The Turner Prize is a visual art prize awarded annually to an artist born or based in Britain. In April each year, a jury formed of art critics, professors and director of galleries, meet to shortlist four artists. This year, they nominated Forensic Architecture, Naeem Mohaiemen, Charlotte Prodger and Luke Willis Thompson. On top of the recognition gained with reception of the prestigious award, the winner earns £25,000, while all the other nominees are awarded £5,000 each. This year’s winner Charlotte Prodger, was awarded the prize during a live broadcast on BBC television, on the 4th of December 2018 for her work BRIDGIT.
First I went to see was this year’s Turner Prize winner, Charlotte Prodger. Born in Bournemouth in 1974, raised in Aberdeenshire and now based in Glasgow, she studied at Goldsmiths, University of London and Glasgow School of Art. She works with a variety of mediums such as video, sculpture, the printed image and writing. Her winning piece is an autobiographical film named BRIDGIT after the Neolithic deity. Shot on her iPhone over the course of a year in the Scottish Highlands or in the intimacy of her own home (featuring her cat!), she explores her own queer identity.
The 32-minutes film is a poetic visual essay in which the British artist meditates on her own life. Told by different voice-overs, she reflects on coming out in rural Aberdeenshire in the nineties, aged 18 or 19, working as a care assistant in a home for the elderly, neolithic deities, being anaesthetised before a surgical procedure or mistaken for a boy in the public toilets. She reveals personal and melancholic moments of microaggression towards a queer woman.
The film contains no more than 10 shots, each of them very long. BRIDGIT was devoid of any human presence. All the shots were of landscapes, the artist’s feet, or objects in her home. Her face is never visible. The exterior shots are long and the camera is fixed, as if we’re staring at a moving painting. The shots inside her home are disorientating. The clips are shaky, her iPhone becomes an extension of her hand, following every single movement of her arm. The contrast between the shots produces a dichotomy between the inside her home and the outside world.
Watching BRIDGIT felt like reading your friend’s personal diary. Except that your friend is Charlotte Prodger. The slow shots allowed me to listen the story she had to tell. In fact, it almost felt she wasn’t speaking to us, the audience, but was simply lost in her own thoughts and we were silent listeners, given the permission to hear her personal reflections. The screen became a window to the outside world, the way she sees it through her own eyes. One shot I felt great intimacy with her was the shot of her lying down on a sofa in her home. The camera was resting on her chest, we could only see her feet. As it was resting on her breathing chest, the image was breathing, slowly going up and down. She was allowing us to see the world through her eyes, inviting us to discover her and how she became the person she is today.
The second artist was Naeem Mohaiemen. Born in London in 1969 to Bengali parents, Naeem Mohaiemen grew up in Bangladesh. Through his work, he researches and explores postcolonialism. For the Turner Prize, he presented two films. The first one, Two meetings and a Funeral, was a three-channel 89 mins long documentary retracing the history of the Non-Aligned Movement and its power struggle. Mohaiemen superimposed archive footage and interviews of intellectuals, artists, politicians discussing the movement and what is left of it today. I liked how the three-screens setup played with the viewer’s perception. I had to make a constant choice of where to look at, thus I created my own experience of the film.
Naeem Mohaiemen’s second film was a 93-mins fiction film titled Tripoli Cancelled. The story was inspired by his own father’s personal experience who was stranded at an airport for a couple of days after losing his passport. It depicted the everyday life of a man who has been stuck in the abandoned airport of Hellinikon in Athens, Greece, for over a decade. He is seen wandering around the empty airport by himself wearing the same spotless cream suit everyday. The film was mostly silent, inviting the viewer to concentrate on the long cinematic sequences of the man exploring the airport. Some shots featured the voice of the main character reading the letters he is writing to his wife back home. Occasionally, he read extracts of Watership Down by Richard Adams to himself, or to a silent audience. At first, it felt the man was not bothered by the silence of the airport, almost finding comfort in his own loneliness. As time progressed, it started to feel heavier. He is seen talking to a fictional bartender at one of the airport’s bar lounge, reminding me of the bar scene in The Shining by Kubrick. Towards the end of the film, he attempts to make a phone call home but the operator trying to connect him to his wife says that she isn’t answering. He ends the call, defeated and cries in a stairway while singing ‘Never on a Sunday’ by The Chordettes, reminding us how his occasional attempts to reconnect with humanity and the world outside the airport are unsuccessful. The cinematography and the visuals were mesmerising. The filmmakers have managed to capture the smooth lighting of the Greek’s golden hour and the blinding sunlight of the Mediterranean mid-afternoon.
Tripoli Cancelled was my favourite piece at the exhibition, it’s the only film I went to watch a second time. I only needed a few seconds to fully immerse myself into the story. I connected to the main character without knowing him. His initial calmness in the midst of this inhumane world hit me. I pictured myself being in the main character’s place, not having any idea what time and what day it is, losing completely my sense of reality. Naeem Mohaiemen’s films remind me of an exhibition by John Akomfrah that I had seen almost two years ago, at the Lisson Gallery, North London.
After watching Naeem Mohaiemen’s films, I went into the Forensic Architecture’s exhibition. Forensic Architecture differs from the other artists nominated for the prize as it focuses on a collective of people, instead of just one individual. The Tate recalls the work to be ‘an international research agency that uses innovative technological and architectural processes to investigate allegations of state and corporate violence’. They are a collective of architects, filmmakers, artists, journalists, lawyers, scientists, theorists and software developers. Their work shortlisted for the Turner Prize, The Long Duration of a Split Second, was centred on the attacks of the Israeli state towards the Bedouin Communities installed in the Negev/Naqab, in southern Israel.
