I’m writing this a few days after Helen Marten won the Turner Prize. Within minutes, Michael Gove – former government minister, failed Conservative leadership candidate, an engineer of Brexit – had tweeted that her work was ‘modish crap’ and an expression of ‘the tragic emptiness of now’. In the UK, Brexit or no, there is always a bumptious opportunist poised – if that’s the word – to foment the public’s supposed contempt for contemporary art. Gove, however, had misjudged the mood of the social-media mob, who seem to dislike know-nothing nostalgists even more than they distrust artists.
Maybe none of this folderol touches a Turner Prize nominee, let alone a winner. But it’s worth noting that even (or especially) when an artist seems to have carried all before her in a scant few months – in Marten’s case, a show at the Serpentine, the Hepworth Prize for Sculpture and the Turner Prize, in quick succession – her work will struggle to be clearly seen in the fog of diverting opinion. It’s been suggested that Marten’s art (in common with the rest of the Turner Prize shortlist) is an aesthetic dodge in the face of the political exigencies of 2016. But this calm assertion is almost as wrong-headed as Gove’s intemperate effusion – as if the political import of an artist’s work were only ever a matter of avowed intent, address or immediate ‘relevance’. I was lucky enough this year to spend a lot of time looking at and thinking about Marten’s work, and I’ll take its vexing visual grammar, giddily various materials and exactingly ambiguous contemporaneity any day, over literalist partisans of now and not-now.
The South Africa-born artist Mary Hurrell has been working with the dancer Kitty Fedorec for several years; I first saw them collaborate, early in the year, in a performance at Throbbing Gristle’s former studio (which the band named the Death Factory) at SPACE Studios, London. Fedorec was back, writhing and stretching atop a mobile Perspex platform, in Movement Study 5 (Pearlex) (2016), the piece Hurrell presented at David Roberts Art Foundation in October. Accompanied by an original electronic soundtrack, clad in Hurrell’s sci-fi-ski-sex costume design, wheeled through the crowd by two other dancers, this figure was something like a fetish-wear extra-terrestrial, a crustacean or insectile presence.
The Irish actor Lisa Dwan has been performing a select number of Samuel Beckett’s works – all monologues, or near as damn it – for a decade, starting with a breakneck take on Not I in 2005 and ending (it’s hard to say where she could go from here) this year with a dramatization of some of his late prose gobbets: voices on the verge of fading out, bodies slumping into bogland ooze. No’s Knife, at The Old Vic, London, was not so stark or exacting as Dwan’s earlier performances, but the extraordinary voice was still there – or rather voices: by turns wheedling, mocking, stentorian, obscene. At the Barbican, Isabelle Huppert’s three-part turn as Phaedra(s) – adapted by Krzysztof Warlikowski from three versions of the myth, by J. M. Coetzee, Sarah Kane and Wajdi Mouawad – was abject, brittle and operatic. In a three-and-a-half-hour production, there were inevitable longueurs, but Huppert throughout was like a naked blade in agony.
My books of the year arrived, respectively, as a headlong rush and a series of minutely worked fragments. Eimear McBride’s first novel, A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing (Faber, 2014) was a provocatively indrawn soliloquy about sexual abuse and its aftermath. Her second book, The Lesser Bohemians (Faber, 2016) is in some ways more conventional, matching its young narrator in 1990s London with an older man who tells his own story of abuse, and tells it in a soberly realist register. But McBride’s stylistic brio is still in evidence, her skewed syntax and ear for a sort of abject lyricism: ‘Starched and parched I jit in the wings.’ Another type of syntactic oddity was among the pleasures of Diane Williams’s short story collection Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine (CB Editions, 2016). Williams’s beautifully botched sentences have a habit of switching subject, tense or tone at the drop of a dash or comma. Here’s the narrator of ‘Beauty, Love, and Vanity Itself’, reflecting on her relationship history: ‘Bob – Tom spent several days in June with me and I keep up with books and magazines and go forward on the funny path pursuing my vocation.’
And finally, it’s hard to say just how much I have loved (belatedly) Orange Is the New Black – there’s hardly a character among 20 or so principals who couldn’t carry her own series. This year’s season, the fourth, saw Jenji Kohan’s teeming, tragic and hilarious women’s-prison saga parlay its established ensemble and slow story arcs into a punctual portrayal of racial and political emergency. Poor, poor Poussey.
Lead image: Lisa Dwan in No's Knife, The Old Vic, London, 2016. Photograph: Manuel Harlan
Brian Dillon is professor of creative writing at Queen Mary University of London, UK. Suppose a Sentence (Fitzcarraldo Editions/New York Review Books) will be published in September 2020. He lives in London.