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Array Collective, a group from Belfast, wins the Turner prize

They crowded onto the stage at the Coventry Cathedral in a flurry of colour and sequins. On December 1st Array Collective, a group of 11 Belfast-based artists, were declared the winners of this year’s Turner prize, Britain’s most prestigious contemporary-art award, worth £25,000 ($33,000). The collective, who transformed a room at the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum in Coventry into a replica of a síbín (shebeen), an underground Irish pub, are the first artists from Northern Ireland ever to win. One of the contributors, her baby snoozing in a sling, said the money would help fund a permanent studio. They all joked that they would head to their síbín for a few celebratory pints.

No individuals were nominated for the Turner prize this year—five collectives made the shortlist instead. Alongside the Northern Irish winners, the jury considered Gentle/Radical, an organisation from Cardiff made up of artists, religious leaders and youth workers; Black Obsidian Sound System (BOSS), a London-based group of queer, trans and non-binary artists from black and minority-ethnic backgrounds; Cooking Sections, a duo who live in London but work mostly in the Scottish Highlands; and Project Art Works, a studio of neurodiverse artists and their caregivers, based in Hastings. Each group advocates for a cause through their work, be it reforming the food industry to protect the environment (Cooking Sections), helping poor communities access art (Gentle/Radical), creating spaces where individuals can enjoy music free from racism and homophobia (BOSS) or disability rights (Project Art Works).

This year’s prizewinners deal with what Alex Farquharson, the director of Tate Britain, described as “serious stuff”. They campaign for marriage equality and abortion rights in Northern Ireland, where same-sex marriage was only legalised in January 2020, and abortions, though decriminalised in October 2019, can still be difficult to obtain. Yet their work is underpinned by a charming sense of play. “There’s a certain gallows humour we have and it’s definitely a coping mechanism,” Emma Campbell, one of the artists, has said. Abortion and queer rights are “shrouded in shame and secrecy” in the country, Sighle Bhreathnach-Cashell, another of their number, pointed out; Array Collective’s response is to “dress up in these costumes and have a bit of craic about it”.

A carnivalesque sense of joy permeates “The Druthaib’s Ball”, their installation. Inside they play a video of a wake they enacted to mark 100 years since partition, when the island of Ireland was divided into two separate countries. Banners are sewn together to make a billowy ceiling which, like a political patchwork quilt, tells the story of the group’s work to change life in Northern Ireland for women and gay people. Bags of Tayto crisps, an Irish favourite, and paper replica cigarettes are cheeky nods to the fun that was had while they did it.

The Turner’s decision to focus on politically engaged collectives this year enraged some critics. Oliver Basciano of the Spectator lambasted the shortlist as “highly reactionary”, declaring that the “jury seem embarrassed by art”, reducing it to social work. “Is this the worthiest edition of the award? You bet.” Alistair Sooke of the Daily Telegraph wrote. “It is also, perhaps, the worst.” Others thought the jury was trying too hard to be “woke”.

But as Daniel Fernández Pascual of Cooking Sections says: “Collectives are nothing new.” In the 1960s and 1970s Fluxus—a group of experimental artists that included John Cage, Yoko Ono and Nam June Paik—gathered together to stage performances. In the 1980s the Guerrilla Girls, a secret squad of female artists who wore gorilla masks to shield their identity, began working in unison to stage “interventions” that drew attention to sexism in the art world. And even superstar artists who are considered lone geniuses, such as Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst, do not actually work alone. Mr Koons was once known for the team of nearly 100 assistant artists who produced his pieces (though in 2019 it was reported that he had cut back the number of staff he employs, instead outsourcing a lot of the grunt work to machines.)

Furthermore, says Hammad Nasar, the lead curator of this year’s Turner prize exhibition, focusing on collectives is “completely in tune with what artists are actually doing in Britain, and around the world”. The next edition of Documenta, the cutting-edge European art show held every five years in Kassel, Germany, will be organised by ruangrupa, an Indonesian collective. “More and more artists are turning their back on the traditional art-world infrastructure of galleries and museums and trying to come up with their own structure,” says Mr Nasar. (It is a trend he has observed first-hand: for the British Art Show, an exhibit he is also co-curating, he has visited 230 studios in 23 cities.)

Art shouldn’t have to do good in order to be considered worthwhile; it isn’t the job of artists to fix the world’s ills. Yet the message of this year’s Turner prize is that they will often try, anyway, and that it is possible to reconcile social consciousness with entertaining, enjoyable art. As Mr Nasar puts it: “It’s the artists who replenish societies’ reservoirs of hope.”


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