Conceptual Art in Britain draws attention upon a specific period of time where the priorities of art dramatically changed, dealing primarily with ideas at the forefront of art and also placing focus on the creative process rather than the end result. Conceptual art redefines what an art object is as we know it, focusing on the idea and concept behind the work above the material form and at the same time, questioning the nature, existence and potential of art and whether art is a valid medium for questioning context. The exhibition brings together much material, some more notable than others, primarily from the Tate Archives, supported by a well-written, informative text which explains the questions being asked of the artists at the time of the exhibition, some of which we still haven’t answered. The exhibition specifically focuses on a specific, very interesting and changeable time period, which had many notable social and cultural changes both nationally and worldwide. For example, the election of Harold Wilson’s Labour government in 1964 right at the beginning of the exhibition’s focus, then finishing with the election of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government in 1979. Conceptual art of this time was heavily engaged with the nature of society and sometimes directly responding to societal changes, of which many were occurring. Conceptual art was also an attempt to reconnect with the world through the art medium, addressing the realities of the world we live in.
Most intriguing to me was Art and Language, in the second room, questioning the assumptions made of mainstream modern art practice and providing necessary criticism, in particular, questioning art production and signifying create a shift from conventional forms of art production like painting to theoretically based works. Early works from the collective consisted of a detailed discussion of issues in art practice situated either in the Art and Language journal or presented in an art gallery context. The room features two identical grey panels titled Two Black Squares by Mel Ramadan with one with the word painting, the other with the word sculpture written on the surface. The piece aims to empty out the idea of art consisting of an object, the artists accompany the work with the statement ‘to be kept permanently secret, known only to the artist’, despite there being no secret to know.
It was only by the mid-1970s that there began to be a widespread recognition and institutional support for conceptual art, accepting that it was a new approach to creating art, using a wide variety of strategies to criticise and question the making, role and placing of art. At this point, some conceptual artists engaged in a wider sphere of socio-political practice, engaging directly with the realities that we face in day to day life. This allowed artists to focus on the subject matter instead of the means of production and led figures such as Margaret Harrison and others into thinking about the different forms and aesthetics, rather than just fitting another piece into a particular style of art production.
From 1969 - 1972, many group exhibitions confirmed conceptual art’s status institutionally. During this time period, there was a general feeling that conceptual art was a renewed method of dealing with reality. With this in mind, photography was adopted by multiple conceptual artists to document and then used to recast and exist as the work itself. The photograph’s meaning was being redefined by its use conceptually, not being considered as a visual image but instead the photographic image is a document for short-term events. The image was being understood as way to focus in on the mechanics of image making, as well as representing what can be seen beyond the possibilities of the photographic frame. Keith Arnatt’s works sited in The New Art rooms deal directly with shortening the gap between work and context, and then the work becomes indistinguishable. The act of revealing the indistinguishable work could be achieved through the photographic medium, as Arnatt did in his piece Invisible Hole Revealed by the Shadow of the Artist 1968. Arnott dug a square hole in a patch of grass, in the bottom of this, he placed the cutout piece of grass back into the hole, using mirrors to line the sides which allowed the hole to become imperceptible within the larger area of grass. The viewer had to interact in a certain way with the piece by allowing his or her’s shadow to become cast over the hole, then their presence would be revealed, as you can see in Arnatt’s self portrait. The resulting image, Arnatt considered not the final documentation for the act taking place or an object but the reasoning behind the performative act taking place or object being created in the first instance. This flipping of the focus for the reasoning behind producing an image is incredibly intriguing The Action Practice room, the final room featured many works which were developed in the latter period of the exhibition’s focus, addressing these perhaps contentions and influential events that happened but in a conceptual, imaginative fashion.
Conrad Atkinson’s Northern Ireland 1968 - May Day 1975 is made up of seventy colour photographs, mounted individually then arranged horizontally. Below each photograph is a row of fourty- one typewritten sheets of paper, coloured in respective of the Irish flag. The imagery used represents three positions, Irish Republican, Loyalist imagery and the British Army’s presence in Northern Ireland. The coloured paper also corresponds to these positions. This work is very well put together, showing all of the facts and detail in a nonhierarchical, simple way, conveying the various messages coherently. It is also incredibly captivating, as you work your way along the piece work and really needs you to focus on the storyline and how the imagery corresponds to the language beneath it.
Conceptual based art is an art form which is definitely underestimated, it has the potential to be a very powerful form of engagement, addressing the fundamental realities of the world that we live in through an ideas based approach rather than concerning the form of the work. This exhibition follows multiple routes from artwork to the realities of the world and highlights the multiple influences that have informed the voices and positions that has characterised conceptual art into what it is today.
Conceptual Art in Britain 1964- 1979, was at Tate Britain, London SW1 from 12 April – 29 August. Title quote is taken from Sol LeWitt, 1967.