Helen Marten with some of her work after the Hepworth Prize for Sculpture was awarded. Photograph: Anthony Devlin/PA
The first time I saw Helen Marten’s work at Chisenhale Gallery in 2013, I knew I was in the presence of an artist who thinks differently from the rest of us. Out of the artists in this year’s Turner prize, she was the one I wanted to win, although the exhibition as a whole felt a great deal livelier than recent years.
The first half of Anthea Hamilton’s installation, with its giant set of buttocks, brick wallpaper and brick pattern Jacquard suit was certainly arresting, though the whole thing disintegrated a bit in its second half. I never did get to the bottom of her implausible chastity belts (though I got the bottom itself, soon enough). I felt a bit of a mismatch between Josephine Pryde’s photographs and the model train stalled on its tracks in the middle of the gallery. This wasn’t going anywhere. This, I believe, was a symbol for a stalled, post-Brexit Britain, sidelined and run out of steam, while people in her photographs kept their cool and checked their phones for news from elsewhere.
Part of Helen Marten’s exhibition at the Tate Britain for the Turner Prize. Photograph: Martin Godwin for the Guardian
After Marten’s win of the Hepworth prize for Sculpture two weeks ago, and the fact that she was holding a concurrent solo show at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery at the same time as her outings for the Turner and the Hepworth, I was becoming convinced that the Turner judges would turn to Michael Dean. At first view, I enjoyed – if that is the word – Dean’s work, though beyond the pile of pennies and the abject stand-ins for a family of four that the government had decreed was the bare minimum provision to support for a year (minus one crucial, parsimonious coin), the installation seemed to me to be a pile-up of too many elements. Everything in it wanted to be read as a grim metaphor of one sort or another for the state of Britain now – but without the punch and depth, for example, of Mark Wallinger’s State Britain in Tate Britain’s Duveen Galleries in 2007.
In its way, Marten’s work is even more agglomerative than Dean’s, but the chain of associations, and the part-to-part relationships between its successive, hand-made and crafted elements enrich rather than confuse the complications of her work. As at the Serpentine and in Wakefield, she knows that amassing detail is not enough. There is a formal language at work here, leading the eye as well as the mind on a journey. Her art splices mental associations with an acute sense of materiality, scale and tactility. In her art, thinking is made concrete. It is more than free association or an unfocussed interior monologue. We are forever losing the thread and refinding it with Marten. There are stems and branches, thoughts shooting off, parentheses, pauses for breath, full stops. The same happens in the best of Anthony Caro’s work, but he was lousy at taking things beyond the abstract.
Helen Marten’s Turner Prize exhibition. Photograph: Martin Godwin for the Guardian
Like flow charts and route maps, the pleasure of Marten’s sculptural arrangements is in going from one part to another, to be arrested and to set off again. The whole thing has measure and pace, with enough dramatic interludes, staging points, flurries and intersections to keep your attention. Like several artists of her generation she has as much a playful and inventive way with language as she does with things.
This is certainly Marten’s year. Do these two significant prize wins, and three major exhibitions, leave her over-exposed? Too many younger artists have suffered from too much success too soon, eventually getting better and better and less and less, trapped in an early signature style. The point is to go beyond it. Marten knows this; thinking differently is the way to go.