Turner Prize 2016: Helen Marten is a worthy winner - but she's not the people's choice

Sculptor Helen Marten
Sculptor Helen Marten Credit: Juergen Teller

Artist Helen Marten has won Britain’s leading contemporary art award, the £25,000 Turner Prize, with a collection of sculptural installations involving baffling assortments of found and specially fabricated objects. In Parrot Problems, a doll’s house, or I think that’s what it is, projects from what looks like a cross between an industrially scaled deep-fat frier and a Seventies photocopier. Shells and pieces of snakeskin sit beside bits of drain-pipe, which on closer inspection have been hand-made and glazed. This is art at its most erudite, though you perhaps have to be the sort of person who reads linguistic philosophy for pleasure – as Marten does – to get the point.

This is a widely predicted ending to the most hotly debated Turner Prize competition of recent times – perhaps since Damien Hirst won the award with a collection of animals pickled in formaldehyde in 1995.

Marten's Parrot Problems Credit: Getty 

Last year’s event, won by the architectural collective Assemble, was afflicted by a particular sense of apathy and torpor. But from the announcement of this year’s shortlist – Michael Dean, Anthea Hamilton, Marten and Josephine Pryde – it was apparent that here was work of real quality that signalled a decisive movement forward from the sensation-led art of the so-called YBA era. Marten’s brand of inscrutable three-dimensional collage represents a new aesthetic inspired by the random cultural associations thrown up by the internet age.

Tate Britain visitors view Helen Marten's collection of works 'Lunar Nibs' and 'Eucalyptus Let Us In'  Credit: EPA

Two front runners rapidly emerged in what has felt like a neck-and-neck competition, and one that has oddly mirrored the tensions of the world at large – between what is favoured by the so-called elite, and what is chosen by the people. Firstly there was Marten, 30, the youngest, but best known of the four, who has been a figure-to-watch since she graduated from Oxford’s Ruskin School of Drawing.

Helen Marten and her installation Brood and Bitter Pass Credit: PA

The darling of curators and critics, she won the first Hepworth Prize for Sculpture, last month and felt very much the art insider’s choice. In the other corner, was Michael Dean, 39, the plucky outsider, whose work is gritty and messy in contrast to Marten’s antiseptic tidiness, with an installation centred on a huge mound of loose change, totalling £20,436, the minimum designated by the government for a family of four to live on.

This is the exhibition’s sole attempt at social comment, and has won him the voluble support of gallery goers who have stuck their opinions on post-it notes, at Tate’s invitation, on the walls outside the exhibition.

Marten's Limpet Apology

It could be argued that the judges have erred slightly on the side of academic safeness in giving the award to Marten rather than Dean, but hers is without doubt a worthy win. She is an artist of distinctive intelligence and a fierce, thought-provoking wit, who can justifiably be called the artist of the moment.