Why Charlotte Prodger's 2018 Turner Prize win is something to celebrate

Charlotte Prodger has won the Turner Prize with her film Bridgit
Charlotte Prodger has won the Turner Prize with her film Bridgit Credit: Tate Britain/Emile Holba/PA

It’s an award that prides itself on delivering the unexpected and – some might say – the quixotic and the perverse. And this year it’s done exactly that once again. A contest described by its own judges as “the most political” in the Turner Prize’s history, with the shortlisted artists tackling such thorny issues of our time as state terrorism and the migration crisis, has been won by the artist whose work is, on the face of it, the least political.

Artist Charlotte Prodger has pipped favourites Forensic Architecture at the post with her film Bridgit. A kind of snail’s-pace video diary of a journey to the north of Scotland, named after an obscure Celtic goddess, it was filmed entirely on a mobile phone, and sees her looking back on her teenage experience of coming out as gay. If this year’s shortlist was touted from the outset as one appropriate to these troubled times, the tone of the (almost entirely filmed) work on it was for the most part detached, quiet and extremely elliptical.

British-based New Zealander Luke Willis Thompson presented a portrait of African-American political activist Diamond Reynolds consisting entirely of a single filmed shot of the barely moving subject, a strategy that’s been employed by artists for decades, from Andy Warhol to Tacita Dean. British-Bangladeshi filmmaker Naeem Mohaiemen turned a tiny personal anecdote – the week his father spent confined to a bench at Tripoli airport – into a feature-length allegory on the global migration crisis. The resulting film was beautifully shot and funny at moments, but painfully overstretched on all levels.   

It was hardly surprising, then, that Forensic Architecture, a group of researchers based at London’s Goldsmiths College – including architects, software developers and lawyers – who use cutting-edge technology to investigate state crimes, should have leapt into pole position with the bookies. Their hard-hitting inquiry into killings that took place during the clearing of a Bedouin village by Israeli police was the only one of the four presentations to come close to bringing the noise and anguish of 2018 into the gallery, and induced a sense of real moral discomfort.

It was on those grounds that I backed it to win the £25,000 prize – and yet I viewed that prospective victory with misgivings. While the group’s work deals in a practical way with painfully real issues, does it engage the imagination enough to be considered art? In 2015, the architectural collective Assemble won the Turner Prize for a housing development in Liverpool. The idea that Britain’s biggest art prize might be won for the second time in a four-year period by group of non-artists who don’t really make art would have felt demoralising for British art and art in general.

So it’s heartening to learn that the judges have chosen to reward the artists not on the external scale of their subject matter, but the internal quality of the authorial voice. Charlotte Prodger’s film consists of a stream-of-consciousness voice-over, taking in subjects as diverse as Neolithic standing stones, JD sports and her own life story, offset by long static shots of her Hibernian journey. There’s a languid beauty and a dry humour in the film’s slow-moving yet multi-layered flow. The political questions she asks are intimate, personal ones such as who we’re permitted to love, and why. Yes, these are, on one level, small-scale, domestic concerns, but is Vermeer – with his minutely measured Dutch interiors – any less of an artist than a bombastic history painter such as Delacroix?

Prodger’s win feels like an endorsement of the truth that art’s primary impulses are personal and imaginative. And that, to my mind, is something to celebrate.