On Monday, at a ceremony from Glasgow’s Tramway which was broadcast live on Channel 4, the architectural collective Assemble won the Turner Prize 2015.
Assemble are a loose collective of eighteen young artists, designers, and architects, who began working together in 2010 and share a studio in east London. They received their nomination for the Granby Four Streets project in Toxteth, part of inner city Liverpool.
The Granby Four Streets are a cluster of red-brick terraced houses which were bought by the council after the Toxteth riots in 1981, and subsequently fell into a state of disrepair. Over the past decade, local residents who had resisted plans for demolition have cleaned up the area, gardening and painting houses, organising a monthly market, and founding the Granby Four Streets Community Land Trust.
Working with these residents and Steinbeck Studios, Assemble developed a sustainable vision for the site including refurbished housing, public spaces, and opportunities for work and enterprise. This is typical of Assemble’s approach, which finds the collective engaging with local communities, promoting direct action, and embracing a DIY sensibility in projects which show sensitivity for the cultural and architectural heritage of a place. Some of their other endeavours include the Baltic Street Adventure Playground in Dalmarnock, east Glasgow, and Sugarhouse Studios on Stratford High Street.
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The shortlist for this year’s Turner Prize was announced back in May. In addition to Assemble, Bonnie Camplin was nominated for The Military Industrial Complex, which exhibited between 14-15 June 2014 at South London Gallery. The live installation took the form of a study room, which contained five television sets displaying interviews with people who claim to have experienced paranormal activity; books and leaflets on topics including physics, philosophy, psychology, witchcraft, quantum theory, and warfare; and a photocopier available for visitors to use.
Camplin is currently a lecturer at Goldsmiths College. Her work has covered the disciplines of drawing, performance art, film, music, and writing. Her practise seeks to explore the ‘myth-science of energy and consciousness research’ through a focus on subjective experience, with The Military Industrial Complex an attempt to navigate ‘consensus reality’.
Janice Kerbel was nominated for her operatic work entitled DOUG, which was commissioned by the Glasgow visual arts organisation The Common Guild, and given a one-off performance in May 2014 in the Jeffrey Room at Mitchell Library. DOUG is a composition for unaccompanied voice, with six singers chronicling a sequence of nine catastrophic events endured by a single individual. Kerbel’s art has comprised audio recordings, performances, and printed matter.
And Nicole Wermers was nominated for her exhibition Infrastruktur, at London’s Herald Street art space earlier this year from 28 February until 12 April. Werner creates sculptures, collages, and installations which consider the intersections between art and design and consumer culture. Infrastruktur consisted of chairs by the Hungarian modernist designer Marcel Breuer, with fur coats sewn onto the frames, as Wermers contemplated themes of lifestyle, class, consumption, and control.
The four shortlisted artists took part in the Turner Prize 2015 exhibition from the start of October, at Tramway: an international art venue housed in an old Glasgow tram depot, with theatre and exhibition spaces, studios, a dance atelier, and a cafe. The complex also adjoins the Hidden Gardens sanctuary and the headquarters of Scottish Ballet. The nominees reconfigured their works for the setting, with Kerbel’s 24-minute opera performed at regular intervals, and Wermers offering an arrangement of ten dining chairs and sewn fur coats.
‘We’re really keen to use the platform of the Turner Prize to set up a new social enterprise, which makes products for homes. So for the show we’ve built a showroom for these products. They’re not art-world prices. They’re priced based on how much they cost to make. They’re made by hand in Liverpool. It’s not going to be £10,000 for a doorknob.’
The Turner Prize was established in 1984, by a group called the Patrons of New Art, formed to purchase contemporary artworks for the Tate’s collection. Named after J. M. W. Turner, one of Britain’s best loved artists for his Romantic landscapes in oil and watercolour, the prize has been administered by the Tate ever since.
It is now awarded each year to ‘a British artist under fifty for an outstanding exhibition or other presentation of their work in the twelve months preceding’. Boasting a total prize fund of £40,000, the winner receives £25,000 with £5,000 for each of the other shortlisted artists.
Originally the shortlisted nominees exhibited their work at Tate Britain in London, before the announcement of the winner in December. But in recent years the presentation has alternated with venues outside of London. 2015 marked the first time that the exhibition and award ceremony have taken place in Scotland.
The prize is judged by an independent jury that changes annually. With Alex Farquharson, the new Director of Tate Britain, serving as the jury’s chair, this year the other jury members were Alistair Hudson, Director of Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art; Jan Verwoert, a prominent art critic and curator; Joanna Mytkowska, Director of Warsaw Museum of Modern Art; and Kyla McDonald, Artistic Director of Glasgow Sculpture Studios.
The Turner Prize is one of the world’s eminent awards for contemporary art. While it has been the subject of controversy in the past – Damien Hirst’s bisected cow and calf in 1995 and Tracey Emin’s unmade bed in 1999 continue to define the popular conception of the award in the United Kingdom, though Emin’s My Bed in fact lost out to a video by the director Steve McQueen – the prize has also consolidated the careers of some of the country’s most respected artists, including Anish Kapoor, Rachel Whiteread, and Antony Gormley.
In recent years the prize has taken a more restrained, art historical approach. However this year’s shortlist, and the eventual success of Assemble, has significantly divided opinion. On the announcement of the shortlist in May, jury member Alistair Hudson commended the four socially conscious nominees, suggesting that they are representative of British art as it increasingly exists today:
‘This is what’s happening. It is working away from art as entertainment. These are artists working in very specific circumstances to make something happen, to make something change. It’s very positive for the future of art – they are trying to do something rather than just represent something.
If you ask me personally to say what are the most interesting, vibrant things going on in the art world now, I’d say they are the ones that are addressing real situations and actually trying to take part in the world’
Meanwhile outgoing Director of Tate Britain Penelope Curtis said:
‘I think the prize has become more serious. It has lost some of the sensational aspects it had earlier, and that’s good. In the early days one of the aims was to increase the quality of discussion about contemporary art and I think it has – it’s not so simplistic any more. These artists are posing questions that are hard for all of us.’
‘If last year’s edition at Tate Britain was a low point, the 2015 version at Tramway in Glasgow is a high the prize hasn’t reached for a long time. To be clear, we’re a million miles away from the shock-n-gawp of the YBA years, or the inward looking, art-history obsessed efforts of more recent incarnations.
This is the least egotistical, knowing, in-jokey Turner Prize I’ve seen. All four exhibits – three by women, the other by a design collective – are intelligent investigations and observations about the shortcomings and overlooked elements of our everyday lives.’
And the exhibition’s co-curator Paul Pieroni remarked on a diverse and experimental award, noting of today’s celebrated art:
This year is also a interesting year because of the number of female artists nominated, and because Assemble are nominated, which is a collective whose background isn’t explicitly in contemporary art production. It feels like the prize is experimenting a little… both in terms of the medium and in terms of the nominees.’
But the exhibition itself was met with several querulous reviews, as critics questioned the categorisation of Assemble’s architecture and Kerbel’s music as ‘art’. And after the announcement of the winner on Channel 4, author and broadcaster Muriel Gray said:
‘I think it’s changed the nature of the Turner Prize because I don’t think it is modern art. I think it’s socially responsible, beautiful architecture. But it’s a very peculiar year.’
Accepting the prize, Assemble member Joseph Halligan admitted:
‘I think it’s safe to say this nomination was a surprise to all of us and the last six months have been a super-surreal experience. But it’s allowed us this amazing opportunity to start something – Granby Workshop – which we hope will live on for a very, very, very long time. We’re really really grateful. Thank you.’