This year’s Turner prize exhibition opens with Heather Phillipson’s reprise of her 2021 Tate Britain installation, Rupture No 1: blowtorching the bitten peach. Newly reconfigured for the top floor of Tate Liverpool, Phillipson’s installation benefits from the edit. A succession of blinking eyes, culled from nature documentaries, look back at us accusingly, as if the ecological crisis is all our fault, which it obviously is. The gallery walls are washed by film of brewing storms and migrating swans. Even the curlews are complaining. On a big screen the sun comes up like a peach, and the Earth, Phillipson tells us in a new audio commentary available in a forest of dangling headphones, is a flambéed tomato.
Phillipson’s audio works are a collage of voices (she has won prizes for her several volumes of poetry), driven by her deadpan, wry delivery. In the middle of her end-of-the-world slapstick installation, big propane gas cylinders are hit by clanking lumps of metal, announcing our end times in a teetering shed.
Phillipson’s The End, on Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth, elicited pleasure and disgust. A lot of people hated it. It was always meant to be horrible and sickly. Going too far has always been part of her shtick, a mirror to the awfulness of consumerist culture.
This attitude also provides the modus operandi of Sin Wai Kin’s videos, objects and images. The Toronto-born artist plunges us into a solipsistic world in which they perform as all four members of a sexy-but-cheesy boy/girl band. The multiple selves that keep confronting one another in a dream in their longest video (also showing in the current British Art Show 9 in Plymouth) are all one long interrelated performance of the self, whoever that is. Formerly known as Victoria Sin, the artist walks the dark sidestreets of Taipei, plays chess with their double, rides a perilous hotel lift and poses on a rocky foreshore with crashing waves. One minute they’re in the guise of a parodic Botticelli Venus, the next guzzling noodle soup as if they were eating the world. The little purses of meat in the won ton soup quiver with juicy life and have started talking back.
Is the artist a girl being a boy and doing a drag act as a girl? Sometimes with a six-pack, sometimes moustachioed, and always made up like a superhero or a God from Chinese opera, it is all a game of possibility. All clothes, hairdos and makeup are a kind of drag-act anyway. The artist slips in between genders and codes, appearing and disappearing in the gaps between roles.
Almost the best thing here are a little group of dramatically lit self-portraits, drawn with cosmetics. As you get up close, the images neatly fit the shadow of your own head that’s cast over them by the dramatic gallery lighting. This is deliberate. These images are an almost miraculous apparition, a sort of Veronica’s Veil that hovers in front of your own shadowed head and threatens to engulf you.
Veronica Ryan presents her sculptures in a yellow, stagey environment. Designed in such a way that you can’t approach any of her delicately crafted, frangible objects, this is a source of disquiet and frustration. Her crocheted little pouches of seeds and fabricated lightbulbs, her bronze-cast magnolia pods and confections of plaster, hairnet and string and her arrangements of fishing line and fabric, grapefruit peel, bronze and thread cry out for closeness. There are lovely and strange moments in her piles of avocado stones, brass ferrules and large, stitched-up teabags, the medical pillows and remade soursops, the bagged-up butter beans and pendulous, dangling nets. But where everything is about touch, delicacy, intimacy and surprising conjunctions, why keep us at a distance? Does she think we’re going to break her stuff? I guess she is thinking of a total environment of these forms, about their private conversations and furtive life, from which we are partly excluded.
Ingrid Pollard’s presentation includes landscape photographs, pub signage and carved busts, photographs documenting public houses called the Black Boy, and a road sign designated Black Boy Wood on a housing estate. Her material asks what the place of black images in rural England has been and continues to be. This lexicon is but one of several themes. A series of photographs found in an archive at Glasgow Women’s Library documents protest demonstrations against the killing of black teacher Colin Roach; the anti-gay section 28; and the occupation of Grenada. For Pollard all these protests are interconnected and the underlying implicit racism and homophobia in British culture is self-evident, everywhere.
Pollard shows work from the 1990s to the present, culminating in a group of found images depicting a young black girl curtseying. These are accompanied by three mobile, mechanised sculptures. Almost agricultural in their manufacture and rude mechanics, one is a noisy conjunction of large saw blades that waves and scrapes and tilts a sort of baton. In another, a rudimentary rope figure sways and bows, and in the third a baseball-bat is wielded back and forth. Developed and fabricated with sculptor Oliver Smart, I don’t get these knockabout, brutal objects at all. They don’t add much more than noise and a violent conclusion to her display that somehow lacks focus.
Born in 1953 and 1956 respectively, Pollard and Ryan are the senior presences here. Both have had long but somewhat overlooked careers and have recently been enjoying a welcome revival. Phillipson has been much in the public eye with her fourth plinth and Tate commissions, while Sin Wai Kin is, I suppose, the wild card. Going purely on the presentations in Liverpool it is Sin Wai Kin and Phillipson whose work feels the most vital, while Pollard and Ryan feel formally conservative, serious but somehow a bit staid.