One Hull of a show: The Turner Prize in the City of Culture

Love it or hate it, the Turner Prize is one of the highlights of the arts calendar, and this year it takes place in the UK City of Culture, Hull. Ahead of the unveiling of the winner next week at the Ferens Gallery, WILLIAM COOK tells us why Hull is the perfect place to host the famously divisive awards.

Why do people get so upset about the Turner Prize? The late art critic Brian Sewell spoke for many when he condemned it as an “annual farce”. Yet since its inception in 1984 it’s become a highlight of the artistic calendar, and now you can choose your own favourite from a shortlist of four contenders, in the Turner Prize show at the Ferens Art Gallery in Hull.

The Turner Prize has always been a magnet for controversy. In 1998, a protestor dumped a heap of manure outside Tate Britain, in response to Chris Ofili’s use of elephant dung in his paintings.

In 2001, another protestor pelted Martin Creed’s installation, The Lights Going On and Off, with eggs.

In 2002, Labour Culture Minister Kim Howells denounced the shortlist show as “conceptual bullshit” and Prince Charles bemoaned “the dreaded Turner Prize [which] has contaminated the art establishment for too long”.

Is Prince Charles right? Has the Turner Prize really contaminated the art establishment? Of course not. It’s actually a fairly accurate reflection of current trends in contemporary art – a mirror rather than a motor.

The award usually goes to a rising star who’s already on their way up. If you don’t like their work, fair enough – but it’s daft to blame the Turner Prize.

A survey of previous winners bears this out. From Howard Hodgkin to Damien Hirst, from Antony Gormley to Grayson Perry, it’s like a Who’s Who of British Artists. So why does it ruffle so many feathers?

Because giving prizes to artists is an invidious business, and because lots of people feel bewildered by an awful lot of modern art. That’s entirely understandable (I’m confused by a lot of it myself) but even if you’re not a big fan of this kind of thing, the Turner Prize is still fascinating.

It’s a snapshot of what’s happening in the art world – and if this year’s shortlist is anything to go by, it shows artists are making a welcome return to traditional forms.

Of the four artists on the shortlist, three are painters whose work wouldn’t have looked out of place 50 years ago. Hurvin Anderson, Andrea Büttner and Lubaina Himid would all sit quite comfortably in a group show alongside Peter Blake and David Hockney (and personally, I can think of no higher praise).

Rosalind Nashashibi is a film-maker (a genre I’m not mad about in galleries) but her work is contemplative, not controversial. Even if you’re an old fuddy-duddy (like me) you’ll find lots in here to like.


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