Instead of heading off to take a look at some pictures at Tate Britain, today is a bit different and I suppose I should really say that I’m going down to the Gallery to have a think about some art. I’ll still be seeing stuff made by artists that’s hanging on the walls or placed on the floors but what makes the art different this time is that the people who made it were not interested in offering up the traditional series of visual distractions – what Marcel Duchamp referred to rather sneeringly as mere ‘retinal art’. This time there are no prettily painted portraits or landscapes, nor even any splashy abstracts to divert the attention but an awful lot of words to read plus quite a lot of documentary photographs along with a little pile of sand and a slightly larger pile of oranges.
Entering the exhibition I ask the woman at the door if it’s ok to take photographs of the works and she rather forcefully tells me that I definitely mustn’t do that, but she does kindly point out that I am allowed take one of the oranges. And it’s clear from the state of the display, which started off as an impressive pyramid of fruit and is now reduced to a not very tall trapezoidal prism, that quite a few visitors have already taken advantage of the offer of an edible gift. So, what’s going on here? Visitors are usually banned from even touching the displays in art galleries let alone helping to dismantle the installations and eat them but this time things are clearly very different. Welcome to the world of Conceptual Art, where the idea is the art, the art is the idea, and the main idea is to challenge every assumption ever made about art before. At which point you might like to ask what exactly do I mean when I use the word ‘art’? Can a stack of oranges really be a work of art? Am I an artist when I arrange stuff in a fruit bowl at home or does it only become art when the items are brought together in a gallery? Does it have to be the artist who bought the fruit and made the pile or is it the same even if one of the curators assembled it instead? And does the essence of the artwork reside in the arrangement of the oranges, the act of the person removing one, or me, the viewer, thinking about it all? And when the last of the oranges has gone is the artwork also gone or does it still exist so long as the label remains informing that the piece is titled Soul City by the artist Roelof Louw. And finally, is all of the above just a lot of orange balls?
Of course, there are no definitive answers to any of these questions but if you’re the kind of person who is inclined to ask them, ponder the answers and generally indulge in a bit of metaphysical maundering then you may well enjoy Conceptual Art in Britain 1964-1979, the latest show to open at Tate Britain. On the other hand, maybe you think that artists should stick to their traditional role of making nice things to titillate our visual senses, stir our emotions and generally just entertain us, and that spending time worrying about what the meaning of meaning means is the kind of futile navel-gazing that can only result in nonsensical, pretentious, pseudo-philosophical waffle. In either case – whether tempted to take advantage of the opportunity to have horizons widened or prejudices confirmed – why not just go along and have a look…sorry, have a think?
So, what is on offer? Well, if the oranges are by far the most colourful item on display in any of the rooms here and are definitely situated at the vanilla end of the Conceptual spectrum, the hardest of the hardcore works probably come from the variable group of artists who titled themselves Art & Language. A pretty good example of one of their creations is Air Conditioning Show/Air Show/Frameworks, which consists of twenty sheets of closely printed text, each individually framed and hung on the wall. What’s it all about? I feel fairly confident in saying that no-one really knows the answer to that question since the composition being presented is written in such a deliberately dense style that surely no-one ever bothered to read more than a couple of paragraphs, let alone the entire horrible thing. ‘One might argue that the criteria of adequacy of nomological implication admit that the inapplicability of an antecedent…’ is probably sufficient to give a flavour of the overall prose style and also to convince most people to stop reading before the headache starts. But to be fair to A&L, they did sometimes come up with lighter fare, for instance their map of a few square miles of the Pacific Ocean which consists of precisely…er…nothing, there being no islands or any other discernible feature in the specific section of non-topology they chose to represent. From unreadable texts to invisible maps, presumably their works were designed to make the viewer consider the relationship between…but why should I offer an opinion? Surely if there is any value in their art it lies somewhere in the space between the viewer and the viewed, and the questions that are raised in the one and resolved in the other. In other words, I would be doing a disservice to both artist and audience to intervene here – much better to let each individual work it out for themselves and come to their own conclusions.
As you can see, it’s not that difficult to come up with spurious sophistry and specious examples of cod philosophy that on the surface have meaning but underneath are pure marshmallow. So is there anything more to Conceptualism than trying to bamboozle a potential audience into being impressed when watching a fashion parade of new imperial clothing? Well, maybe. Alongside all the text based works here, and not all are as impenetrable as those from A&L, are several photographic displays, although it’s never very clear whether the snaps are the artwork or just the residuary documentation of the artwork. And perhaps it doesn’t really matter anyway. Best of these is the series taken at intervals during the ritual burial of Keith Arnatt in which the artist sequentially disappears into the earth – feet first and vertical – until, penultimately, just his head remains above ground. The final shot shows only the disturbed soil, as if the artist truly was interred underneath, but I think this was probably faked since the Arnatt reappears in a later set of shots showing him eating a piece of paper. The edible script is also the title of the work – Eleven portraits of the artist about to eat his own words which, I suppose, only goes to show that some Conceptualists had a bit of a sense of humour, too.
Examples of the more serious side of Conceptualism include Richard Long’s hundred-mile cross country hike summarised in a solitary photograph of an overgrown path with a text noting the distance travelled; Mary Kelly’s psychoanalytical diary detailing the changing relationship between her and her young son as he starts to grow up and gains some degree of independence; and Conrad Atkinson’s catalogue of slogans and posters outlining the antagonistic position of Republicans, Loyalists and the British Army in Belfast during the 1970s. But while these examples are all very worthy and interesting and show just how broadly some artists extended the Conceptual remit, on the whole I suppose that I prefer the works that are less intense and more humourous, especially those that stick to exploring the vagaries of artistic practice. I like the stuff here that accepts the futility of trying to define boundaries or prescribe meanings when it comes to art and are content to recognise and celebrate the comical absurdity of the whole process. So, let’s smile again at the pictures of Bruce McLean as a student mocking his tutors’ definition of what sculpture should be by offering up his own body, sprawled over a set of plinths and twisted into a series of unlikely artistic poses. And, best of all, let’s savour the story, documented here, of John Latham and his Hannibal Lecter-like attack on the theories expounded by the boorish American critic Clement Greenberg. Latham didn’t actually eat the man but instead borrowed one of his volumes of writings and then, along with some colleagues, literally chewed up the pages and spat out the gooey remnants into a jar before juicing it into an artwork.
At which point I feel that Monty Python’s Graham Chapman should really enter dressed as a moustachioed military man and say that everything is getting too silly and needs to come to a close. Of course, what actually ended the movement wasn’t the absurdity of some Conceptualist behavior nor even the fact that few collectors found their works appealing enough to want to buy any of them. No, it was the wider societal changes wot done it. The movement had begun as part of the general expression of permissive questioning and radical behaviour that characterised some aspects of the swinging ‘60s but that sense of carefree curiosity, freedom and optimism somehow soured during the cynical ‘70s and just about died off completely during the famous winter of discontent that closed the decade.
And now for something completely different…and for no other reason than to add a bit of colour to a rather black and white blog, here comes Stanley Spencer’s enormous Resurrection, Cookham which has happily returned once more to adorn a wall of the main Gallery as part of the permanent collection.