Conceptual Art in Britain 1964-1979-Study Visit

Tate Britain-20th August 2016

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I’m not a great user of social media and as a result I tend to try and get to as many  study visits as time and resources permit as a way to counter the potential isolation of distance learning. I really like the interaction of these events an the opportunity to get a tutors take on a show. I have, since completing my first course with the OCA (C&N is my second module)  started to look at events beyond my normal areas of interest, to push my own boundaries and it was very much in this light that I signed up for Conceptual Art in Britain 1964-1979. I knew this show would take me out of my comfort zone and my motives for my journey with the OCA have very much been about doing things that can be hard and not taking a line of least resistance.

This show really tested my resolve in a number of ways but proved to be, from my perspective, a really valuable and enjoyable learning experience.

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The odds were stacked against me enjoying the event though and I need to set out why. Laura Cumming’s review of the show from the Guardian, circulated in advance of the event,

did little sell it as a worth while visit and her comments such as:

“But this is generally an art that isn’t too interested in appearances. Much of this show consists of texts in hideous typefaces, black-and-white photographs and photocopies. Art & Language, a terminally glum collective, cover the walls with their pensées on the US critic Clement Greenberg and their theories on the condition of art.”

didn’t exactly inspire a sense of a worthwhile use of time, not least the nearly 300 mile round trip involve in the visit.

The review in full really didn’t instill a sense of an interesting and well curated collection of work.

And with a summary statement like:

“Much of this show, it’s true, is excruciatingly dull.”

didn’t fill me with a sense of an engaging gallery of art work. To add to this I was really feeling quite poorly. I left my home in rural Norfolk feeling OK but as my train approached London I felt decidedly unusual and as I got off the tube at Pimlico I was feeling quite ill (apologies to other students if I seemed somewhat distant, I was putting on a brave face). I subsequently discovered that I had food poisoning from a meal the day before and while I kept up a stoic front  and made an effort around the gallery, my family had taken the better option and were all sick in bed at home from the same offending foodstuff!

So the odds were stacked against this being and engaging event. In spite of my malady and Cumming’s harsh and in my view inaccurate take on the show, I really got a lot from the study visit and really enjoyed the experience even if I misinterpreted some of the work. I use the term misinterpreted quite deliberately because I found some of the work visually beautiful, and by the end of the visit, I recognised this was not the artists intention. But, reflecting on the Barthes idea of the Death of the Author, I reserve the right to draw something g different from a work than the artists intent!.

I am also  very grateful to Robert Enoch for his excellent marshalling of the visit, I have attended another visit led by Robert and he creates and great balance between providing tutorial guidance, which offers insight and opportunities for reflection whilst  liberally firing off challenging questions to his charges! Like the previous visit led  by Robert that I attended he really adds value to the experience through his knowledge and through the excellent critical  questions he poses. I would not have reached the conclusions I did about this work and the artist that contributed to it with out his insightful and encouraging oversight of the visit.

So, the show? Well I have drafted  and redrafted my thoughts several times since the visit and I have also looked at some texts about conceptual art. I also spent some time reading excerpts of Art and Language, although some were hard to find, fragments spread accrues the internet, some of it was surpassingly accessible. May be I read the easy bits but the Art and Language approach of rich description as the essence of a work provided me with insights in to the ideas behind conceptual art. I  am still undecided how I feel about this as a school or movement in art but whether I like it or critique it, I want to understand it. The notion of discourse recreating or redrafting what we define as art I found intellectually challenging and stimulating. Given the dominance of art as a thing, a painting, photograph or culture, or art as ‘artefact’, i was intrigued at the idea of a concept or idea being the art. i am not sure this is the right interpretaionof Art and Language group, or indeed of conceptual art, but if nothing else, the visit has given me hours of thinking and pondering!

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There was so much to take in throughout the whole exhibition, I don’t feel I can do justice to it and as mentioned already, it was far more the thought processes this visit generated than any specific artist that is what i took from the event. That said there are some works I need to make reference to.

