Turner Prize 2023 review: 'a big surprise' at Eastbourne's Towner Gallery

The mini-exhibitions by the four shortlisted artists are 'rather effective'

Jesse Darling: a vision of dystopian Britain 'suffused with wit'
Jesse Darling: a vision of dystopian Britain 'suffused with wit'
(Image credit: LFP/Alamy Stock Photo)

It's been a while since the Turner Prize "forced Britain to take an interest in contemporary art", said Waldemar Januszczak in The Sunday Times. In recent years, this "once-fierce" art award has generally been a boring event filled with mediocre offerings. Indeed, so routinely has it underwhelmed that I set out to visit this year's version – on show at Eastbourne's Towner Gallery – "untouched by hope or excitement". As usual, the four shortlisted artists who competed for the £25,000 prize have each been accorded their own mini-exhibition. The difference, however – "and this really is a big surprise" – is that the show is "rather effective". The 2023 Turner nominees are installation artists Ghislaine Leung and Jesse Darling; painter, film-maker and musician Rory Pilgrim; and Barbara Walker, who is feted for her portraits of black Britons. They have created a display that is brimful with "that rarest of all Turner qualities – talent". 

Walker's contribution is a highlight, said Laura Cumming in The Observer: a series of "cogent and pensive" charcoal portraits of Windrush scandal victims, drawn directly onto the walls. These images of people "denied their lawful immigration status" and subjected to a "vicious chain of policies and deliberate procedures" are "colossal" in scale: "monumentally visible". Some are superimposed onto documents proving their subjects' right to remain. Less successful is Leung, who offers a wall chart attesting to her hours free from childcare, along with some shiny steel ventilation ducts and a collection of toys – tiny washing machines, vacuum cleaners and houses. It is rather obvious as a "critique of the means of art-world production" – and the struggles of working mothers – and not a very interesting one, either. 

I wasn't impressed by Pilgrim's entry, said Alastair Sooke in The Daily Telegraph. His deeply worthy show takes in a film of people performing what he describes as a "seven-song oratorio" during the pandemic, as well as some "wishy-washy, faux-naïf paintings and drawings of fantastical landscapes". Frankly, it's "awful". Thank goodness, then, for Darling, who was announced as the winner last week – an artist who makes the rest seem "lukewarm" by comparison. His exhibition is a vision of a dystopian, ruined Britain that is nevertheless suffused with wit. It contains an array of "anarchic yet stylish recent sculptures" made from unlikely materials: metal barricades, pigeon spikes, a maypole wrapped in tape. You see "a rollercoaster's buckled rails bursting through a wall"; and "patchwork versions of the Union flag". He's a worthy winner: his display is "the most exhilarating" thing I've seen at the Turner Prize in years. "Hmmm," said Waldemar Januszczak. I suppose Darling's work represents "a glumly poetic interpretation of Britain today". But it doesn't have much visual impact. How would I describe his installations? "Bitty."

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Towner Gallery, Eastbourne, Sussex (01323-434670, townereastbourne.org.uk). Until 14 April 2024. 

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