Turner Prize 2016 shortlist: Big buttocks, a big toy train and a return to sculpture (of sorts)

Anthea Hamilton: Project for Door (After Gaetano Pesce), installation view, SculptureCenter, 2015
Anthea Hamilton: Project for Door (After Gaetano Pesce), installation view, SculptureCenter, 2015  Credit: Courtesy the artist. Photo: Kyle Knodell/Courtesy the artist. Photo: Kyle Knodell

Tonight the 2016 Turner Prize will be awarded to one of the shortlisted artists: Anthea Hamilton, Michael Dean, Helen Marten and Josephine Pryde, who will win £25,000. 

The prize goes to the British artist under 50 who judges consider put on the best exhibition in the preceding year.

Sit down before you read this, but the shortlist for this year’s Turner Prize is offering what looks very like the return of sculpture. This isn’t, I hasten to add, sculpture in the Michelangelo or Henry Moore sense, but wilfully complex, elliptical work that is out to subvert the way we see the physical world around us. The artists have been shortlisted for works including an 18-foot-high doorway blocked by an enormous pair of male buttocks and a sofa with a chunk of concrete dumped on it. But after years of Turner Prize art dominated by conceptual art, sound art, archive art and film art, in which the exhibitions of short-listed work offered us precious little we could actually look at this is at least art that is composed of physical stuff – form, space, colour and manipulated materials.

In recent years Britain’s most lucrative art award - £40,000 to artists under 50 – seems to have lost its capacity to shock. Classic public-baiting works such as Damien Hirst’s bisected sheep in formaldehyde (1995) and Martin Creed’s Lights Going On and Off (2001), now feel like ancient history. Last year’s prize, in a nadir for the award and arguably for British art, was given to a group of architects, Assemble, largely it seemed, because they were well intentioned. This year’s shortlist, however, startles, not so much through outrageous imagery or an appearance of taking the viewer for a ride, but because it signals a return to the fundamentals of art. It may be as trickily post-conceptual as anything else thrown up by the award, but one way or another it is visual art that is actually visual.

Michael Dean's Installation view of Sic Glyphs 2016 Credit: Andy Keate

Michael Dean, 38 and originally from Newcastle, the only male among the four, makes inscrutable large-scale installations with what might be taken for bits of building waste – concrete, reinforcing steel and DIY hardware – placed in unfathomable juxtapositions. Dean, we are told, is preoccupied with the interconnectedness of public and private space.

Michael Dean's Installation view of Sic Glyphs 2016 Credit: Andy Keate

In a piece from his nominated exhibition at the south London Gallery, a large piece of concrete sits on top of a sofa from the artist’s own sitting room, with a book of photos of the artist’s wife sitting on the sofa placed on top. By tearing a page from the book the viewer is, we understand taking a piece of the artist’s domestic world into their own private space.

Anthea Hamilton: Brick Suit Credit: Kyle Knodell

Londoner Anthea Hamilton, 37, nominated for her exhibition Lichen! Libido! Chastity! At Sculpture Centre New York, is a kind of updated surrealist who brings diverse and often bizarrely unlikely existing imagery, from Japanese Kabuki theatre to John Travolta, into vibrant and challenging installations. Her monumental buttock-doorway Project for Door (After Gaetano Pesce) is derived from an unrealised work by the great Italian architect-designer Pesce, originally intended for a New York apartment block. Discovering a working model for the piece, Hamilton decided to build it herself in a classic example of “appropriation” (some might have a less polite word for it) in contemporary art.

Helen Marten: Limpet Apology (traffic tenses) Credit: Courtesy of the artist and Greene Naftali, New York. Photo: Annik Wetter

Helen Marten , 30, London-based, but originally from Macclesfield, has been a name to watch for a good five years for her whimsically sophisticated 3D collages. Like Dean and Hamilton, she brings things together rather than making them from scratch and her cool, wry works are even more elusive and difficult to quantify than theirs.

Night-blooming genera by Helen Marten Credit: Courtesy of the artist and Greene Naftali, New York. Photo: Annik Wetter

A work from her short-listed exhibition Lunar Nibs at the Venice Biennale consists of what looks like a load of washing up bundled into a long fish-like shape and suspended from a shelf. Bits of what might be dolls houses are juxtaposed with bits of plumbing hardware and discarded machinery in what is effectively conceptual art that just happens to take a very tangible physical form.

Lapses in Thinking By the Person I Am  by Josephine Pryde Credit: Johnna Arnold

Josephine Pryde, 49, based in London and Berlin, but hailing originally from Alnwick Northumberland, and the second North-Easterner among the four, shortlisted for her solo exhibition at CCA Wattis San Francisco. While her work is essentially photographic it is presented alongside sculptural elements.

Josephine Pryde: Für Mich 2

There’s an evident physicality and sensuality to works such as her series It’s Not My Body, which superimposes MRI scans of foetuses in the womb onto desert landscapes using tinted filters. They sound like they’d make fantastic Pink Floyd album covers.

The Turner Prize 2016 nominees (from top left, clockwise): Michael Dean, Helen Marten, Josephine Pryde and Anthea Hamilton

So there’s still much in the Turner Prize for people who think art should “look like something”. But if you like the sound of art that makes you think with a rich and diverse use of materials and imagery, there’s plenty to look forward to in this year’s Turner Prize exhibition.

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