Last month a modest media fanfare accompanied the opening of the exhibition for the 2022 Turner Prize at Tate Liverpool, featuring Heather Phillipson, Sin Wai Kin, Ingrid Pollard and Veronica Ryan. It felt like an attempt to return to business as usual after a difficult few years in which the relevance of the prize has been called into question. But it is a far cry from the prize’s heyday, when works such as Damien Hirst’s dissected cow and Tracey Emin’s unmade bed made headlines in every newspaper.
It has now been four years since the Turner had a single outright winner. In 2019 the four shortlisted artists petitioned the judges to be allowed to share the prize money equally as a statement of solidarity ‘at a time when there is already so much that divides us’. The following year the prize was cancelled due to the pandemic and replaced by artist bursaries and in 2021, with much of the art world still affected by lockdown, the jury shortlisted five artist collectives with socially engaged practices. The prize was won by Northern Ireland’s Array Collective.
Media interest and visitor numbers to the annual exhibitions have been on a downward trajectory for more than a decade. At the media preview last month the number of press in attendance was down significantly compared to the last time the prize was in Liverpool, in 2007, when a coachload of critics travelled from London. Writing in 2021, the Observer’s Laura Cumming expressed her exasperation when she wrote: ‘After the Turner’s long and rebarbative history… it would be good to see the prize finally implode.’
However, Alex Farquharson, director of Tate Britain and chair of the Turner Prize jury, believes the prize is still doing what it set out to do nearly 40 years ago: champion contemporary art and engage a broader public.
He said: “The pandemic tested the model somewhat, and there were innovations that I think were meaningful in those years. But longer term it does feel like the model is the right one. If you look at the Turner Prize’s history, it’s been impressive the extent to which it’s been able to acknowledge so many of the leading figures in British art in these decades.”
He continues: “I don’t think we’d still be doing the Turner Prize if there wasn’t such a strong interest in it continuing. Clearly the public interest is there and the interest from artists is there, because overwhelmingly they agree to participate. I think its continuing success, not least when it goes out of London, shows it has longevity.”
In 2021 the prize money increased again to £55,000 in total – £25,000 for the winner and £10,000 for each of the three shortlisted artists.
While adaptations during the pandemic were to be expected, it was the outcome of the 2019 prize which sent the biggest shockwaves into the Turner’s foundations. Tai Shani, Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Helen Cammock and Oscar Murillo questioned the fundamental notion of a prize when they argued that their work was ‘incompatible with the competition format, whose tendency is to divide and individualise’. The jury agreed to their request to split the prize equally.
Alex Farquharson says: “I think the artists posed it in a really serious and unusual way. I don’t think it provides the answer, and I don’t think it’s intended to. I suppose, more broadly, there’s competition in life. There’s also collectivism. They brought that into focus in quite an interesting way.”
The Turner Prize was launched by the Tate in 1984 to recognise the artist who has made ‘the greatest contribution to British art in the previous 12 months’. Artists are nominated on the basis of an outstanding exhibition, and it is largely on this (not on the Turner Prize exhibition itself) that the winner is decided.
For the first seven years, it remained relatively low key, the winners being artists who were already well established. Things changed in 1991, when Channel 4 came on board as a sponsor. The prize money increased, the process was streamlined and the prize was focussed on artists under 50. As fortune would have it, all this happened just in time for a new generation of emerging British artists who were getting ready to ride the wave of conceptual art all the way to international celebrity.
When Damien Hirst won the Turner Prize in 1995, presenting Mother and Child (Divided) – a cow and calf bisected and displayed in tanks of formaldehyde – at Tate Britain, the press went wild. They did so again in 1996 for 24-hour Psycho by Scot Douglas Gordon, the first video work to win, and for Chris Ofili’s paintings using elephant dung (1997). The 1999 shortlist brought Tracey Emin’s My Bed, an installation of a bed scattered with soiled underwear, cigarette ends and condoms, which did not win, although it did attract most of that year’s publicity.
The Young British Artists (YBAs) made contemporary art hip in a way that had never happened before. On the world stage Britannia was cool and the Turner Prize was at the centre of it. The glittering event itself was broadcast live on TV, with the prize presented by celebrities such as Madonna, Jude Law and Yoko Ono.
Tabloids fulminated when another Scot, Martin Creed, won in 2001 with Work No. 227: The Lights Go On And Off, an empty room in which light and dark alternated at timed intervals, while in 2003 Grayson Perry won with risqué pots and turned up to collect the prize in drag. When Tomma Abts won in 2006, headlines ran that – shock! horror! – a painter had won the Turner Prize.
Each year seemed to outdo the one before: Madonna swearing on live television before the watershed, two Chinese performance artists having a pillow fight on Emin’s bed, the Culture Minister Kim Howells dismissing the work as “cold, mechanical conceptualist bullshit”. None of this harmed the Midas touch of the prize, from which winners and shortlisted artists alike went on to art market success.
Looking back on that time, Alex Farquharson is philosophical, saying: “I think that reflected a very particular time in the recent history of art in this country. It was a unique moment when contemporary art and the media – perhaps most of all the tabloid media – came together. And a small number of artists were anticipating, baiting a likely tabloid response.”
He goes on: “What’s good about it is that it cast such a spotlight on contemporary art that the art world in this country has benefited ever since, even for artists whose work is very different in orientation. On the back of that there has been a huge and long-lasting public interest in art. However, like any great success story, it has also a downside. It has the potential for overshadowing other really interesting things that are going on.”
The legendary power of the Turner Prize to pull in punters far beyond the traditional niche audience for contemporary art is evident in Liverpool, according to Sarah James, senior curator at Tate Liverpool, who curated the Turner exhibition.
She says: “It’s really important for the city. There’s an excitement about it for everyone, from taxi drivers to shop assistants to bar staff. If you’ve got taxi drivers debating Turner Prize nominees, that’s brilliant.”
The Turner Prize will be announced on December 7 and broadcast live on BBC television.