This year’s Turner Prize, the most coveted visual art award in the United Kingdom, was bestowed yesterday to the Belfast-based Array Collective at a ceremony on the grounds of the English city of Coventry’s ruinous, namesake Gothic cathedral.
Comprised of 11 individual artists, Array Collective was formed in 2016 to “create collaborative actions in response to the sociopolitical issues affecting Northern Ireland,” and was one of five socially engaged artist collectives shortlisted for this year’s prestigious prize. This is the first time in the 37-year history of the Tate-organized Turner Prize that collaborative practices constituted the entirety of the shortlist. As the Tate noted in May when the five finalists were first revealed, each collective was recognized for working “closely and continuously with communities across the breadth of the UK to inspire social change through art” while reflecting “the solidarity and community in response to the pandemic.”
The four other finalists—Black Obsidian Sound System (B.O.S.S.) and Cooking Sections, both based in London, the Hastings-based Project Art Works, and Cardiff’s Gentle/Radical project—were awarded prizes of roughly $13,000 (£10,000) while the winning Array Collective received a prize of $33,000 (£25,000). The group has said it will use the prize money to secure stable studio space in Belfast.
As noted in a news release, the 2021 Turner Prize jury selected Array Collective as the winner—a first for Northern Ireland—for their “hopeful and dynamic artwork which addresses urgent social and political issues affecting Northern Ireland with humour, seriousness and beauty” and the group’s ability to “translate their activism and values into the gallery environment, creating a welcoming, immersive and surprising exhibition.”
“What they deal with is really serious stuff, LGBT issues, feminist perspectives on issues today in a divided society, even a sectarian society,” added jury chair and Tate Britain director Alex Farquharson in a statement. “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.”
Joining Farquharson on this year’s prize jury were Aaron Cezar, director of the Delfina Foundation; Kim McAleese, program director at Grand Union; Zoé Whitley, director of Chisenhale Gallery, and actor Russell Tovey.
Work by all of five shortlisted collectives is now on view at the recently refurbished Herbert Art Gallery and Museum in Coventry, the second-largest city in England’s West Midlands region, famed for its Lady Godiva associations and the bombed-out shell of its aforementioned iconic cathedral, which was destroyed during World War II.
Array Collective’s Turner Prize-winning nominated work realized at the Herbert is The Druithaib’s Ball, an immersive contemporary reimagining of a síbín, an illicit watering hole—a speakeasy or off-license pub, if you will–that originated in Ireland in the late 18th century. Described by Array Collective as a “pub without permission” where all can come together “outside the Sectarian divides,” viewers approach The Druithaib’s Ball through a sparse and moodily lit gallery space populated by a circle of flag poles referencing ancient Irish ceremonial sites. Once they’ve slipped inside the síbín proper, gallery-goers find themselves in a bright and boisterously appointed facsimile of a traditional modern-day pub, albeit one bedecked with flags, banners, and paraphernalia that provides pointed political and social commentary on Northern Ireland’s 100-year history. And just like any pub worth its salt, there is even a large TV, although in lieu of the requisite football matches, it broadcasts selections Northern Ireland Screen’s Digital Film Archive.
“Array invite us into a place of contradictions where trauma, dark humour, frustration, and release coexist,” said the Tate of the installation.
The larger Turner Prize exhibition kicked off on September 29 and will run through January 12, 2022, as part of the UK City of Culture festivities. Coventry won the title in 2017 for the quadrennial UK City of Culture award, beating out Paisley, Stoke-on-Trent, Swansea, and Sunderland.
Last year, the Turner Prize scrapped its normal format entirely due to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis and instead dispensed monetary awards to a total of ten artists-in-need. The 2019 Turner Prize also lacked a “winner,” as the four shortlisted artists—Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Oscar Murillo, Helen Cammock, and Tai Shani—requested to be considered by the jury as a single group and split the £40,000 ($53,000 in today’s funds) in total prize money.