Turner prize winner reminds us of the importance of inclusivity in the arts

05 December 2018 17:42

‘How wonderful to be here at Tate Britain, the home of British art from 1500 to the present day. And how wonderful to have a nice dinner that actually tastes very good,’ announced Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in Millbank last night, followed by laughs from those in the room – gathered to learn the winner of the Turner Prize 2018 – audible via the BBC. ‘I have been shortlisted for literary prizes, and I know how horribly unbearable the announcement wait is. I would often sit there and think “just get on with it”. And so, get on with it I will. I am delighted to announce… Charlotte Prodger.’

The Glasgow-based artist is the third woman in a row to receive the accolade, one of the art world’s most prestigious globally, following wins in 2017 and 2016 for Lubaina Himid and Helen Marten respectively – and one of nine women who have won the prize overall. Her practice typically engages with moving and printed image, sculpture and writing, while her Turner-recognised work is a film titled BRIDGIT. Shot on an iPhone, the piece was previously shown elsewhere in London, as well as Norway, Glasgow and Stockholm, interchangeably under the banner of a screening and an exhibition.

‘BRIDGIT mediates on a rhythmic mapping and remapping of the body. It is an attempt to understand how a body shapes vision,’ writes Mason Leaver-Yap in an essay that accompanies the Tate show, part of a pamphlet which also includes a transcript of the film (typed in black and gold). ‘Prodger began making BRIDGIT shortly after, and throughout outpatient recovery from an elective hysterectomy,’ a preceding passage observes. The operation is the same one Lena Dunham had earlier this year, and subsequently wrote about for Vogue.

Exploring landscape and queer identity – arenas she has previously described as interlinked – in Prodger’s 32-minute film the viewer is met with autobiography vocalised in differing forms: dated diary entries are read aloud, while other recent nostalgia is audibly played out, intercepted with passages from Julian Cope’s The Modern Antiquarian (1998) and The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the Mechanical Age (1995) by Allucquère Rosanne Ston6. On screen, close-up shots of Prodger’s cat where the flesh of her own thumb is visible in the frame, grand scenes of Scottish wilderness, and, at one point, some swans wandering on a beach, are all picked up by the camera’s lens.

‘The more people who see art the more people who take part in dialogue and discussion about the society we live in.’

‘It’s lovely to see everyone here tonight and it is a daunting evening I think for a lot of people involved and the artists, but it’s very warm? It feels very warm in here tonight, and I’m grateful for that,’ began Prodger, taking to the stage. It took more than four hours – about the same as the length of time the gallery suggests visitors spend viewing this year’s exhibition – for the jury, chaired by Director of Tate Britain Alex Farquharson, to decide on her win.

Shortlisted alongside Naeem Mohaiemen, Forensic Architecture, and Luke Willis Thompson, this year’s Turner Prize has, as per prize rules (maybe), proved to be controversial, and certainly one of its most political. ‘No sculpture or painting’ was the most common irritation – critics penned the line in reviews, visitors scribbled as much on museum comment cards; co-incidentally, the Turner exhibition is one of three shows currently open in London exclusively highlighting film – while Willis Thompson’s work was, rightly, called out for the gaze (white passing) it cast on (black) trauma. ‘I feel let down, exhausted,’ Rene Matic wrote in a gal-dem published essay when the shortlist was announced in May. ‘Well thank fuck Luke w th*mpson didn’t win,’ concurred one half of art critic gang, The White Pube, on Twitter yesterday.

Echoing widespread concern about how and by who art is created and viewed, Tate director Maria Balshaw last night introduced the ceremony by voicing her thoughts on the importance of an inclusive arts field. ‘The more people who see art,’ she said, ‘the more people who take part in dialogue and discussion about the society we live in. That’s why the UN Declaration of Human Rights enshrines the right to access art as a universal entitlement.’ Spoiler: a ticket to the Turner Prize costs £13, perhaps not a huge sum by some people’s standards – about the same as a typical cinema ticket in the capital – but not financially relevant for many others.

‘I wouldn’t be in this room were it not for the public funding that I received from Scotland for free higher education,’ Prodger subsequently acknowledged, revisiting Balshaw’s sentiment, ‘and then later in the form of artist bursaries and grants, to support not only the production of work, but also living costs.’ In her win, the personal is triumphantly the political, from the nature of BRIDGIT’s content – Prodger’s own coming out in Aberdeenshire in the early 90s, a pertinent topic today – to the means that made it, including the ‘emotional and material’ support recognised in her acceptance speech; from her democratic tool of choice, the iPhone, to the physical curation of her film at Tate, set up so as to allow ample visitors a clear view of the screen.

Is the Turner Prize even relevant to people who are, understandably, unbothered about art anyway, rarely see themselves reflected in the mainstream, or those who find that certain work doesn’t sit well in their view of what art should be? Demanding questions are asked, this year’s exhibition is hugely relevant, as is Prodger’s win, representative of broader societal themes, surely the catalyst for making art in any form.