Forensic Architecture investigated the event that unfolded on 18th of January 2017 when the police raided a Bedouin village that resulted in the killing of two people: a civilian villager and an Israeli policeman. The Israeli government claimed that the Bedouin villager had attacked the police first, by charging into them with his car, so they had to shoot him. The government used the attack to feed a campaign of hatred towards Bedouin communities, as an attempt to evict them from they are settled on. The investigation led by Forensic Architecture showed that the police had fired at the Bedouin villager first and a bullet reached one of his feet pressing the car pedal, which could explain why he did not slow down. The official images released by the government had been manipulated however the Israeli government has denied having manipulated the images.
The first thing I saw as I entered the ‘Forensic Architecture room’ was a video titled Killing in Umm al-Hiran 18 January 2017, Negev/Naqab, Israel/Palestine, projected on a wide curved screen. A filmmaker from Forensic Architecture had been asked by the Bedouin villagers to film their planned evacuation of the village in solidarity with them. She could not have imagined that she was about to witness two killings. Her film was shot in the heart of the action, as the event unfolded. The large width and height of the screen fully immersed me in the event, I was there that morning with the filmmaker. I held my breath, part of the situation witnessing the police violence with her. The second part of the Forensic Architecture’s featured different mediums such as a mural reconstitution of the 18 January 2017 events and its aftermath through screenshots of tweets and newspaper front pages by the Israeli state or the Forensic Architecture.
There was another film showing Bedouin communities rebuilding their villages after the police had destroyed it. It showed how the collective had participated in denouncing the action of the Israeli police by investigating the case themselves, unravelling every detail, every shot to expose the truth. Architecture’s investigation is still ongoing. Their work is in progress as they are working every day towards the truth.
The last part of this exhibition I visited was one dedicated to the work of Luke Willis Thompson. Luke Willis Thompson is an artist born in 1988 in New Zealand. He studied art in his home country and Germany. He now lives and works in London. For the Turner Prize, he presented three short films shot on 35mm: Cemeteries of Uniform and Liveries, auto portrait and _Human. He explored violence towards bodies, particularly black bodies. Before entering the room, a quick essential explanation about each film was written on the wall.
The first was made of two long shots in monochrome of two men staring at you. The first man was Brandon, the grandson of Dorothy ‘Cherry’ Groce, a black woman who was shot by the police in her home in Brixton, in 1985. The second man was Graeme, the son of Joy Gardner, a black woman killed in 1993 home during police raid for her deportation.
The second film featured long shots of Diamond Reynolds, the woman who broadcast via Facebook live, the death of her boyfriend Philandro Castile, shot by a police officer in Minnesota, USA in 2016. The film acts as a ‘sister-image’ in response to Reynolds’ livestream. The officer who killed Castile was acquitted of all charges days before the film was shown to an audience for the first time.
The final film was a study of artist Donald Rodney’s My Mother, My Father, My Sister, My Brother. Rodney’s piece is a small house model he made from his own skin while he was hospitalised at King’s College Hospital as he was suffering from sickle-cell anaemia. The ‘skin’ walls and roof hold together thanks to cellophane and dressmaker pins. Rodney later died in 1998 due to complications of his disease. The camera spins around the small house, zooming in and out. It was positioned so close to the house that its entirety is never revealed. It was unsettling to watch. It felt like watching a documentary on the human body.
Luke Willis Thompson’s nominated works have sparked controversies as he has been accused of exploiting black suffering in his work (Thompson is reported of mixed heritage, his mother being a New Zealander of European descent and his father of Fiji ancestry). In September 2018, BBZ London, a collective who (from their Instagram bio) describe themselves as a ‘Club night/curatorial collective from SE london, prioritising the experiences of Queer Womxn, Trans & Non-Binary POC’, took over the exhibition wearing T-shirts reading ‘Black Pain Is Not for Profit.’
While watching one of the films by Forensic Architecture, I heard an elderly woman whispering to her friend, ‘I don’t understand, this isn’t art’. Her statement was a terrible way to express how this year’s Turner Prize broke with the traditional lineup of painters and sculptors usually shortlisted for the prize. The jury embraced filmmaking and documentary as an art form, particularly the representation of truth and power through moving images. How the camera becomes a weapon for the artists to express themselves and investigate the world around them. Yet, they were far away from the traditional paintings seen in museums and galleries. All the other pieces were screenshots of tweets, models, etc. I found interesting how every single artist presented a film or more, whether they were documentaries, fiction or reconstitution of an event through filming and 3D modelling. All used different cameras and filming technique: Charlotte Prodger embraced the DIY feel of smartphone filmmaking, Forensic Architecture shot on DSLRs, Luke Willis Thompson filmed on 35mm and finally Naeem Mohaiemen used high-quality cameras (the type of camera was not disclosed). I liked the fact that smartphone filmmaking made its way into this year’s prize. Knowing that Prodger had shot her autobiographical winning piece on her own phone made it even more authentic. As technology is evolving and the film industry is changing and slowly embracing DIY filmmaking, the art world is also starting to take interest in non-traditional art forms. Charlotte Prodger’s win gives hope and freedom to a new generation of artists to experiment without being restricted by a lack of budget.
Words by Iris Jaouen