The Turner Prize 2018 shortlist demands attention

Thomas McMullan

Thomas McMullan says that this year’s exhibition expects concentration from its visitors – and rewards it

25 September 2018 17:40

State-sanctioned murder, human rights abuses, police brutality, queer identity, migration. The four rooms of Turner Prize 2018 house films that, in the words of the Tate, ‘tackle some of today’s most important issues’. It has been called the prize’s most political exhibition. It is certainly one of its most pointedly demanding.

Time is the most immediate demand. Each artist’s space in the gallery is a dark room, fitted for film or digital imagery. Unlike a painting or a glazed pot, there’s no flitting glances or speedy Instagram snaps. No unhinged minutes. Naeem Mohaiemen’s two films amount to three hours. Forensic Architecture’s The long duration of a split second lasts anything but. Between Charlotte Prodger and Luke Willis Thompson there’s another hour of film. It’ll take you half a day to see it all.

Pouring all those hours into a bucket is a weak way to judge an exhibition, but the time it takes to see the 2018 Turner Prize in its entirety is notable because it places a weight on Attention with a capital A. This is art that expects concentration, invites patience and effort, working in a medium that stretches out time with a fine-toothed comb, asking you to do the same. Some critics have called this tedious and piously worthy, mourning the lack of painting, comparing the galleries to seminar rooms where the audience is to be given lessons in gender politics and colonial violence. Others have called it a time-consuming counterbalance to the churn of 24-hour news.

Luke Willis Thompson's autoportrait

Indeed, several artworks purposefully offset the pace of modern media. Luke Willis Thompson’s autoportrait is a silent 35mm projection of Diamond Reynolds, whose boyfriend Philando Castile was shot by police during a traffic stop in 2016. Reynolds broadcast the immediate aftermath of the incident on Facebook Live, and Thompson’s film is what he calls a ‘sister image’; a wordless close up of intense grief that asks for a different kind of attention to the widely circulated moment of tragic violence.  

Is it Thompson’s place to demand that attention? Members of the art and club collective BBZ, who DJ’d at the exhibition opening, wore t-shirts with the word ‘black pain is not for profit’ written across them. While Thompson is of mixed European and Fijian heritage, and does not identify as white, BBZ’s Rene Matic argued in an Instagram Story that he is a white-passing male; benefiting from white privilege as he makes work from the suffering of black and marginalised people.   

Forensic Architecture’s installation draws attention to a moment of violence in a very different context. The long duration of a split second consists of two interlinked projects, connected to the Bedouin communities of the Naqab/Negev region of southern Israel; specifically the events of 18 January 2017, when police attempts to clear an unrecognised Bedouin village resulted in the deaths of two people.

The collective, which is built up of lawyers, architects, archaeologists and is based in Goldsmiths College in London, makes use of data in its widest sense, pulling on everything from photographs and smartphone recordings to scale models, interviews and satellite imaging to forensically investigate allegations of state and corporate violence. A recent show in the ICA presented a handful of different cases, including a racially-motivated murder in Kassel, Germany, to the enforced disappearance of 43 students in Ayotzinapa, Mexico. The amount of information there was overwhelming; a tangle of timelines and visualisations that also demanded attention, and time, to properly unravel.

Forensic Architecture

‘It is very unexpected,’ Eyal Weizman, the director of Forensic Architecture said when he found out his collective being on the Turner Prize shortlist. ‘We don’t consider ourselves to be artists.’ Whether or not you consider The long duration of a split second to be a work of art or a work of activism, or both, or neither, its approach is laudable; inviting the viewer to think like an investigator, to make space for understanding. At the same time, the sheer scale and detail of information, along with the group’s embracing of multiple perspectives, allow space for the impossibility of understanding – the incomprehension at the heart of an event. All those hours spent pouring through data and there’s no certainty of truth.

Charlotte Prodger’s BRIDGIT also flips our technological apparatus, using footage filmed on an iPhone that’s treated like a prosthesis. The smartphone has become an extension of our minds and bodies, or at the very least it is reconfiguring how we think about those ideas. Here we see a view that is close to Prodger’s own eye, of her feet resting on a sofa, of a stream and grey skies, of a deck on a ferry. The artist narrates with excerpts from her journal; of coming out, of working at a care home, of identity shifting over time. It is confessional and personal, also intimately connected to time and the moving image, drawing your attention to the perspective you are inhabiting with lingering, handheld shots.

Perspectives of memory bubble up in Naeem Mohaiemen’s films, too. In the three-channel installation, Two Meetings and a Funeral, the Cold War-era power struggles of Non-Aligned countries and the utopian dreams of socialism are examined through stock footage of architecture and the posturing of world leaders. In Tripoli Cancelled, a man wanders the abandoned Ellinikon Airport in Athens, traipsing the empty concourses, occasionally listening to Boney M and reading passages from Watership Down. The fictional film was inspired by an experience of the artist’s father, who was stranded for nine days at Athens airport in 1977. The shots again linger through its 93 minutes, the vast airport filled to the brim with time for reflection and loneliness – as well as fantasy.  

A still from Charlotte Prodger's BRIDGET

The moving image as a tool for sustained attention, rather than distraction, is at the heart of much of this year’s Turner Prize entries. While it is unwise to draw too many threads between the output of disparate artists, all selected on the merit of older work, the collective focus speaks to the absorptive power of film. It comes as a counterbalance to 24-hour news and the denser time of social media, but it’s also a challenge to the shifting nature of art spaces. At a moment when galleries are tangoing with Instagram, unsure if viewing artworks as a means for social capital is a good or bad thing, these works underline the place of effort and patience.

Whether or not these artworks illuminate ‘today’s most important issues’, or whether the whole idea of ‘importance’ in art is a vague and patronising term, there is something powerful in work that demands our attention, urges us to try and make sense of things but doesn’t offer clipped answers, and does all that by using the same tools that so often pull our attention away from the world.

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