Exeter alumna Helen Marten wins Turner Prize

This article was originally published in Cherwell on 7 December 2016.

Exeter College alumna Helen Marten has been awarded the 2016 Turner Prize.

Marten, who graduated in Fine Art in 2008, won the prestigious art prize for a year’s worth of output including Eucalyptus Let Us In (Greene Naftali, New York) and Drunk Brown House (Serpentine Gallery, London). Her recent exhibition in the Tate Britain for the Turner Prize combined sculpture, household objects such as bicycle parts and hygiene objects, writing and screen printing to create interactive works of art.

The Turner Prize, established to “promote public debate around new developments in contemporary art”, is awarded to artists under fifty years of age who are deemed to have presented the finest exhibition of the year.

Marten, the youngest artist shortlisted at the age of 31, claimed that she “wasn’t expecting” to win. In her acceptance speech given after poet Ben Okri announced her victory, she described herself as “numb”, despite being “deeply honoured”.

The award is Marten’s second this month, following her receipt of the inaugural Hepworth Prize, after which she split the £30,000 prize money among herself and the other three nominees. Marten confirmed that she plans to do the same with the £25,000 Turner Prize fund.

London-based and Macclesfield-born Marten fought off Michael Dean, Anthea Hamilton and Josephine Pryde for the prize, whose quality she described as leading her to struggle to imagine “a more brilliant and exciting shortlist of artists to be part of”. Each runner-up will receive £5,000 in addition to Marten’s proposed splitting of the prize fund.

Given the recent attention afforded to her work, Marten said, “It makes you realise that the art world as a whole is operating in a very hermetic bubble of sign language that is not necessarily generous to a wider public audience which is not initiated in that kind of language or visual information.

“Putting something here and seeing what the public perception of it is is very humbling and educational. It makes you think, ‘Maybe my work is not universal—maybe the themes I’m employing are not immediately understandable.’”

Alex Farquarson, director of Tate Britain and chair of the prize’s jury, described Marten as a “kind of poet” whose art is “is outstanding for its extraordinary range of materials and form”.

“It doesn’t present you with an easy, simple, static view of itself”, he continued. “The work is like reading very rich, very enjoyable, very elusive, quite enigmatic poetry—rather than a very clear report on what happened in a newspaper. I think the thing is to enjoy it for its visual qualities, its physical qualities, and get lost in the game of meaning and games of composition that it offers up.”

The Ruskin School of Art’s Head of School and Marten’s former tutor, Professor Brian Catling, said, “We are all tremendously excited by the news of Helen’s success, but not remotely surprised. Helen showed a distinctive talent at the Ruskin, and an exceptional energy in putting her ideas into practice.

“She was one of the leaders of her year. There is no doubt she will go on to have a brilliant career as an artist.”

Jessica Evans, a second-year Fine Art student at Marten’s old college, said, “It is absolutely wonderful to discover that Helen Marten has won the Turner Prize, following her recent successes. It is most timely as well, as the college is seeking to expand its focus on the visual arts for 2017. I couldn’t be more delighted and inspired being a current student at Exeter.”

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