Housing estate wins prestigious art prize

Art for whose sake? The members of Assemble build a barn from scratch. © Assemble

The Turner Prize is meant to reward great art. But this year’s winners don’t even see themselves as artists. Is this a significant moment in Britain’s art scene? Or just a joke?

Elephant poo. A dead cow chopped in half. A light bulb turning on and off. The Turner Prize, which celebrates the best in new British art, has picked some peculiar winners in the past. Time and again, people have questioned whether these works belong in an art gallery.

Once again, this year’s prize has caused controversy. On Monday, the award was given to the collective Assemble for their renovation of empty houses in Toxteth, a poor area of Liverpool. They have teamed up with locals to make the houses liveable, and more colourful. Street art is appearing; gardens are sprouting; furniture is being built.

Assemble are the first group to take the prize. Aged 26 to 29, they are also its youngest ever winners. But what are they, exactly? Their work combines architecture, design, gardening and more. Above all, it has a social purpose: in Toxteth, Assemble want to bring life back to a neglected neighbourhood. It’s working – with rents kept low, people are returning.

The idea of helping society in a creative way is nothing new. In 2011, the Cuban artist Tania Bruguera lived with immigrants in New York for a year, running workshops in which they could express themselves. In Victorian Britain, William Morris called on ordinary people to revolt against the machines by making their own arts and crafts.

Awarding this year’s prize, the judges stressed that Assemble’s work helps to ‘shape urgent issues’. Yet some people were unconvinced. Sure, the project has done good for society – but is it art? Even Assemble admit that they don’t see themselves as ‘artists’, and the award came as a surprise to them. Should they have been nominated at all?

Maybe it’s art, say others, and maybe it isn’t. We don’t need an answer. Debating what art is, and what role it has in our society, is the whole point of the Turner Prize. That’s why the judges tend to pick works that stretch the meaning of the word – like these houses.

State of the art

Art can have a practical purpose – but more importantly, say some, it needs to be appreciated for its beauty or emotional power. The problem is that the Toxteth houses just don’t have this power. If the practical side is so important, argued one critic, why doesn’t the Turner Prize nominate an Oxfam shop? The only reason it rewarded Assemble is to make headlines and grab attention.

Nonsense, comes the reply. Art is broader than that: it’s about seeing the value of creativity in society, which is what Assemble do. It’s not all paintings and sculptures: nowadays, our galleries are full of TV screens, everyday objects, music performances. Anyway, the houses are actually good to look at. As one local put it, ‘Assemble are fearless in their designs’.

You Decide

  1. Would you like to live in one of the Toxteth houses?
  2. Does Assemble’s work in Toxteth count as art?

Activities

  1. A family of four – two parents and two young children – have moved into your neighbourhood. Design a house for them.
  2. Give a three-minute presentation on your favourite work of art. Explain why you like it, and why you think it is art.

Some People Say...

“Anything can be art.”

What do you think?

Q & A

It’s just an award. Big deal.
That’s true. In fact, when Assemble learned that they’d been nominated, they weren’t sure whether to accept. But in the end, they decided that the award’s fame would give them some much-needed publicity. And it did: since then, they’ve been flooded with offers for projects. There’s also the prize money of £25,000, which could go a long way if reinvested in Toxteth’s community.
Can you really solve society’s problems by renovating a dozen houses?
The project in Toxteth is small. But it’s not the only one of its kind – across the UK, and in other countries, abandoned buildings are being turned into cheap new homes or public spaces. If this kind of social enterprise is seen to work, groups like Assemble could be asked to do similar work on a much bigger scale.

Word Watch

Turner Prize
Launched in 1984, the prize is presented yearly to a British artist under 50 who has made a great contribution to contemporary art in the previous 12 months. It is the most prestigious art prize in the country.
Collective
A group of people working together with a common goal.
Renovation
Restoration of a building to a good state; making it look new again.
Victorian Britain
The period in British history under the reign of Queen Victoria, 1837-1901. This period saw the rise of mechanisation – in other words, the use of machines to produce things previously made by people. William Morris’s Arts and Crafts Movement was a reaction against this process.
Oxfam
A British charity founded in 1942. It works to help victims of natural disasters and famine, and to raise living standards in poorer countries.

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