There is no prescribed route around the different gallery spaces of the Turner Prize 2017 at Ferens Art Gallery, Hull. Four separate rooms taper off from a main atrium and viewers pass in and out without following a set course. This topography lends itself well to the encounter with the artworks and the different artists represented, as each reveals itself and the politics of their making within a specific context.
The interests of Andrea Büttner lie in exploring different aspects of means of production, shame, and the human body. In ‘Table With Fabric (Weave)’ (2016), a low level table gently pulls the viewer’s gaze downward to a set of archival pictures of beggars sourced from auction catalogues in the archive of the Aby Warburg Institute, London. Elsewhere, ‘Fabric Wall (high visibility yellow)’ (2017) makes a strong case for labour as an act that is both ubiquitous and unseen. A huge canvas, the shade of yellow used in hi-visibility clothing, dominates one wall. The ubiquity and invisibility of labour is transposed onto the canvas so that the viewer might mistake it for a backdrop, thus proving Büttner’s point. A large part of the room is occupied by an educational resource of sorts. ‘Simone Weil: The Most Dangerous Disease’ (1990), is embedded with quotations from the French philosopher and more archival photographs. Büttner often seeks ways of weaving the ideas of others alongside her own, though the result here is so text-heavy that its impact is not immediately felt.
It is somehow a relief, then, to arrive at the less didactic display by Rosalind Nashashibi, namely the films ‘Electrical Gaza’ (2014) and ‘Vivian’s Garden’ (2017). For many, the idea of Gaza is intangible, something barely glimpsed behind rubble and harried reporters. Rather than impose a script in her work Nashashibi concentrates upon small, fairly universal incidents, like the pleasure of bumping into a friend on the street, or paddling in the sea on a hot day. Nashashibi acknowledges that violence plays a huge part in the region even during tranquil moments. Animation is used to explore this: in one scene a large black circle is overlaid on a quiet street, a void hinting at the fear and uncertainty to come. The artist was forced to leave Gaza due to bombardments, and the animation offers a dreamlike, half-remembered quality, suggesting that the imprint left by Gaza is psychological as well as physical.
Nashashibi ‘Vivian’s Garden’ (2017), meanwhile, is a study of two emigrée artists in their Guatemalan estate. Though the pace of the film feels naturalistic, with its meandering, nostalgia-ridden dialogue, many of the moments are re-enactments that reflec the complex maternal and employer/employee dynamics within the home. Vignettes show staff unpacking groceries or serving up dinner, then quietly eating arepas in a small room elsewhere. Painting is not discussed explicitly, but the artists debate the colourways and patterns of Vivian’s holiday wardrobe as though it too were a composition. Nashashibi’s contribution is more distilled than that of the other artists’ galleries, but the presentation is key: each work is projected onto its own cinema screen and fully immerses the viewer within its filmic world.
Lubaina Himid’s exhibition is a vivid cross-section of her work. The most immediately striking of these is ‘A Fashionable Marriage’ (1986) a plywood tableau based on the Hogarth series ‘Marriage A-La-Mode’ (1743-1745). Himid’s training as a set designer reinforces the theatricality and farce of both eighteenth-century and 1980s society; paunchy magnates in powdered wigs jostle against cut-outs of Thatcher and Reagan. Attracting the most attention, ‘Negative Positives: The Guardian Archive’ (2007-15), is a series where annotations are used to draw out the latent prejudices in Guardian covers featuring images of black invidviduals. The shock of the piece lies in the fact that the paper beneath Himid’s lens isn’t some greasy tabloid but, rather, an avowedly liberal publication. Whether such editorial decisions are complicit or unconscious, the work raises the question of who is shaping the narratives which confront us each day – and why?
New and old works, which continue his hallmarks of densely-vegetated scenery, are both present in Hurvin Anderson’s gallery, the intensity of colour and pattern stretching out to the very margins of the canvases on display. In paintings from his celebrated barbershop series, shampoo bottles, mirrors and posters take on abstract geometric forms while the hair scattered upon the tiles is a singular reminder of human presence. In a video accompanying the exhibition, Anderson speaks with a quiet assurance about his practice. He is not the kind of artist to sit before a landscape and obediently splash down corresponding brushstrokes. Rather, his paintings come from a need to forge order out of his surroundings and memories. For this reason you see seemingly disparate elements within the same image; a mango tree, for instance, may sprout from the same soil as an English pear tree. This fractured identity is something that Anderson links significantly to the psychological condition of immigrants, the restlessness of ‘being in one place but thinking about somewhere else’.
Perhaps his words are a useful philosophy to adopt towards the exhibition as a whole. There is an invitation here to peel back the surface and take a look at details that so often go undetected, to recognise how different layers of experience can impact upon place and individuality. This year’s Turner Prize, then, may not be home to the kind of showboating to set Twitter ablaze, or bamboozle your entire family. It is far more nuanced and important than that.
Turner Prize 2017, Ferens Art Gallery, Hull, 26 September 2017 – 7 January 2018.
Orla Foster is a writer based in Sheffield.