Conceptual Art in Britain 1964-1979
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Your conceptual orange looks very much like your regular orange: round-ish, orange-ish, pitted skin. What makes Roelof Louw’s oranges different from the cornershop variety is what they stand for. ‘Soul City’ comprises 3,303 pieces of fruit arranged in a pyramid, plus an invitation. Louw wants you to take an orange and scoff it (not in the gallery, though, they don’t want sticky handprints all over the place). But here’s the stinger. By taking part in the work you’re helping to destroy it or, as Louw would have it, ‘consuming its presence.’ Wowza. This is food for thought.
If you’re rolling your eyes as you read this, then ‘Conceptual Art in Britain 1964-1979’ isn’t for you. But it’s an important show in that it celebrates a generation of largely unsung Brits who reshaped the look and feel of contemporary art. Plus it covers a sizeable chunk of fairly recent, under-explored history. If you want to understand how we got from, say, Anthony Caro welding bits of steel in the early 1960s to Martin Creed winning the Turner Prize for turning the lights on and off in 2001, then this is essential viewing .
It covers a period when artists everywhere (certainly not just in Britain) were leaving behind big, heroic, handcrafted things like paintings and sculptures. They wanted art to be judged not by what it looked like but the idea it conveyed. Art didn’t have to be an object at all, it could be a statement of intent typed on a sheet of paper, a photograph of something that happened, a set of instructions, a walk, an audience survey.
‘Dematerialisation’ was a buzzword as well as an aspiration. Louw achieved it with disappearing citrus fruit. In a sequence of photographs Keith Arnatt is shown literally to eat his words, or at least pieces of paper with words typed on them. Sinking into a hole, in the ‘Self-Burial’ series Arnatt, a rare joker in the conceptual art pack, goes one stage further by attempting to get rid of himself. In 1969, West German TV showed the stills without introduction or commentary, during prime time. Those were the days.
Much of this work belongs squarely to a bygone era. Some of it hasn’t aged well, and we’re not just talking Bruce McLean’s polo-neck and flares in his ‘Pose Work for Plinth’ photos, in which he lounges on plinths in the manner of a Henry Moore reclining figure. There are endless diagrams to pore over that must have been fairly tedious even when they were made. And, everywhere, words to read: in treatises, tracts and manifestos in display cases and on the walls as artworks in their own right. You know you’re on to a losing game when a piece of text art needs another – way longer – text to explain it.
Persevere, though, and you’ll get to see how, actually, this is art that wants to reach out to you, to have a conversation about the state of the world. Many of these artists got fired up about stuff going on around them in a way that today’s artists simply don’t. And the stuff that riled them impacts on us today. You’ll see work addressing inequalities of pay and the distribution of wealth (Margaret Harrison’s ‘Homeworkers’ and Victor Burgin’s ‘Possession’) and a touching exploration of urban isolation (‘Living with Practical Realities’ by Stephen Willats).
What ‘Conceptual Art in Britain’ could really use is a dose of fun. Gilbert & George, are absent from the show proper (too visual, too famous?) and are relegated to a cabinet of ephemera outside the main exhibition space. Curatorially, you could argue that they come out of a rather different, vaudevillian tradition, that they quickly span off in their own, unique direction, that to include them here would be to compare oranges with apples. Still, regardless of flavour, this is one show that could do with a little more juice.