Guardian

Which is ironic, for this is the only part of this year’s Turner prize in which individual artists are the stars. Because they have done the right thing: they fill their space with paintings and drawings by the artists they support, giving them centre stage as individuals. It’s a warmhearted reversal of this year’s shortlist, which is made up exclusively of collectives. So I want Neville Jermyn to win the Turner prize for his drawing of a blue whale. And Darryl Spencer for Collaboration, a fierce depiction of jungle foliage in lush charcoal. Not to mention Siddharth Gadiyar for his radiating splashy abstraction Mandala 9, and Aida Ashall for two olive canvases, one turned outwards, the other facing the wall introspectively.

But will the Turner jury agree? They’ve already demonstrated their capacity for perverse and obscure decisions. The premise of this year’s prize is that individualist art is dead and the future lies in the collective. This is not just a peculiar posture for a prize. It is also not true. There are plenty of good individual artists around. But the Tate clearly does not like its own prize. It agreed to share the money equally between the artists in 2019, then suspended the event in 2020 although a pandemic prize was not impossible. What’s the problem? A rigid set of self-imposed rules and prejudices. Maybe the excellent Michael Armitage, for instance, can’t be in the Turner prize because he’s already too big. Or because he is represented by those capitalist bastards at White Cube. Or, to take this shortlist literally, because there’s only one of him.

On the cover of the catalogue, diagrammatic lines connect the five collectives, as if to show us they are interrelated. That suggests this is not even a contest but a friendly collaborative exercise. Will the prize be confusingly shared again?

Yet I expected to be much more enraged by the post-individual Turner than I was. It sounded like a blueprint for the Worst Turner prize Ever. In the event it is a pretty average year. And it does let in real life, real people, in a way that just occasionally strikes gold.

Salmon: Traces of Escapees by Cooking Sections.
There is no depth to this … Salmon: Traces of Escapees by Cooking Sections. Photograph: David Levene/the Guardian

Cardiff’s Gentle/Radical live down to the worst expectations. I am not saying they don’t do good work; they just don’t make good art. Their space is decorated with wordy nostrums about “involvement”, I dunno, it was too boring to read. People from their local community feature in a video that you can watch while sitting on a stool, like a primary school pupil learning your lesson. There is no aesthetic reason to watch it. I was off.

Cooking Sections have at least created a visual spectacle. You move through a darkened space where circles of water are projected on the floor, stepping between these slightly sinister ocean enclosures as you listen to a commentary wax lyrical, yet angry, about how we are modifying nature, remaking species, in our capitalist fish farming and corruption of “human fish relations”. It lost me when it mis-explained Darwin’s theory of evolution. A petty point, maybe, but if artists are going to lecture on science and acknowledge a gaggle of academics in their installation they should get the basics right. Anyway there is no depth to this. It’s just a pretentious way of stating the obvious. Food additives and modern farming are bad, we can agree.

I also agree with Black Obsidian Sound System’s assertion that the common good is a wonderful thing. There is however another, richer message hidden in the bass notes that rattle and hum in their cave. The frequency of a speaker makes a bowl of water on top of it bubble, as if boiling. It is an image of energy and power, the secret physics of the sound system.

The Only Good System is a Sound System by Black Obsidian Sound System.
Energy and power … The Only Good System is a Sound System by Black Obsidian Sound System. Photograph: David Levene/the Guardian

A recording gives a slice of oral history as a veteran of sound system culture explains the basic requirements of setting one up. There’s a glimpse of people dancing, a shot of speakers in a park. It is all occult and evasive, lit up in purple and black. It’s addictive. The sounds make your insides simmer. This is an artwork that points to a world beyond the gallery. It’s awkward, bitty, and stays with you as a dream of disjointed truths and lost sounds.

Black Obsidian Sound System create their own little world, a sweaty corner. Array Collective rival it by building a Northern Irish gay bar within the gallery. They work, the blurb says, to complicate religious identities. They do this in a video that is screened among the bar’s lifesize dolls, protest posters and comfy niches. People take the stage to win the title of Diva, some in drag, some not. One man tells a story of religious homophobia, remembering paranoia about sharing the chalice in church during the 1980s Aids epidemic. This is serious stuff. Array are not playing at politics but helping to change Northern Ireland and bury its sectarian past. And they use lashings of artistic creativity, made delightfully immediate by their snug bar, to fight their good fight.

They also, by the looks of it, want to win. Why else make so much effort? That’s the funny thing. The Tate’s jury insist that artists today reject competition and any money or fame it might bring. But most of these artists have actually thought hard about how to show their work to its best advantage. In fact they seem cheerfully competitive.

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