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SocietyApril 28, 2018

Who is Luke Willis Thompson? And what the hell is the Turner Prize?


This week, Fijian-New Zealand artist Luke Willis Thompson was short-listed for the Turner Prize, Britain’s most prestigious contemporary art award. Don’t know what that means? We’re here to help.

I see contemporary art is in the news again. What charlatan is leaching from the public purse for their conceptual pile of trash this time?

First of all, we’re glad you enjoy that one story that gets recycled every time an artist gets an accolade for doing anything other than painting either ironic Kiwiana or bucolic landscapes. The guy in the news is actually Luke Willis Thompson and he hasn’t won anything yet. But he has been short-listed for the Turner Prize in the UK, which is kind of a big deal (even if it’s not really the “Oscars of art”, though Steve McQueen did win an Oscar for his film 12 Years a Slave about 15 years after winning that Turner Prize. It’s more like the Booker Prize or the Mercury Prize of contemporary art).

So the Turner Prize, eh? What is that?

The Turner Prize is the UK’s most prestigious art award, run by the Tate Gallery (maybe you went there during your OE). The prize is awarded to the best exhibition by a British artist in the previous calendar year. It’s been going since 1984 and is named after J M W Turner (1775-1851), one of the most celebrated British painters, who, despite making what are now considered pretty traditional painting, was pretty controversial during his lifetime (you can see where this is heading).

Yeah, prestigious blah blah blah, whatever. What’s the prize? Hard cash or just some statuette or something?

Oh yeah, it’s cash. £25,000 for the winner and £5,000 for the other shortlisted artists.

So, let’s say that’s $50K. That’s good but not Lotto money or anything.

Yeah, true. But it also tends to mean a big bump in sales and prices for the winner (and usually the shortlist too). Everyone in the art world pays attention to who is short-listed and who wins, plus the prize generates so many “Is this art?” articles and panel show segments throughout Britain that some of the artists become household names, usually due to mockery from the British tabloids.

Oh yeah? Like who?

Damien Hirst was nominated in 1992 and won in 1995 for Mother and Child, Divided a sculpture of two cows – a mother and her child of course – each of which is cut in half lengthways and embalmed in two separate formaldehyde-filled cases. A bit like his famous shark work The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living but, y’know, cows.

Another artist that really riled up the Brits was Tracey Emin, whose sculpture My Bed – an unmade bed surrounded by the detritus of weeks of binge drinking (including bottles of vodka, cigarette butts, blood-stained underwear, tissues, plasters, condoms) – which was nominated in 1997. Emin became a bit of a celebrity over there because of her brash (and sometimes drunken) public defence of her work.


So who’s this Luke guy?

Luke Willis Thompson is a 30-year-old Fijian-New Zealand artist who…

Wait! Is he British?

No, but he lives in London and the exhibition he’s nominated for, autoportrait, was first exhibited at Chisenhale Gallery in London. And, according to Tate, for the purposes of the prize, “‘British’ can mean an artist working primarily in Britain or an artist born in Britain working anywhere”. So he counts.

Sure, OK. Where have I heard about this guy before?

Well, in 2014, he won the Walters Prize (basically New Zealand’s version of the Turner) for inthisholeonthisislandwhereiam, an experiential work where viewers were put in a taxi and taken to a villa in Epsom and could walk around the house where Thompson then lived with his mother.

And, earlier, you may have seen or heard about Untitled (originally exhibited in 2012 but shown again at the 5th Auckland Triennial in 2014) where he presented three garage doors previously owned by Bruce Emery, the Manurewa man who in 2006 stabbed and killed Pihema Cameron, a 15-year-old, for tagging the doors.

His largest show to date was at the Adam Art Gallery in Wellington, which included autoportrait among other works.


And what’s he nominated for?

Thompson is nominated for autoportrait, a silent film study of Diamond Reynolds, the partner of Philando Castile, who was shot dead by a police officer in St Paul, Minnesota in 2016. Reynolds was sitting next to Castile when he was shot at point-blank range (her four-year-old daughter was in the backseat) and videoed and live streamed the immediate aftermath of the shooting.

autoportrait is both a portrait of Reynolds’ grief and is intended as a balance or counterpart to Reynolds’ own video. “Diamond needed to be interpolated into cinematic history – the history of cinema owes black life something, he told The Guardian. “She is recognised for the worst day of her life,” he said, and autoportrait is intended as an alternative to a video that’s been viewed over 9 million times. Rather than focussing on a death that was witnessed around the world, Thomspon made a film about the life that remains.

The film was made with Reynolds after months of negotiation with her and her lawyer. “We talked about how an image is useful or not useful to their case, and how the media is useful and not useful,” Thompson told Anthony Byrt in Paperboy, “And we developed parameters for what was possible. What was possible was a silent film, because the biggest danger was that she says anything that then becomes testimony, or counter-testimony.”

The film was made not knowing the outcome of the prosecution of the officer. A week before its first exhibition, the police officer who shot Philando Castile, Jeronimo Yanez, was acquitted of manslaughter.



So when is it?

The winner is announced at a ceremony in December, which is aired live on BBC. All four short-listed works are on display at Tate Britain from 25 September 2018 to 6 January 2019.

Will he win?

Yes. I mean, maybe. Sure.

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