A cluster of red terrace houses doesn’t immediately call to mind award-winning contemporary art. But the Turner Prize has raised more than a few eyebrows since its inception in 1984 and this year’s winners appeared to have reinvented the competition once again.
They are the London-based architects’ collective Assemble who accepted the accolade at a ceremony in Glasgow last night (7 December). The winning work, entitled ‘Granby Four Streets’, is an urban regeneration project, which has seen the transformation of a rundown housing estate in Toxteth, Liverpool into a thriving community development.
Built in 1900, several of the terrace houses were acquired by the local council following the Toxteth riots of 1981. They were earmarked for demolition but local residents fought off developers and breathed new life into the area. They cleaned the streets, painted the houses, planted flowers and vegetables, opened a successful monthly market and eventually founded the Granby Four Streets Community Land Trust.
In collaboration with the CLT and Steinbeck Studios, Assemble built on the community’s efforts to create a sustainable future for the development. It refurbished the houses using low-cost materials and demolition waste to fashion bespoke fireplaces, door handles and lampshades. It created training and employment opportunities, promoted community involvement and encouraged partnership working all while seeking to protect the area’s heritage.
The Turner Prize judges were taken with Assemble’s innovative approach to urban development and renewal. Strikingly, they specifically described the project as a work of art rather than architecture and praised the collective for an entry which did more to “change the way people live” than the competing works:
“They draw on long traditions of artistic and collective initiatives that experiment in art, design and architecture… In doing so they offer alternative models to how societies can work.”
The Turner Prize is the leading award for British contemporary art and perhaps the most prestigious contemporary visual art prize in Europe. Organised by Tate, it is awarded to a British artist under 50 for an outstanding exhibition in the preceding year. It is also not without controversy. Winning works have included lights going on and off in an empty room (Martin Creed’s ‘The Lights Going On and Off’) and Tracey Emin’s ‘My Bed’, which inspired two visitors to its Tate Gallery exhibition to start a pillow fight.
This year’s result is set to divide. Already it has critics once again pondering that time-honoured question: but is it art? Some have welcomed the result as a watershed moment in British art with a new focus on the practical role that it can perform in our everyday lives. Others, including broadcaster and author Muriel Gray are less convinced:
“I think it’s changed the nature of the Turner Prize because I don’t think it is modern art.”
Assemble’s win marks a series of firsts for the Turner Prize. It is the first time it has been scooped up by non-artists. With members aged between just 26-29 years old it is also the first time the prize has been received by winners who are quite so young. Lastly, with 18 members Assemble go on record as they having the largest ever number of contributors to take home the award.
The nomination came as a surprise to the group itself whose work cuts across the fields of art, architecture and design. In keeping with the sustainable nature of the project, they plan to reinvest some of their £25,000 in prize money back into ‘Granby Four Streets’. But will they describe themselves as artists from now on?
“What is an artist? There is no answer,” they said.
Contenders for the top prize this year included Nicole Wermer’s ‘Untitled Chairs 2014-15’, a room of 10 dining chairs with fur coats sewn to them and Janice Kerbel’s DOUG, an opera comprised of nine songs telling the story of a man killed by a bear. These and the remaining entries from this year’s nominees will be on display at the Tramway Glasgow until 17 January 2016.
For a retrospective of some of the most notable – and notorious – Turner Prize winners of past years click here.