I went to Eastbourne, home of this year’s Turner Prize exhibition, with the intention of tearing a strip off this year’s shortlist for a polite selection of artists and a suffocating surrounding discourse. Yet a few hours in this once fustiest of seaside resorts gave me a whole new insight into the purpose of the Turner – and art itself – in the post-Covid world.
The Towner Eastbourne is a pleasant modern building set just a block back from the seafront in this formerly uber-genteel retirement resort. Despite a bold abstract mural by German artist Lothar Gotz, its relaxed ambience feels closer to that of a community library than a cutting-edge art hub. Eastbourne itself, meanwhile, has moved on hugely from its stuffy mid-20th image as stolidly white and Tory. As I make my way from the station, its streets, shops and restaurants are filled with a broad range of early 21st-century British humanity – though most admittedly on the more senior side. Towner’s gallery spaces are crowded with people, all appearing very alert and stimulated at being in the exhibition for Britain’s biggest art prize on its very first day of opening.
I have to admit, though, that my first impression on seeing the shortlist was that it was a bit of a mixed bag that didn’t reveal much about the state of British art in the aftermath of the biggest collective challenge of recent times.
Where 2022’s shortlist was devoted, for the first time, entirely to women and non-binary artists, this year’s incumbents are drawn from a scrupulously broad range of identity profiles: Jesse Darling, a queer man who makes a mischievous play on societal borders and boundaries; Ghislaine Leung, a Swedish-born artist of Chinese and British heritage, who provides institutions with instructions on the art she’d like to see in their galleries, and leaves it up them to make it; Rory Pilgrim, a queer male composer who creates community oratorios as a form of social activism; Barbara Walker, a Black British woman artist whose wall-filling drawings provide a scathing critique of the Windrush Scandal.
That diversity feels not only appropriate, but in the current climate, where monolithic social structures are collapsing in every direction, inevitable. And it’s evident looking around the Towner audience, in galleries that are far smaller than I’ve seen in any other Turner venue, that that diversity extends even to Eastbourne. The town’s older art audience is far funkier and more diverse than you’d expect, rubbing shoulders easily with grungier small-town youth and the few metropolitan sophisticates who’ve turned up. There’s a real sense of determination to get into this place and see what’s happening. I’ve never seen a local audience so palpably taking ownership of a Turner Prize exhibition, and that inevitably affects the way I react.
We’ve heard a lot in recent years about how art needs to move on from old-fashioned macho polarities like good and bad, right and wrong, embodied in the “expert” view of the metropolitan critic. Seeing the Turner in what is by far its smallest venue to date, with local people genuinely responding to the work, the ambience is so benign it feels like conventional critical hostilities need to be suspended. Artist-composer Rory Pilgrim’s Rafts, a music, spoken word and dance spectacle created under lockdown in collaboration with young people in Barking and Dagenham, may indeed be a piece of pleasant enough – but relatively mainstream – musical theatre masquerading as avant-garde art, as I initially suspected. But what matters, when you see the people of Eastbourne utterly engrossed in the resulting film, is that Pilgrim is a nice man who is trying to do good.
Barbara Walker’s enormous and extremely skilled pencil portraits of members of the Windrush Generation, together with the documents they were forced to provide to avoid deportation, may be a rather conventional and illustrative response to that horrific scandal. But seeing the people of Eastbourne visibly moved by her work speaks powerfully for itself.
There’s a case for picking apart bookies’ favourite Jesse Darling’s lively installation on coastal boundaries and land enclosures, and working out how groundbreaking its exuberant mash-up of crash barriers, concrete and bent-up railway lines actually is. It took me straight back to Helen Marten and Michael Dean’s immersive 3D assemblages in the 2016 Turner Prize. Nonetheless, it is by any conventional yardstick the best thing here, and the important thing, seeing people milling through it, eyes on stalks, practically on one of the beaches it is actually about, is that it is here.
The one display that under-delivers in terms of crowd response is Ghislaine Leung’s collection of object-based works based on “text scores” to be realised by the gallery installation team. They include parts of a steel ventilation from a Dutch bar, reinstalled here as a piece of monumental sculpture, and “a wall painting the size of the artist’s home studio divided into all the hours of the week with the portion of studio hours marked in black”. The joke of the latter is that the black area is very small, Leung being a working mother. But judging by the rapid movement through this part of the show, the people of Eastbourne, however, seemed to regard it as the kind of too-clever contemporary art that isn’t sufficiently about the viewer.
There was an idea that was briefly but strongly prevalent under lockdown: that we’d be emerging into a more human and caring world, where there’d be more space for the aspirations of ordinary people as well as the “big people” who supposedly control everything – a world where, in art and culture, the experience of the viewer, the consumer would be as important as that of the artist. That aspiration seemed to be quickly lost sight of as the “old normal” returned. Yet I swear I saw it in operation at the Turner show in Eastbourne. There will be a glossy awards ceremony in December under the full glare of the British media. Jesse Darling will probably win and certainly deserves to. Yet that feels almost a detail in the broader picture of this year’s Turner Prize. Putting this prestigious institution into a small and genuinely local venue has shown that these kinds of awards can be about a great deal more than celebrity art world grandstanding.