British Conceptual Art

There’s an exhibition of British conceptual art, 1964 – 79, at Tate Britain at the moment.

The catalogue sees stages in the development of conceptual art:
– new frameworks: slightly childish reaction against contemporary Modernist art as described by Clement Greenberg, although many early UK conceptual artists did not knowof US equivalents and worked in isolation. Documentation of actions, eg Hamish Fulton‘s early ‘Hitchhiking Times’ ( a list of times and places for each step of a hitch-hiking journey from London to Andorra and back),
– uses of language: “.. provocations that pose direct questions to the viewer about the consonance between what is seen and what is read.”” This is the territory of Victor Burgin and his index cards, and Art and Language (“Here the suggestion is that meaning is not within the material object that has been isolated and nominated as art, but within the theoretical argument that supports it….theorising was not subsidiary to art or an art object, but was a first-order activity…”

The last stage, which the catalogue calls “action practice”, involves political commitment, feminism, ideology, etc. It’s at this stage the whole thing ceases to become conceptual: works like Margaret Harrison’s ‘Homeworkers’ for example have their own value but ought to be in another exhibition. Stephen Willats‘ ‘Living with Practical Realities’ does manage to be both conceptual and ‘committed’ in the sense that it evokes sympathy and urges action but is not written from any platform, other than Willat’s view that cybernetic connections might hold the key to resolving the problems caused by modern blocks of flats.

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An interesting essay on Conceptual Art’s use of photography by Luke Skrebowski finds two phases: “The first phase involved the nomination… of increasingly less materially extensive or bounded objects, events or procedures as art works, and culminated with the proposition that an idea or possible object could be a work of art…he second phase interrogate …[this]…and finding it limited, since ultimately one object type…. had merely been substituted for another – concluded that what was required was precisely an ongoing, self-reflexive interrogation of the interrogation of the late modernist idea of art. The second phase of conceptual art thus construed art principally as a theoretical practice…” Skrebowski remarks that “photography, largely in the form of self-consciously amateurish black and white snapshots, played a role throughout the development of conceptual art”. In the first phase, photographs were seen as “(anti-art) documentation. Little if any theoretical attention was paid to photography as a practice.” However, in the second phase of conceptual art, “photography was itself deconstructed as a object, as well as a broader technical apparatus.” and “dragging its heavy burden of depiction, photography could not follow pure, or linguistic, conceptualism all the way to the frontier, the “definitive negation of art as depiction…[going]… as close to the boundary of its own self-overcoming, or self -dissolution, as it is likely to get.” (p 128)

Even then, many of the theoretical works were printed and had to be made ‘camera-ready’, and “a discursive work made camera-ready is prepared to enter the regime of spectacle, defined by Guy Debord precisely as ‘a social relationship between people that is mediated by images'”. (On the other hand, if you are talking about visual art, what else is there but images?)

One of the most interesting examples of photography (not included in the exhibition) is Burgin’s Photopath, a take on the Borges short story about maps, in which life size images of a section of gallery floor are laid over the floor, so that they correspond exactly with the floor beneath them. (Burgin has now moved to a less austere use of photography, for example in A Place to Read of 2011.)

Interestingly, there’s a lot of obvious psychogeography hovering in the background. Hamish Fulton’s own website describes him as a ‘walking artist’ and mostly consists of documentation of walks. (‘Only art resulting / from the experience / of individual walks / a walk has a life of its own / and does not need to be / materialised into an artwork / an artwork / may be purchased / but a walk cannot be sold. (Artworks may be purchased for $7,500)

Richard Long‘s Line Made by Walking is simply a photograph of a line in field made from walking over and over it to flatten the turf. (Interestingly the Tate website says “This formative piece was made on one of Long’s journeys to St Martin’s from his home in Bristol. Between hitchhiking lifts, he stopped in a field in Wiltshire where he walked backwards and forwards”, whilst the exhibition catalogue tells us with equal authority that “Long took a train heading south west from London’s Waterloo Station. Once the train had reached open countryside he got off at the nearest station and walked until he found a suitable field…”) Long’s Cerne Abbas Walk is a record of a walk which covered every path or road within a circle around the Cerne Abbas giant.

However, the terms psychogeography is never mentioned, and you get the impression that the Conceptual artists and the psychogeographers would not like being compared to each other. This is a silo thing.

Stephen Willats wrote a manifesto whilst still at Ealing College of Art: ‘I am part of the environmental fact. The environmental fact consists of sets and subsets of variable events. Sets and subsets of the variable event are encountered by chance… I must learn to live with the random event and accept it as an intricate part of the total whole.’ (A copy of this is displayed, framed, in the exhibition.) The manifesto has been described as:” a reaction to the realities of that world as a complex system (structured by ‘sets and subsets of variable events’). Over only a couple of years the simplicity of Shift Box No. 1 evolves into a clearer expression of this degree of complexity where different flows of information trigger different reactions, compete for attention, stimulating different kinds of feedback, modelling the response of a social group rather than an individual ‘observer’.”

It’s not everyone’s cup of tea. As the Daily Telegraph review of the exhibition says: “”.. there’s a sense of the insistent, one-note cleverness that permeates the entire exhibition, which, after prolonged exposure, induces a feeling of spirit-crushing claustrophobia…These days most artists try to get their heads round its challenging ideas, before moving rapidly on. That’s a path many viewers to this exhibition will find themselves following – if they haven’t long since run screaming for the exit.”

What fascinated me is
1. the idea that art does not have to consist of a painting but can be an action, a programme, or even a state of mind.
2. the idea of documenting an art work and the document being the only surviving witness to it.
3. the idea that the participation of the artist in the work is a part of the work itself.

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