Started in 1984, the Turner Prize is named after the British painter JMW Turner (1775-1851), more of him later. It is an award presented annually to a visual artist born in or based in Great Britain in recognition of an outstanding exhibition of his or her work. It is considered the highest honour in the British art world, though the winner is often controversial. High profile winners in the past include Anish Kapoor, Grayson Perry, Damien Hirst and Steve McQueen. Originating at Tate Britain, the Prize now travels out of London in alternate years to other venues in the UK. This year the Tate at Liverpool’s Albert Docks was hosting it.
The Albert Docks area down on the river front has over the years I have been visiting established itself as one of the better tourist attractions in the port. A complex of dock buildings and warehouses opened in 1846, and was the first structure in Britain to be built from cast iron, brick and stone, with no structural wood becoming the first non-combustible warehouse system in the world.
It was revolutionary in its design as ships were loaded and unloaded directly from or to the warehouses. The dock became a popular store for valuable cargoes such as brandy, cotton, tea, silk, tobacco, ivory and sugar. However, within 50 years, larger and more open docks were required.
The complex was damaged during WW2 air raids on Liverpool. With the general decline of docking it finally closed in 1972. After ten years of dereliction, the redevelopment of the dock began in 1981, when the Merseyside Development Corporation was set up, with the Albert Dock being officially re-opened in 1984 as a tourist and retail attraction. The retail side has not prospered but now bars and restaurants complement the cultural scene. Whatever, it represents the great prosperity of the Port Of Liverpool in the last two centuries.
In the 1980s it was decided to create a ‘Tate of the North’. This would be a gallery dedicated to showing modern art and encouraging a new, younger audience. First The Maritime Museum moved in then in 1985, James Stirling was commissioned to design the new Tate Gallery. His designs left the exterior of the building almost untouched, but transformed the interior into an arrangement of simple, elegant galleries suitable for the display of modern art. It opened to the public in May 1988.
Coming full circle 2008 marked the year Liverpool was named European Capital of Culture. To celebrate this, in 2007 the gallery hosted the Turner Prize, the first time the competition was held outside London. A major step forward for art in the provinces. It is back here after 15 years and that is why I was in Liverpool on a wild January day.
The waterfront had a wintery Venetian atmosphere, I walked past the tacky outlets selling Beatles and LFC paraphernalia to enter the Tate at the far end. Lovely scouse accents greeted me, directing me to the top floor for the four selected Turner Prize exhibits.
Each was on a large scale, well presented in the spacious galleries. The four were Heather Phillipson, Ingrid Pollard, Veronica Ryan and Sin Wai Kin. To be honest I had not come across any of them. Have you?
First up was Heather Phillipson, a room full of delights. Multimedia – videos, music sounds, sculptural installations – all coming at you from different directions. Complex and absurd, nothing is what it seems and there is a sense of menace – in the artist’s words “all may be on the verge of collapse” The video of clouds and swans had me entranced whilst in the background all sorts of clanking noises were going on.
I felt a little let down with Veronica Ryan. Maybe it was too complex for me. “There’s a kind of subtle autobiographical component to the work, and the jury feel that she’s extending the language of modern contemporary sculpture in new and subtle ways,” The room was a quiet space with salvaged articles brought to life and references to her Caribbean upbringing and even the Covid crisis.
Next up was the lively Sin Wai Kin. He has created a fictional world of his own with characters exploring commercialism, racism and sexuality. All shown with cardboard cut-outs, videos and music. Very disturbing to my sheltered upbringing, a complicated mesh of relationships vividly portrayed.
Lastly, but not least, Ingrid Pollard. Again of Caribbean heritage who has been photographing scenes since childhood. Her racial differences in our culture always fascinated her and her present exhibition reflects that. Photographs of ‘Black’ people within our British culture form one space. In the other is the moving ‘Bow Down and Very Low’ which centres around a young girl from a film screenshot combined with a kinetic installation of mechanical bowing. “We share some things in common and that’s the beginning of the conversation“.
So who won, well the judges decided upon Veronica Ryan. Their decision would have been influenced by her recent Windrush dedicated installation in Hackney, tropical fruits for all to enjoy. The prize is for the latest works of the artist not necessarily just the Tate exhibition.
A break was needed in the friendly café.
The nineteenth-century artist J.M.W. Turner( 1775 – 1851) was a figure who had been innovative and controversial in his own day. Today he is considered to be one of the greatest British artists. Turner, himself, had wanted to establish a prize for young artists, so it was fitting to name the prize after him. At the moment Tate Liverpool is also hosting an exhibition of some of his seascapes alongside an auditory interpretation by Lamin Tofana. Dark Waters. That’s where I was heading next.
There are two rooms showing Turner’s sketches and finished paintings accompanied by the music of Lamin.
Turner had a long-lasting fascination with the sea, the ships that sailed it and the dangers they encountered. He was influenced by notable sailing disasters of the time and also the links to the slave transportation prevalent in the C18/19th. Liverpool was of course a major seaport in those days.
Lamin Fofana, an electronic music producer and DJ, was born in Sierra Leone and lived in Guinea before moving to the United States in his early teens to escape the civil war. Lamin’s music reflects the diversity of his upbringing. Complex and otherworldly, his music reflects immigrants struggle to define their place in a new environment through creative expression.
On display are some of Turner’s sketch books, he never travelled without one. The sketches are exquisite – a few lines depicting the power of the oceans. There are more of his finished sketches framed on the walls, all capturing the moods of the water. And then there were about a dozen of his most famous oils. Time to stand and stare, and marvel at his artistry capturing light and movement. All the while in the background were Lamin’s hauntingly evocative sounds.
Gazing out of the window was a scene worthy of a Turner sketch, the River Mersey being whipped up in the strong winds. All enhanced by Lamin’s music.
There was much more to view at the Tate, but my two main objectives had been fulfilled, and they had both exceeded my expectations. Time to hit the motorway before the traffic builds.