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For the first time in years, the Turner Prize display feels like a real exhibition, with themes, conversations and an overarching vision, rather than a rabble of random competing egos. Elegantly choreographed at Tate Britain, the subject is sculpture, and the works are figurative, raucously physical and frequently funny.
Anthea Hamilton has crafted an 18ft door in the shape of bulging polyurethane foam buttocks. Helen Marten’s Gothic dolls’ house, adorned with snakeskin, bones and stuffed insects, doubles as a faux waste system. Josephine Pryde has invited graffiti artists to deface a miniature passenger train. Michael Dean creates anthropomorphised hieroglyphs in calligraphic concrete, steel and corrugated metal. The tone is urban, aggressive, cryptic; every object challenges us not just to decipher it but to tease out its ambivalences within what Marten calls “our vast grey milkshake of information”.
Marten, 30, youngest yet best known of the four (she is also shortlisted for this year’s inaugural Hepworth Prize for Sculpture), opens the show with three tableaux of hybrid made and found pieces boasting Joycean titles. The Gothic mansion, loosely referencing the domain of labour, is called “Lunar Nibs”. “On aerial greens (haymakers)” is a fireplace sporting pair of lungs; above run screen prints on suede and leather of stars and swirls, below is a bed on which recline stitched fabric legs, shoe soles, pipe tubing, limes, marbles: stand-ins for body parts at rest, realms of leisure, imagination. This stands back to back with “Brood and Bitter Pass”, a horizontal sculpture of spun aluminium forms, wooden ellipsoids and mechanical joints: a spaceship perhaps, or a serpent. The giant woven knots imitate sacred Japanese shimenawa ropes: so, conjuring the spirit world.
What do Marten’s faintly eroticised intricacies say, other than slow down, embrace complexity? What does Finnegans Wake say? “I love the process of dragging legibility into a crisis,” Marten comments. “The more you look at one object, the more of the world you see in it.” She is a philosopher of small things, subtle, understated, strange.
Hamilton, 37, in the next room, is a flamboyant contrast. Against trompe l’oeil red-brick wallpaper, that giant backside-door — a parody of guarded doorways to luxury apartment blocks — dominates her presentation, which is called “Lichen! Libido! (London!) Chastity!” and turns on barriers, borders and exclusions. There is a suit in brick fabric, stainless steel chastity belts engraved with art nouveau motifs from Paris Metro entrances, and thigh-high boots encrusted with lichen or fabricated in alabaster, referring to early modern abstract sculptures. Fashion, pop, design and art history: Hamilton collapses the lot in deeply researched but intellectually light excavations of modernism’s legacy.
Border zones — political, social, of the body — are also Pryde’s subject. Pryde, 49, was shortlisted for a San Francisco show called lapses in Thinking By the person i Am, where visitors rode a toy train past close-up photographs of manicured hands touching iPhones, pens and screens. At Tate the gimmick-train, retitled “The New Media Express in a Temporary Siding (Baby Wants to Ride)”, is sadly stationary, and the photographs slight. It is a reserved, low-key installation that never takes off.
Dean, 38, grounds you in his sensually evocative building site of fences, chains, wiry body fragments, limbs-as-barricades and casts of his children’s fists, all centred around a mound of coins — £20,436 in pennies, denoting the UK poverty line for a family of four. But this explicitly political artist combines dense, industrial materiality with possibilities of the immaterial. His installation is dotted with the sort of stickers plastered in phone booths advertising fun (“4 S HORE”) or business (“Shoring & Shores”). “Shore” is a recurring idea for Dean, whose starting point is always words or invented signs. With his phrase “the llliterature of all our lllitter” he out-Joyces Marten; like her he considers how “word”, or object, becomes “world” through sculptural connections.
“All shores describe touching,” he says. “Everything is failing and falling, everything is broken and in identifying those materials which we somehow know and understand and that are there, I feel like as the artist I can evaporate just long enough for them, for you, to feel like it actually matters that you’ve walked in through the door.” It does, and I hope he wins the prize.
Turner Prize 2016, Tate Britain, September 27-January 2, tate.org.uk