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One Hull of a show: The Turner Prize in the City of Culture

30 November 2017

Love it or hate it, the Turner Prize is one of the highlights of the arts calendar, and this year it takes place in the UK City of Culture, Hull. Ahead of the unveiling of the winner next week at the Ferens Gallery, WILLIAM COOK tells us why Hull is the perfect place to host the famously divisive awards.

Artworks by Hurvin Anderson, including Peter's Sitters III (left), on display at the Ferens Art Gallery, Hull. Photo: Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images

Why do people get so upset about the Turner Prize? The late art critic Brian Sewell spoke for many when he condemned it as an "annual farce". Yet since its inception in 1984 it’s become a highlight of the artistic calendar, and now you can choose your own favourite from a shortlist of four contenders, in the Turner Prize show at the Ferens Art Gallery in Hull.

The Turner Prize has always been a magnet for controversy. In 1998, a protestor dumped a heap of manure outside Tate Britain, in response to Chris Ofili’s use of elephant dung in his paintings.

From Howard Hodgkin to Damien Hirst, from Antony Gormley to Grayson Perry, it’s like a Who’s Who of British Artists. So why does it ruffle so many feathers?

In 2001, another protestor pelted Martin Creed’s installation, The Lights Going On and Off, with eggs.

In 2002, Labour Culture Minister Kim Howells denounced the shortlist show as "conceptual bullshit" and Prince Charles bemoaned "the dreaded Turner Prize [which] has contaminated the art establishment for too long".

Is Prince Charles right? Has the Turner Prize really contaminated the art establishment? Of course not. It’s actually a fairly accurate reflection of current trends in contemporary art – a mirror rather than a motor.

The award usually goes to a rising star who’s already on their way up. If you don’t like their work, fair enough - but it’s daft to blame the Turner Prize.

A survey of previous winners bears this out. From Howard Hodgkin to Damien Hirst, from Antony Gormley to Grayson Perry, it’s like a Who's Who of British Artists. So why does it ruffle so many feathers?

Because giving prizes to artists is an invidious business, and because lots of people feel bewildered by an awful lot of modern art. That’s entirely understandable (I’m confused by a lot of it myself) but even if you’re not a big fan of this kind of thing, the Turner Prize is still fascinating.

It’s a snapshot of what’s happening in the art world - and if this year’s shortlist is anything to go by, it shows artists are making a welcome return to traditional forms.

Of the four artists on the shortlist, three are painters whose work wouldn’t have looked out of place 50 years ago. Hurvin Anderson, Andrea Büttner and Lubaina Himid would all sit quite comfortably in a group show alongside Peter Blake and David Hockney (and personally, I can think of no higher praise).

Rosalind Nashashibi is a film-maker (a genre I’m not mad about in galleries) but her work is contemplative, not controversial. Even if you’re an old fuddy-duddy (like me) you’ll find lots in here to like.

Installation view of Andrea Büttner: Gesamtzusammenhang, Switzerland, 2017. Photo: Kunst Halle Sankt Gallen, Gunnar Meier.

However the best thing about this show is its location. Since 2011, the Turner Prize has spent every other year outside London, and this year it’s in the Ferens Art Gallery in Hull, as part of its year as UK City of Culture.

The Ferens is a beautiful building with a fine permanent collection, and the Turner is a super showcase for its artworks from earlier centuries.

The Ferens boasts some superb Old Masters, from Canaletto to Frans Hals, but the biggest treat is its display of 20th-century British art. There are some wonderful paintings by Stanley Spencer, Lucien Freud, Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff, plus a stunning self-portrait by Wyndham Lewis.

The Ferens is a beautiful building with a fine permanent collection, and the Turner is a super showcase for its artworks from earlier centuries

City of Culture has been a fantastic draw for the Ferens. Visitor numbers have tripled – up to 400,000 this year. "It’s been a tremendous catalyst," says Kirsten Simister, curator of the Ferens.

The gallery has had a £5 million facelift, and the Turner Prize has put it on the map. "There’s such a desire for this exhibition, such interest and excitement - which actually isn’t the case in London," says Sacha Craddock, co-curator of this year’s show.

The Ferens Art Gallery isn’t the only attraction here in Hull. The Maritime Museum commemorates Hull’s long history as a seafaring city, and the historic port has been revived as a nascent artistic quarter.

Humber Street Gallery hosts a range of provocative modern art shows. It’s also become a lively rendezvous – a great place to meet up and hang out.

My favourite show is New Eyes Each Year at Hull University. Philip Larkin spent three decades here as librarian in the Brynmor Jones Library, and now his old library has mounted an evocative exhibition in his honour.

Between racks and racks of books are scattered fragments of his sublime poetry, plus LPs, letters, bric-a-brac - the flotsam of a lifetime. It’s intensely atmospheric, and far more revealing than a more conventional display.

Back at Hull Station, waiting for my homebound train, I see they’ve put up a statue of Larkin in the forecourt – not bad at all, though I’m sure he would have hated it.

Inscribed around the base is a line from his poem Bridge For The Living, written to mark the opening of the Humber Bridge in 1972: "Reaching the world as our lives do, as all lives do, reaching that we may give the best of what we are and hold as true."

A good motto for Hull’s year as City of Culture, and its custodianship of this year’s Turner Prize.

The Turner Prize show is at the Ferens Art Gallery in Hull until 7 January 2018. The winner will be announced on 5 December, in a live show broadcast by the BBC. For more City of Culture events, see the Hull 2017 website.

A version of this article was originally published on 26 September 2017.

Lubaina Himid - A Fashionable Marriage, 1986. Installation view of The Place Is Here, © Nottingham Contemporary 2017. Courtesy the artist and Hollybush Gardens. Photo: Andy Keate.

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