Turner Prize 2018: radical in medium, political in message
I hear a girl next to me saying “I feel sleepy”. I feel with her, it’s been more than two hours and I don’t even seem to be half way through the show. More than sleepy, I feel dreamy. This year’s nominees of the Turner Prize share the same medium and work with film. The length follows the format, so if you would like to watch all or most of it, be prepared to spend at least a couple of hours in there. I went feeling ambiguous towards the idea of having a Turner Prize exhibition turned into a cinema, but I cannot deny the fact that these are some of the most ambitious, timely works I’ve seen in a while.
The first one I watch is Charlotte Prodger’s thirty-minute long film BRIDGIT (2016), entirely shot on her iPhone. It’s an intersection of scenic Scottish landscapes with ancient stones, a ferry, as well as her personal home footage; her cat and a cherry tree, which she passes every day on her way to the studio. Prodger’s voice narrates throughout the film, tells her personal stories; of coming out, working in a care home, being mistaken for a man and going in and out of anaesthetics. In this slow-paced, lyrical work, she goes back to the Neolithic age to discuss how we form our identity in 2018.
From there, I move to the Forensic Architecture. Their exhibition The Long Duration of a Split Second combines two projects. In the film for the first one, Killing in Umm al-Hiran, one hears elevated voices shouting while the policemen raid the village of Negev/Naqab. As a result, two people are killed, a Bedouin teacher and an Israeli policeman. Post-event, the former is called a terrorist. The second investigation, Traces of Bedouin Inhabitation, challenges Israeli authorities’ claims that the same territory was never historically a site of inhabitation for Bedouin settlements.
Forensic Architecture investigates allegations of states and violence with the means of modern technology; often by comparing amateur footage with other material - be it Al Jazeera photos, 3D models of the scene, archival evidence or digital simulations - and very often they manage to prove the official versions of events wrong.
In Two Meetings and a Funeral (2017), Naeem Mohaiemen tells a story of the almost-forgotten Non-Aligned Movement, a group of third-world countries which attempted to create an opposition to the West and the Soviet Bloc, a symbolic take on the socialist upheaval among Asian-African countries. The documentary explores that moment of upheaval and optimism among these countries, but the sense of dissolution and an upcoming failure hangs in the air throughout its duration.
The protagonist of his second film, Tripoli Cancelled (2017), played by Iranian-Greek actor Vassilis Koukalani, is a middle-aged man in a beige suit. He is wandering around an abandoned airport among the rubble, broken glass and abandoned boarding passes. It is not entirely clear what is his identity (it is only suggested when he attempts to phone home to Dhaka, Bangladesh). Quite unexpectedly, what begins merely as a well-filmed work slowly evolves into a contemplative visual essay about alienation and suspension between the point of departure and destination.
The room showcasing Luke Willis Thompson’s trilogy is the one where no sound apart from an ongoing film loop can be heard. It begins with Cemetery of Uniforms and Liveries (2016), in which he portrays two descendants of women killed by police in their homes in 1985 and 1993. The men, each face lit differently, are looking straight at the camera and confront the viewer with their gaze. The film is very static, the only observable movement is that of chests moving in the rhythm of their breaths. The second is Autoportrait (2017) of Diamond Reynolds, shot in 3/4 format corresponding to Renaissance portraiture. Reynolds became a public figure after live streaming the shooting and death of her boyfriend on Facebook in 2016. She is slightly turned, avoiding the viewer’s gaze, and later on, she is singing. There is no sound, this is her moment of privacy. The ultimate film, Human (2018), is a close-up footage of the last, ephemeral work of Donald Rodney (1961-1998), who suffered from a sickle cell anaemia. It is a small house made out of Rodney’s skin, put together with dressmaker’s pins and cellophane tape. Thompson gained permission to video it with the use of highly specialised macro lenses and the magnified image is a reflection which closes this trilogy with a contemplation of one’s sense of identity and the fragility of human life.
Thompson’s work was quickly accused of making a ‘spectacle’ out of black suffering, but perhaps there is more to it than it. Perhaps by creating a void between the viewer and the trilogy’s subjects, he points out to the impossibility of feeling into another person’s suffering and defines the limits of empathy.
This year’s winner will be announced during a ceremony on the 4th of December. The line up is very strong, and as usual, it doesn’t really matter who wins. Whoever that is, the 2018 edition of the Turner Prize will go down in history as one with a very strong agenda.
On view until 6 January 2019
Millbank, Westminster, London SW1P 4RG