Conceptual Art in Britain 1964 - 1979 at the Tate Britain

Conceptual Art in Britain opened its doors to the public for the last time on Monday August the 29th and I was there. The exhibition showcased the work of artists working in Britain from the mid 1960’s and onwards, who opposed modern art canons dictating that art is a rare entity set apart from the wold, enjoyed by the privileged and dominated by great artists. Conceptual artists embraced a far more humble approach to art: They used unstable, every-day materials and scrutinised language and philosophy developing theoretical arguments that triggered socially and politically driven work, setting out to inject art back into the world. 

 Roelof Louw, 1967,  Soul City (Pyramid of oranges) , oranges, wood plastic. 

Roelof Louw, 1967, Soul City (Pyramid of oranges), oranges, wood plastic. 

Roelof Louw was one of the artists experimenting with everyday materials in the 1960’s. His 1967 work titled Soul City (Pyramid of oranges) was rebuilt and displayed as part of the exhibition. Soul City (Pyramid of oranges) is a sculpture created by arranging over 5000 oranges in a pyramid, resting on top of a wooden frame with a plastic sheet on its underside. The audience is invited to pick up a fruit and eat it. Consuming the tangy orange, the audience not only alters the form of the sculpture but they also ingest a piece of the artwork itself. Soul City (Pyramid of oranges) transcends the canons of modern art in numerous ways, ranging from its organic non-traditional building blocks, to its absolute surrender to the hands of the audience - a bold gesture most of the Modernists avoided. The bracketed text in the title acts as a constant reminder, that fruits one can purchase from their local supermarket are integral components of Soul City, linking the artwork with the broader world. 

 Richard Long, 1967,  A line made by walking , Photograph, gelatin silver print silver print on paper and graphite on board. 

Richard Long, 1967, A line made by walking, Photograph, gelatin silver print silver print on paper and graphite on board. 

Richard Long's A line made by walking coincides with Louw's Soul City (Pyramid of oranges). The title reveals how Long - a sculpture student at St. Martin's - enlisted the mundane act of walking down a field as part of his art making process. The path Long created walking backwards and forwards on the English country field, was photographed and developed into a gelatin silver print in 1967. Assimilating this photograph within his sculptural practise, Long rendered the physical path inseparable from the photographic print that documents it, illuminating an alternative context for sculpture.

 Keith Arnatt, 1969,  Self Burial (Television Interference Project) , 9 photographs, gelatin silver print on paper on board. 

Keith Arnatt, 1969, Self Burial (Television Interference Project), 9 photographs, gelatin silver print on paper on board. 

Conceptual Art in Britain also explored how photography was embedded within conceptual art, not only for documenting the effect of time on unstable artworks, but also as a liberator of sculpture from its physical form, allowing it to align itself within the greater world. This is being addressed through the photo based works of Keith Arnatt, who used photography as an extension to his sculpture practise. His 1969 series Self Burial (Television interface project) which comprises of 9 photographic gelatin silver prints, allows us to investigate the relation between photography and sculpture in conceptual art. The sequential imagery depicts Arnatt dumped in the middle of an anonymous field - much similar to that in Long's A line made by walking - dressed as an average Joe, standing atop a crater of freshly dug soil which gradually sucks him in. Arnatt's facial expression remains stoic throughout the series, similar to that of a statue that knows it is being watched and calmly reflects its viewer's gaze. A cabin, telephone poles and a thick white smoke creep out from the background, making Arnatt's descend into the ground seem as a form of escapism from the modern world. 

Intriguingly these images do not exist to capture a live performance; On the contrary Self Burial (Television interface project) was staged so that Arnatt could achieve these shots, that were broadcast on German television. Immortalising the moments where his body was the sculpture, Arnatt undermined the modern art conventions that confined sculpture within space and time, recognising that the concept of the work, is far more important than the materials it is made of.

 Victor Burgin, 1976,  Possession , Duotone lithograph on paper. 

Victor Burgin, 1976, Possession, Duotone lithograph on paper. 

A section of the exhibition examined the revisiting of conceptual art in the mid 1970’s, when conceptual artists acquired a critical tone, addressing problematic aspects of life through their art making. Informed by socio-political phenomena conceptual artists combined theory and practise into artworks presenting their critical research, operating around the premise that the personal had become political. Victor Burgin’s lithograph titled Possession (1976) is a prime example presented in Conceptual art in Britain. The artwork’s layout is similar to that of an advertising poster and it features a stock-advertising photograph of a white young couple courting; the blonde woman leaning in to whisper something in her partner’s ear - hiding his face in the process. The image sits within a black mount and is accompanied by a a white bold text on the top, asking the audience ‘What does possession mean to you?’. Burgin follows up this question with a quote from the Economist (1966) in white letters - stating that ‘ 7% of our population own 84% of our wealth’ - precisely positioned underneath the image of the couple. The limited palette of black, white and fleshy tones, along with the angelic appearance of the protagonists, establishes a serenity which seeks to mask the cold facts delivered by the Economist quote. Could this be Burgin’s way of exposing how images mystify the consumerist agenda of advertisements? In fact, the text casts a different light on the tense lover’s grip, urging the audience to consider the relation between ownership and sexual relationships. Burgin thus places possession in multiple contexts - from the emotional, to the materialistic and beyond. At its core, Possession stimulates the audience’s thinking process with its contrasting signs, freeing them from a passive consumption mode. 

Overall Conceptual Art in Britain showcased the countless manifests of conceptual art, taking the audience on a journey from the first works of young artists rolling their eyes at modern art, to its expansion towards language, photography and political activism. I walked away from this exhibition hungry to learn more about this defiant movement that radicalised the definition of art and how it has influenced the way we engage with contemporary art.