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The Turner Prize

Novembre 2019
È il premio d’arte contemporanea più prestigioso del Regno Unito, che prende il nome dal più grande pittore romantico inglese, e che da decenni è circondato da un alone di polemiche. Verrà consegnato il prossimo 3 dicembre.

di Amanda August

File audio:

'Mother and Child Divided' by Damien Hirst
'Mother and Child Divided' by Damien Hirst
'My Bed' by Tracey Emin (1998)
'My Bed' by Tracey Emin (1998)

Speaker: Daniel Francis (British accent)

The Turner Prize was established in 1984 with the principal goal of encouraging wider interest in contemporary art. This prominent event in British culture is one of the best-known prizes for visual arts worldwide, and it has consistently provoked debate on how art is defined and how it reflects contemporary society.


The prize had its heyday during the 1990s when its most controversial artworks were exhibited. Rachel Whiteread’s solid concrete cast of a house standing on a road in East London won the prize in 1993. The actual houses on the street had been demolished by the local council as part of the extensive redevelopment of the area. The work was praised for being a commentary on the housing difficulties of working-class British people, while it was also criticised by others who described it as a “monstrosity.” In 1995, the overall reaction to Damien Hirst’s Mother and Child Divided — a cow and a calf bisected and suspended in formaldehyde-filled glass tanks — was shock. Four years later, Tracey Emin’s My Bed became one of the most notorious works in the Turner Prize’s history, even though it did not win the prize. Inspired by a depressive period in the artist’s life, the work visually represented four days in bed, where she consumed only alcohol.


One of the fiercest criticisms of the prize is that it does not pay enough attention to more traditional art forms, such as painting, and indeed all of last year’s nominated works were video art pieces. However, organisers defend the prize as showcasing art and artists that experiment with a variety of media and materials, and the four artists shortlisted this year work in sound, film, photography, print, text, performance, sculpture, drawing, theatrical installations and painting.


The shortlist of finalists is announced about six months before a live award ceremony. Each year, gallery directors, curators, critics and writers make up the panel of judges, who enter into a series of discussions before reaching a consensus. The prize of £25,000 is awarded to the winner, with each shortlisted artist receiving £5,000.


The prize is named after the Romantic landscape painter J.M.W. Turner, who was born in 1775 and died in 1851. Today, Turner is considered to be one of Britain’s greatest artists, although in his day he was controversial as well as innovative. The name is also fitting, as Turner had wanted to establish a prize for young artists during his lifetime. This year’s award is being held at the gallery Turner Contemporary, which stands on the site of the artist’s lodging house, with views of the skies that Turner believed were “the loveliest in Europe.”   


Nominees are shortlisted for an outstanding exhibition or other presentation of their work during the previous twelve months. The definition of who qualifies as a British artist continues to cause some controversy, as the prize recognizes both artists born in Britain but working globally as well as non-native artists who work in Britain. This year’s shortlist includes two English artists, one from Colombia and one from Jordan. They all work in diverse media but have performance work in common, as well as their engagement with contemporary political and social issues.

Lawrence Abu Hamden:

is referred to as a ‘private ear’ as his work explores crimes that are heard but not seen, and through a process of reconstruction they reveal the complexity of memory and language. His nominated works for the Turner Prize include ‘earwitness’ interviews with former detainees of a Syrian regime prison that formed part of an investigation by Amnesty International. The detainees had been subjected to total sensory deprivation and forced to live in darkness.

Helen Cammock:

her work has been described as ‘timely’ and ‘urgent’ and is characterised by fragmented, non-linear narratives that jump between different places, times and contexts. Viewers are asked to consider the inextricable connection between the individual and society. Her shortlisted work The Long Note looks at the history and role of women in the civil rights’ movement of 1968 in Londonderry, Northern Ireland. Uncovering marginalised voices within history is central to her work.

Oscar Murillo:

often addresses the immigrant experience and draws on his own story of displacement when he and his family emigrated to London from Colombia when he was 10. Community, exchange and trade in today’s globalised world are also issues that he addresses in his work.

Tai Shani:

her ongoing project Dark Continent is described as compelling for its nature of combining historical texts with contemporary references and issues. Inspired by the fifteenth-century text The Book of the City of Ladies by Christine de Pizan, Shani has created an allegorical city of women populated by fantastical characters through theatrical installations, performances and films.    


From an early age, Joseph Mallord William Turner showed remarkable artistic talent and went on to study at the Royal Academy of Arts. He was incredibly successful during his lifetime, and extraordinarily prolific. He is famous for his mastery of light and colour and the mystery and awe that his paintings convey, aspects that influenced the development of Expressionism. He died in 1851 and was buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral. His landscapes are on display in major British institutions, including the National Gallery.

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