Turner Prize 2021: Irish pub installation wins award

Related Topics
Image source, David Levene
Image caption,
Array Collective's Síbín installation - "a pub without permission"

Belfast-based activist group the Array Collective, have been crowned winners of the prestigious Turner Prize 2021.

Judges praised the group for addressing social and political issues in Northern Ireland, and for translating their activism into artwork.

Their work includes a mock Irish pub adorned in banners advocating reproductive rights and protesting against conversion therapy.

They beat four other collectives to take the £25,000 prize.

The award was presented by The Selecter singer Pauline Black at Coventry Cathedral on Wednesday evening during a live broadcast of BBC Radio 4's Front Row, presented by Samira Ahmed.

Media caption,
Watch the Array Collective receive their award

"What they deal with is really serious stuff, LGBT issues, feminist perspectives on issues today in a divided society, even a sectarian society," said jury chair and Tate Britain director Alex Farquharson.

"What the jury feels is remarkable is that kind of amazing lightness of touch and play and conviviality and sense of hospitality, and the sense of carnival that they bring to the work."

'We're with you'

The first Northern Irish artists ever to collect the award, Array described their win as "surreal" and said they would put the money towards the rent for their inner city studio.

Laura O'Connor from the group said: "It's really pushed us to create something new - especially because we've not been making work over the last year, or showing work over the last year or two, with lockdown and everything.

"So it's really motivated us and it's pushed [us] and it's changed maybe how we work."

Fellow artist Stephan Millar added: "We are so proud to be from Belfast, to be of Belfast and the communities we work with.

"The Síbín [the pub installation] was for everyone of Belfast but it's also for all the collectives in this room. We see you we support you. We're with you."

Jokes, songs, papier-mâché models, funny costumes, a large pink poster saying "Stop Ruining Everything"... Array Collective's art is deeply political but while the artists are, for the most part, supporters of liberal and progressive causes, there is a wider ambition: Changing the mood of debate.

For a society in which marches, murals, banners and symbols play a huge role, Array Collective wants to make the street theatre of Northern Ireland politics more cheerful and less combative.

Presenting a recreation of an Irish drinking den as their Turner exhibition is a reminder of the importance of how and where we talk can affect outcomes. It is slightly subversive. At first, the bar feels deeply traditional but, when you look deeper, it reveals hidden political messages about sexuality and identity. Might this be a gay bar?

But perhaps most important message comes in the list of pub rules, which insist you must "have a laugh." In the often deeply serious and self-important world of Turner modern art, it is a welcome invitation to lighten up.

In a community where street parades and street art are all too often layered in sectarian meanings, Array wants to create new events and symbols; and to subvert local mythology to cater to different identities beyond the familiar divide. Above all, they're trying to create a place to talk and disagree that is open, welcoming and good humoured.

Image source, David Levene
Image caption,
The group were praised for having tackled taboo topics in Northern Ireland

In May, Turner Prize organisers announced that this year's nominees would all be collectives who had helped to "inspire social change through art" and by working collaboratively with local communities.

They added that, due to many galleries being closed intermittently during lockdown, the list was not constrained to artists who had held major shows in that period.

The runners-up - Black Obsidian Sound System, Cooking Sections, Gentle/Radical and Project Art Works - have each been awarded £10,000 for their efforts.

Established in 1984, the Turner Prize is the most high-profile award in British art. It was temporarily scrapped last year because of the upheaval caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

At the previous ceremony, in 2019, all four nominated artists elected to share the award after urging the judges not to choose any of them as a single winner.

They said they wanted to make a "collective statement" at a time when there was "already so much that divides and isolates people and communities".

Image source, David Levene
Image caption,
Array Collective's work focuses on gay rights, marriage equality, feminism, reproductive rights and anti-austerity activism

Who are the Array Collective?

Image source, Alessia Cargnelli

Array Collective's work encompasses performances, protests, exhibitions and events.

The jury commended the way the group "fuses seriousness with humour, and addresses contemporary issues using ancient folk imagery".

Recent projects have included public artworks in support of the decriminalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland, challenging legislative discrimination of the queer community, and participation in the group exhibition Jerwood Collaborate! in London.

"Array invite us into a place of contradictions where trauma, dark humour, frustration and release coexist," the Turner Prize organisers noted.

"It is a place to gather outside the sectarian divides that have dominated the collective memory of the North of Ireland for the last hundred years."

A free exhibition showcasing their work and that of the other four shortlisted collectives is being displayed at The Herbert Art Gallery & Music in Coventry - the UK's City of Culture - until 12 January 2022.

Follow us on Facebook, or on Twitter @BBCNewsEnts. If you have a story suggestion email entertainment.news@bbc.co.uk.

More on this story