Roelof Louw’s: Soul City, the remnants of the  Pyramid of Oranges confronted us as we entered the first gallery. Except it was no longer a pyramid, more a small and apparently random pile of oranges. Reading about it and discussing it with other students I had a eureka moment! I suddenly  got the principles, all be it t a rudimentary level of Conceptual art. Whether I like it or not is less important than feeling I understand it. On entering the  gallery I had discussed with two other students the fact the pyramid would only have been visible to the public in the moment the gallery first opened. As soon as the first visitors entered the gallery on the exhibitions opening day, the pyramid would have  ceased to be and although it was progressively depleted as people, encouraged by the artist, took oranges from the pile. To me the art work wasn’t the artefact of the pyramid, but rather the concept the artist created. Whether or not the pyramid of oranges was there was not actually significant. The process of taking and reduction was important though and that is what I  was observing or seeing

Keith Arnatt’s ‘Wall of Art as an Act of Retraction’ demonstrated  perhaps how conceptual artists use photography as a tool to say something beyond the artefact of the images. The 11 photographs in the sequence shows Arnatt eating his words , literally! The sequence is strangely mesmerising.

Art as an Act of Retraction 1971 Keith Arnatt 1930-2008 Transferred from Tate Archive 2010

Art as an Act of Retraction 1971

As is John Hilliards , ‘Camera Recording its own condition was for me a visually beautiful rectilinear montage that although aimed at provoking thought about time, light  and photography as a medium, I simply found it  aesthetically marvellous. There is a diagonal of correct exposure that runs across the work and the opposite cornes record perogressive under and over exposure. The work is both thought provoking and beautiful.

Camera Recording its Own Condition (7 Apertures, 10 Speeds, 2 Mirrors) 1971 John Hilliard born 1945 Presented by Colin St John Wilson 1980

Camera Recording its Own Condition (7 Apertures, 10 Speeds, 2 Mirrors) 1971

Ed Herring’s ‘Proposition’ was similarly strangely engaging, 400 postcards in a very 1960’s card index left me asking question about intent, but also what was contained out of site on the postcards? The work was the product of the artists giving out and collecting cards which he had asked people to keep in the possession for a week. I remain intrigued by what is contained on the cards.

Proposition 1970 Ed Herring 1945-2003 Purchased 2012

Proposition 1970 Ed Herring

Margaret Harrison’s “homeworkers’ also piqued my interest. I had a  visual but also conceptual engagement with the lot of the elements of “Homework’. Although simple graphically, the work proved thoughts about art and politics, particularly the politics of the weak and exploited. there was also a strong gender theme running through the work. I left feeling this work was far more about ideas than a visual artefact and although in no way linked in the exhibition , it was I my head very linked to the earlier work in the gallery and the Art and language group.

In a similar way I was drawn to the work of Conrad Atkinson and his insights into what we euphemistically call the ‘troubles’ in Ulster. The linear collection of images and words dominated by the colours of the Republic of Irelands tricolour flag underpinning evocative images and statement about ulster I thoroughly enjoyed and again found very thought provoking.

Northern Ireland 1968 - May Day 1975 1975-6 Conrad Atkinson born 1940 Purchased 2010

Northern Ireland 1968 – May Day 1975

I recocognise I have only scratch the surface of the experience of this show but the works I have referred to and indicative not of style or aesthetic, but of a series of interconnected ideas the exhibition provoked in me.


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This was a really worthwhile study visit, I had expected the content to be challenging and I hadn’t expected to like much of this show. The reality was quite different. I have come away from this experience with a genuine understanding of what conceptual art attempts to achieve and whilst I am uncertain if I understand it all, I have a desire to learn more about conceptual art and it’s influence in work that has come after what was displayed in the gallery.

Many thanks to Robert and fellow students for a very thought provoking day.



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