That knockout vista over the sea from the second floor of the Turner Centre was familiar to me before I knew of JMW and his art-historical legacy. If not through such a refined window as this. I grew up not far from here, got burnt by Margate sun as a young kid in the early 1980s, and felt the drear of a bleak winter’s day and all the pathetic fallacy it conveyed about this seaside town that had seen better days. At the edge of the 1990s I blagged my underage way into the squat, ugly and, at times, properly rough pub that once crouched on the Rendevous, now home to Margate’s (Thanet’s) first and very fine art museum.
I have a fondness for it all, but things have changed here beyond anything I could have imagined while growing up. And absolutely for the better. It began with the decision to create a local art space with international ambitions, which domino-flicked a gradual acceptance of the new and the potential for growth and reinvention. This is not my first visit here, of course, but it facilitated an unexpected moment of personal pride, stepping into the Turner Centre on the first day of the Turner Prize 2019 exhibition launch. Along with acknowledgement of what this site can now offer to the community, free of charge, its ability to host a major national art event and command audiences from all over. I may have gone in as a potentially conflicted defender of the local territory and that of art, but came out feeling both were afforded the space in which to co-exist.
The Turner Prize Four all make works designed to challenge the viewer that have evolved out of large bodies of time-intensive and complex research. Work that requires investment if we are to become agents, rather than opponents, within the many conversations on offer. This is not easy art to introduce, as much as it may be fractionalised down to a relevant, relatable and interesting series of ideas and intentions. On press day, curators Amy Concannon and Rowan Geddis did just this, delivering engaging and essential pre-entry commentary on each artist that underlined the ambitions of the organisation and the seriousness with which it has approached the job of hosting this event.
In my view, this is an ideal setting for the event given the wide set of issues Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Helen Cammock, Tai Shani and Oscar Murillo draw us into. I haven’t lived in the area for many years, but my family remains in residence, and in this current moment the community appears as divided on the serious matters of the day as anywhere else beyond the major cities in the UK – especially given its coastal position. The narratives the artists construct around class, race, gender, human rights and personal identity bring us back time and again to consider what we understand about fairness and tolerance.
The sensory impact of Murillo’s installation implicates all in the way it connects the material joys of high art with harder-to-swallow aspects of lived experience (he has also invited a local school to take part in his long-term, international youth project 'Frequencies'). Similarly, Shani delivers us into a fantastical and evocative sculptural realm – beyond the influence of patriarchal systems – to consider the feminine as an inherent part of society and the gender spectrum. Cammock’s documentary investigation into the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland speaks of the power of a female community and connectivity with other societies to affect social change. Meanwhile, Abu Hamdan’s performative exploration of sound as vital to the understanding of event history is likely to trigger memories of the Jungle, a migrant and refuge camp in Calais demolished relatively recently, just a few miles away over the sea.
A response to each of the individual artist presentations will follow this introduction.
1. Image from the Turner Centre with wall drawing by Barbara Turner, author's own
2. A 1991 photo of the Ship Inn, Margate © Suzannah Foad
3. 'Sunset off Margate Pier', Joseph Mallord William Turner, c.1840-5 © Tate
4. Installation views of the Turner Prize 2019: Lawrence Abu Hamdan; Helen Cammock; Tai Shani and Oscar Murillo © the Turner Centre