In Review

Turner Prize 2021: the ‘worthiest’ and ‘also, perhaps, the worst’ edition yet?

Herbert Art Gallery show features work by five fashionable ‘collectives’ committed to various social causes

The decline of the Turner Prize “has been one of the unhappiest sights of my spell as an art critic”, said Waldemar Januszczak in The Sunday Times. Back in its 1990s “heyday”, Britain’s most prestigious modern art award was “annually annoying”, but it “provided us with a summary of what was actually happening in British art”; and it gave us a winner we could argue about.

In recent years it has been reduced to drivel. “As evidence, I give you the Turner Prize 2021, an event so manipulated and phoney it makes 1980s pro wrestling look real.”

The curators have decided that the best art produced in Britain in the past year has, by “a miraculous coincidence”, all been done by five fashionable “collectives” committed to various social causes. Black Obsidian Sound System, for instance, is a London group which explores dance music culture through the eyes of the black LGBTQ community; Hastings’s Project Art Works encourages people with autism and Alzheimer’s to make art; the Array Collective from Belfast create “collaborative actions” on “sociopolitical issues”.

Worthy as these causes are, they do not make for great art, or even any kind of art. Instead, we have a series of hectoring, amateurish displays narrated in impenetrable art-speak. This Turner Prize “is an insult to the realities of art and the reason for its existence”.

The Turner seems on the point of imploding, agreed Laura Cumming in The Observer. Several participants even point out “that they are not artists but ministers, youth workers, civil rights leaders, conflict resolution trainers”. Cardiff-based Gentle/Radical, for instance, “are less art collective than local group therapy”. Their show consists of several screens playing footage of “singing groups, self-care groups and uplifting adages”. Whatever this collective does, it can “hardly be displayed in a gallery”.

It’s not all terrible, said Mark Hudson in The Independent. Cooking Sections, a collective who create installations exploring the realities of the global food industry, field a “beguiling” display examining the environmental impact of Scottish salmon farming: eight circles of light are projected onto the gallery floor, representing the pens in which the fish are farmed, “rotating, decomposing and reconfiguring themselves” in mesmeric motion. It will persuade you never to eat farmed salmon again.

It’s by far the best thing here, agreed Alastair Sooke in The Daily Telegraph. Yet when the competition is so “dreary and irrelevant”, who cares? The fault lies with the judges, who appear to believe that “their input is, itself, a quasi-artistic act”. This is the “worthiest” and “also, perhaps, the worst” edition of the Turner Prize yet.

Herbert Art Gallery, Coventry (024-7623 7521, theherbert.org). Until 12 January 2022

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