Turner Prize 2023: anarchic, dynamic Jesse Darling is this year’s only true contender

Jesse Darling's installation No Medals No Ribbons
Jesse Darling's installation No Medals No Ribbons

There’s only one proper contender for this year’s Turner Prize: Berlin-based Jesse Darling (b. 1981), whose installation at Towner Eastbourne, where this edition of the award is being held, is the most exhilarating presentation I’ve encountered at the annual exhibition in recent years.

Before, though, I explain why I loved his dynamic, pink-tinged display – which features a maypole wrapped in barricade tape, pedestrian barriers that seem to scuttle about on wonky, millipede-like legs, and a rollercoaster’s buckled rails bursting through a wall – I suppose, for form’s sake, I should address the other shortlisted artists.

That said, I see little reason to dwell on the snore-fest that is do-gooder Bristolian Rory Pilgrim’s sappy film RAFTS (2022), in which residents of east London borough Barking and Dagenham narrate a “seven-song oratorio”. Produced during the pandemic, it’s accompanied here by several wishy-washy, faux-naïf paintings and drawings of fantastical landscapes, incorporating nail polish and, in one case, a “hand-beaded” purse, by this “multidisciplinary artist” (b. 1988). In short, Pilgrim’s room is awful – almost as bad as the gratuitous first-person homily, in a self-important introductory “curator’s note”, about “exposing” society’s “inequalities” and “deepest prejudices”.

Upstairs, Barbara Walker (b. 1964) shows 10 large drawings, as well as a monumental charcoal mural that will eventually be “washed away”, all from her series Burden of Proof (2020-23), which responds to, as she puts it, the “heart-wrenching” Windrush scandal that flared in 2018. Each sensitive, skilfully rendered drawing is a portrait of an affected individual, depicted on a large scale, and so imbued with a sense of heroism, as well as dignity; the mural is like a two-dimensional Mt Rushmore for black Britons. Yet, Walker’s point, though important, is too straightforward to ferment much in the imagination.

Elsewhere, in a witty, original display that involves a ventilation system gone haywire, like some monstrous, sentient silver tentacle, and a deafening fountain which may be heard from the foyer, Ghislaine Leung (b. 1980) presents five conceptual artworks that she calls “scores”. If there’s a theme to her room, it’s motherhood: a baby monitor streams a live feed from the gallery’s stores; a row of plastic toys, on loan from Reading Public Library, has been placed upon the floor; a minimalist wall painting, like a set of white tiles with a black void at its centre, visualises, in stark fashion, how little time Leung (who has a child) gets to spend in her studio. Even that fountain, in this context, evokes a birthing pool.

Ghislaine Leung's installation Public Sculpture
Ghislaine Leung's installation Public Sculpture

Leung’s approach may owe too much to that of, say, former winner Martin Creed, but foregrounding the predicament of working mothers feels unexpected, and urgent. If Darling hadn’t been shortlisted, she would have been my tip – but he is, so she’s not.

In his room, which visitors enter via checkpoint-like thresholds embellished with net curtains and barbed wire, Darling presents a series of anarchic yet stylish recent sculptures incorporating unusual materials (concrete, doilies, pigeon spikes, lever-arch files), all unified by a consistent, pink, grey, and neon-coral, palette. Patchwork versions of the Union Flag are arranged here and there, so that this gallery – which, initially, provokes a sensation akin to cresting a big dipper – cumulatively offers an unruly vision of contemporary Britain as both ruinous and suffused with impish magic. Compared with such sculpturally compelling work, which boils and bubbles with brilliant ideas and touches, the offerings from the other shortlisted artists seem lukewarm.

From Sept 28; The winner of this year’s Turner Prize will be announced on Dec 5

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