By its very nature, conceptual art isn’t made for gallery space. Its energy, its ideas and its reactions to the movements that precede it don’t lend themselves to the confines of white walls, hushed voices and polished floors.
Naturally, this makes a retrospective of the movement tricky, and while there’s a lot to offer in Tate Britain’s bold new show Conceptual Art in Britain 1964 –1979, the inherently problematic nature of displaying the works is evident.
The exhibition presents 70 works by 21 artists from conceptual art’s beginnings in the mid-1960s through to the late 1970s, including pieces by Richard Long, Bruce McLean, Michael Craig Martin, John Latham, Bob Law and David Tremlett. Alongside the works, the show also presents a wealth of archive texts and objects that contextualise conceptual art in the era’s cultural and political climates.
There’s understandably a large focus on the work of Art & Language, a collaboration between a number of artists that formed in the late 60s, launching its journal Art Language as a platform from which to disseminate their ideas about art not as object, but as text. The Tate explains that the group “suggested that meaning in art might lie not with the material objects itself, but with the theoretical argument underpinning it.”
Why then reduce it to a “material object” in the form of reams of paper in vitrines? It’s a shame to see the dynamism and ideas of conceptual art confined in this way, destined to be skim-read and often stripping them of their vibrancy, working against their proposals of what art is and can be.
To place these pieces in a large, public institution like Tate Britain suggests an aim to bring conceptual art to a wider audience and make it a little less baffling. The show does this to an extent but its format and captioning certainly don’t play to the crowd, offering occasionally obtuse and frequently verbose explanations. Accompanying Richard Long’s 1967 work A Line Made by Walking (well, the photographic documentation of it) a panel reads that the work “does not simply document an action but is inseparable from its conception as sculpture that is also a pictorial and indexical image.” Conceptual art has long been the butt of jibes about pretentiousness, or art itself (including this hilarious moment in Smack The Pony), and framing it with captioning and formats like the Tate’s don’t help its cause.
Galleries shouldn’t dumb down art, especially art of this nature, but to me these large public institutions should have a nod to educating or enlightening its visitors. Hopefully this show will achieve that in some way: placing all these artists together does give conceptual art in its multifarious executions an anchor and a sense of place. For all my gripes about its lethargy and libraryish displays, seeing the most significant conceptual art works grouped like this does teach us a lot about the movements’ bold gestures and radical sensibilities.
The exhibition opens with its most aesthetically dynamic pieces, such as Roelof Louw’s Soul City (Pyramid of Oranges) from 1967, and like the original visitors are invited to take an orange but are politely asked to wait until leaving the gallery to eat it. Later in the show, other pieces sure to instantly delight include Michael Craig-Martin’s 1973 piece An Oak Tree, which is in fact a glass of water on a glass shelf mounted just above head height and photographs documenting Keith Arnatt’s Self-Burial (Television Interference Project), a portrait of a forlorn artist digging himself a hole and burying himself in it.
Together, the works in the show explore big, big ideas: not just about art, but about feminism, psychoanalysis, sex, death, politics, parenthood (Mary Kelly’s work is particularly striking), urban living and activism.
One of the show’s final pieces, a poster by Victor Burgin as part of Possession, has a story far broader than its graphic sensibility. When it was created in 1976, 500 copies were flyposted across Newcastle Upon Tyne. The image itself subverts advertising stock imagery and places it alongside seemingly unrelated economic statistics, critiquing the world of marketing and inferring ideas about our collective view of sex and interpersonal relationships. In the perforative gesture of repeating the image thorough a city in the spaces you’d expect to see traditional advertising, the piece is brought to life as more than a graphic. It’s a wider problem throughout the show, and inherent to displaying art about ideas: reduced to a single image, the story is only half told.
Conceptual Art in Britain 1964 –1979 is on until 29 August 2016 at Tate Britain
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