Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 23 May 2019

The Turner Prize nominee list asks uncomfortable questions about the bounds within which artists should operate

In a world of unblinking, 24-hour news coverage, is there a place for art that uses documentary details of real human suffering?

The artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan has been nominated for the Turner Prize. Roberto Chamorro / The Armory Show
The artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan has been nominated for the Turner Prize. Roberto Chamorro / The Armory Show

Since prehistoric times, human beings have been compelled to create art in order to record the realities of their lives. The first known examples of this, preserved on cave walls in France and Indonesia, date back up to 50,000 years. Illustrating the creatures they hunted, or those that hunted them, the first artists had a simple, documentary purpose: “This is what our world looks like.”

This motivation persisted for millennia. An uninterrupted line can be drawn from the Paleolithic cave paintings to the landscapes, portraits and historic and religious tableaux of more recent centuries. Each, in its own way, left a record of a transient moment in human existence.

Then along came Pablo Picasso – or, more precisely, his mould-breaking 1937 painting Guernica. A brutal, monochrome montage of the horrors inflicted on a Basque village by German and Italian fascist bombers during the Spanish civil war, it is considered by many critics to have been, if not the first, then certainly the most powerful and influential indictment of human behaviour in art history.

Overnight, art’s job description changed. The documentary approach gave way to commentary, to making us think. Ever since, artists have been striving – some would say straining – to ask uncomfortable questions and to shock us with the new.

In truth, as this year’s Turner Prize shortlist confirms, there is nothing much new to be said about the human condition, and few fresh ways in which to say it. Since its inauguration in 1984, this award has long lost its ability to shock, and each year strives ever harder to rediscover it, with predictable results.

Originally established to draw attention to contemporary British art, the prize has seen and rewarded it all, from a concrete cast of the inside of a house to a pickled shark and an unmade bed. What it hasn’t seen very often – curiously, for a prize named after one of Britain’s most famous traditional landscape painters – is paintings.

What it has seen this year, however, in the work of one of the four shortlisted artists announced last week, is art that, for some, will ask uncomfortable questions, not so much about the human condition as about the bounds within which artists should operate.

There will, of course, be those who say that art and artists should know no restrictions, that artistic expression is the ultimate necessary liberty and is to be protected at all costs. But is there a point at which the use of images and themes rooted in individual contemporary suffering crosses a line?

Three of the four Turner shortlisters are pretty much business as usual.

Tai Shani, whose preferred medium is a baffling blend of surreal installations and theatrical performances, examines "feminine subjectivity and experience through a gothic/science-fiction lens”.

Art is not charity, any more than artists are qualified counsellors

Helen Cammock “explores social histories through film, photography, print, text and performance”, focusing in particular on the role of women in the Northern Ireland civil rights movement.

Oscar Murillo uses painting, performance, sculpture and sound to “reflect on his own experience of displacement and the social fallout of globalisation”.

But, for me, it is the work of the fourth nominee, the London-trained, Beirut-based Jordanian artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan, that generates genuine pause for thought.

Mr Abu Hamdan has been shortlisted for a sound installation based on interviews with former detainees at a regime prison in Syria where, according to Amnesty International, as many as 13,000 people were hanged between 2011 and 2015.

In the installation, the recollections of the former detainees are interspersed with re-enacted whispers of their testimony. The artist is reported to have used sound effects to help six survivors to “recall their audio memories, to map the unknown architecture of the prison and to understand what happened there”.

It might seem obtuse to take issue with Mr Abu Hamdan’s work. After all, he worked on his installation with Amnesty International, a collaboration that has led him to give evidence as an “ear-witness” at asylum hearings in the UK.

But art is not charity, any more than artists are qualified counsellors. At the end of the day, contemporary art is a very big business, and any artist nominated for the Turner prize stands to make a great deal of money, far beyond the £25,000 first prize.

We live in a world of unblinking, 24-hour media coverage that leaves no example of human suffering unexamined. The horrors visited upon the civilian population of Syria throughout the course of that country’s civil war are widely known.

When Guernica was unveiled in the Spanish pavilion at the Paris International Exposition in 1937, it drew the world’s attention to the tragedy of the republic’s losing battle with fascism and presaged the nightmare of the global conflict that was about to unfold.

Today, can work such as Mr Abu Hamdan’s really be said, as the director of Tate Britain has claimed, to “foreground voices that have perhaps been marginalised”?

Contemporary art in general, and the Turner Prize in particular, has long lost the ability to shock a world immune to its excesses or those of reality, and largely functions within a bubble of its own. As such, it is doubtful that the work of any of this year’s Turner nominees will survive the next 50,000 years.

Updated: May 8, 2019 12:22 PM

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