All four artists nominated for this year’s Turner Prize draw on political histories: some wide-ranging, others highly localized; one contained within the last decade, another drawing on a text from the early 15th century. With one subtle exception, none of them are directly exploring the themes that emerged after the electoral shocks of 2016, which jolted parts of the UK art world out of complacency. Instead, the selected works by Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Helen Cammock, Oscar Murillo, and Tai Shani demonstrate their long-standing commitment to different strands of political struggle that have not recently been the subject of mainstream commentary, and their careful thought about how to represent those struggles through a variety of forms. This gives the 2019 nominees a broader scope than 2018’s, who all worked mainly with the moving image: this time, there are several film and video pieces, but also installations that fill large rooms in Margate’s Turner Contemporary gallery with imagined communities and cities.
Three works by Lawrence Abu Hamdan provide a direct link with last year’s competition. They developed out of an investigation the artist took part in with Amnesty International and Forensic Architecture (nominated for the Turner Prize in 2018), on conditions in Syria’s Saydnaya prison, where more than 13,000 people are believed to have died since the revolution of 2011. Whilst Forensic Architecture’s work analyzed still and moving images, Abu Hamdan focuses on sound, and ‘earwitness’ testimony. His installation Saydnaya (the missing 19db) (2017) charts how decibel levels in the prison dropped after speaking became punishable by death, its linkage of the disappearance of the voice with the rise in violence being all the more powerful for its stillness and silence.
Abu Hamdan’s video Walled Unwalled (2018) and audio-visual installation After SFX (2018) incorporate acoustic testimonies from six survivors of Saydnaya. The prisoners were often deprived of sight and thus became acutely sensitive to sound, sometimes using the noise from cell doors to gauge where the guards were. These works place their testimonies within wider contexts – from conditions in East German prisons to how Radio Free Europe used ‘sounds from outside’ as a Cold War propaganda tactic. The artist reminds listeners of the crucial role that sound analysis played in the 2014 trial of Oscar Pistorius: experts were asked if Pistorius’s defence that he thought the person he heard, and shot through a closed door, was an intruder rather than his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, was plausible. However, it is Abu Hamdan’s close work with Saydnaya’s prisoners themselves that is most remarkable. The pieces document his modification of archive sound effects to better match the inmates’ descriptions of what they heard in Saydnaya, and thus more efficiently prompt further recollections. This intimacy, which reduces massive human rights violations to a single place and a single sense, makes the work astonishingly powerful.
The centrepiece of Helen Cammock’s section is her film The Long Note (2018), which explores the role that women played in the civil rights movement in Derry, commissioned to mark the 50th anniversary of the city’s march against housing inequality on 5 October 1968 – widely seen as the start of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, only ended by the Good Friday agreement 30 years later. The issue of the Irish border was, notoriously, barely considered by either side in the UK’s referendum on European Union membership in 2016, and remains the most intractable problem in securing any Brexit deal. Such obliviousness from the British was not new: architecture critic Ian Nairn visited Derry in 1967 to update an essay about the city’s infrastructure written six years earlier, and concluded that ‘the tension has lessened’ and that ‘the six and twenty-six counties may have begun a slow growing-together’. Cammock collects testimony from the women of 1960s Derry, juxtaposing interviews with activist and politician Bernadette Devlin McAliskey and others alongside footage such as Nina Simone’s passionate performance of civil rights anthem ‘I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to be Free’ (1967).
The Long Note is feature-length, at an hour and 40 minutes, and visitors to Margate may find a more digestible introduction to Cammock’s work in her short video There’s a Hole in the Sky Part II (2016), structured around an imagined conversation with James Baldwin about racism and the nature of cultural appropriation, which makes deft use of choreography by the Nicholas Brothers – their critically lauded performance in the American musical film Stormy Weather (1943) – to reinforce her points about the forced migration of African-American authors and dancers. It might be missed in the corridor next to Tai Shani’s installation, though, where all four nominated artists present further works to put their featured ones into perspective.
Touchingly, Shani uses this space not for her own art, but for 12 Signs of the Zodiac, a set of paintings by her aunt, Ariela Widzer, made in 1980, which draw on psychedelic pop-cultural aesthetics of the 1960s and 1970s, referencing mysticism and the occult. Through this choice, Shani situates her work within a female familial line: her installation, DC: Semiramis (2018), named after the legendary Queen Semiramis of Assyria, uses Christine de Pizan’s The Book of the City of Ladies (1405), which aimed to collate a history of notable women from the ancient period to its medieval present, as a starting point for an impressively ambitious installation that also draws on feminist science-fiction novels such as Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976). There is a whole world here that, like Cammock’s film, requires visitors to spend considerable time with it, and with Shani’s book Our Fatal Magic (2019) that collects the monologues that she adapted from de Pizan’s text. But the striking colours, shapes and shadows of Shani’s model city – and especially the huge green hand that lies across its centre – pull people in. Walking around DC: Semiramis, I was reminded of Congolese artist Bodys Isek Kingelez’s similarly intricate model cities, but while Kingelez’s Afro-Futurist designs envisaged a postcolonial utopia, Shani’s makes a speculative (and widely inclusive) feminist future out of the distant past.
Oscar Murillo’s papier-mâché models of working people are quite dystopian. Lined up on church pews, many of the open-mouthed figures have tubes protruding from their stomachs, filled with corn, presenting them as machines for consumption if not production. There is a video of Murillo transporting them on a train from his studio in London to Margate, recording the reactions of fellow passengers, and this context is more compelling, and congruous, than the one provided by the artist’s painted canvasses inspired by the cataracts that afflicted Claude Monet, and the ‘social blindness’ they apparently induced. Murillo’s models sit opposite a black sheet that covers most of the window onto the North Sea – a view that Turner famously painted. His installation strengthens this link between 19th-century British figurative art and the insular, anti-immigrant environment that led to, and has been worsened by the Brexit vote by including an 1883 painting, Lochaber no more, by John Watson Nicol, in the space. Nicol’s painting depicts an exhausted couple forced to move from Scotland to the US after the Highland clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries. Like the other works featured here, it reminds us that the roots of our current political crisis are broader and deeper than many pundits (or artists) seem to understand, and that the range of social issues that require urgent attention go far beyond Brexit.
Main image: Tai Shani, DC Semiramis, 2019, installation view, Turner Prize 2019 at Turner Contemporary. Courtesy: Turner Contemporary; photograph: David Levene
Juliet Jacques is a writer and filmmaker based in London, UK. Her most recent book, Trans: A Memoir, was published by Verso in 2015. She co-hosts Suite (212) on Resonance 104.4fm, which looks at the arts in their social, cultural, political and historical contexts.