Thursday, 14 April 2016

Conceptual Art in Britain 1964–1979 - Tate Britain

Barry Flanagan, ringn '66, 1966
I am looking forward to seeing this – British Conceptual Art occupies an important place in my life: this was what was happening, and what I was excited about, when I was an undergraduate. However, my enthusiasm is tempered a little by the realisation that what once seemed so vital is now nostalgic ‘history’– which makes me feel old!
The reviewers, with the exception of Matthew Collings, have not been very kind: it seems there is lots of reading and, apart from Roelof Louw’s oranges and Susan Hiller’s postcards, not much colour! Well, I would expect nothing less – it was grey and wordy. (However, perhaps it didn’t need to be – in a somewhat oblique radio interview with Phillip Dodd, Bruce McLean recalls examining the substantial catalogue of the seminal, international exhibition of Conceptual Art in 1969 – When Attitudes Become Form -  and wondering how come, amongst all the regulation black and white photographs, Bruce Nauman’s work was represented in colour: it turned out that he had simply asked for it to be so!)
The range of material should make for a rich show - I hope that John Latham’s Art & Culture is included (1): in 1966 he invited a group of St Martin’s students to chew and spit out the pages of a library copy of Clement Greenberg’s Art & Culture – Latham duly lost his job but the ‘distilled’ book ended up in the collection of MoMA, New York. (The work is referred to in related articles but it is not clear that is included in the present show.)
Other works include documentation of Bruce McLean’s Pose Work for Plinths, Richard Long’s and Hamish Fulton’s excursions into the landscape, Mary Kelly’s rigorous examination of the mother-child relationship Post-Partum Document, and Keith Arnatt’s Self-Burial; there are sculptures - Michael Craig-Martin’s Oak Tree, Barry Flanagan’s heap of sand, ringn '66 – and paintings, by Art & Language (grey) and Bob Law (black). And, of course there will be pages of indigestible text by Art & Language. Great stuff!
Read an article by Olivia Laing; reviews by Matthew Collings, Adrian Searle, Mark Hudson, Laura Cumming, Waldemar Januszczak, and Fisun Güner; listen to an interview with Bruce McLean on Radio 3’s Free Thinking.
(1) I've been to the show now - disappointingly Latham's case isn't on show, only a display of documents.

Keith Arnatt Self-Burial (Television Interference Project) 1969
Keith Arnatt, Trouser-Word Piece (detail), 1972-89
Art & Language (Terry Atkinson and Michael Baldwin)
Painting / Sculpture, 1966-1977
Susan Hiller, Dedicated to the Unknown Artists (detail), 1972-1976
John Latham, Art and Culture, 1966-69
Richard Long, A Line Made by Walking, 1967
Roelof Louw, Soul City (Pyramid of Oranges), 1967
Bruce McLean, Pose Work for Plinths, 3, 1971
Michael Craig-Martin, An Oak Tree, 1973. 
Q. To begin with, could you describe this work?
A. Yes, of course. What I've done is change a glass of water into a full-grown oak tree without altering the accidents of the glass of water.
Q. The accidents?
A. Yes. The colour, feel, weight, size ...
Q. Do you mean that the glass of water is a symbol of an oak tree?
A. No. It's not a symbol. I've changed the physical substance of the glass of water into that of an oak tree.
Q. It looks like a glass of water.
A. Of course it does. I didn't change its appearance. But it's not a glass of water, it's an oak tree.
Q. Can you prove what you've claimed to have done?
A. Well, yes and no. I claim to have maintained the physical form of the glass of water and, as you can see, I have. However, as one normally looks for evidence of physical change in terms of altered form, no such proof exists.
Q. Haven't you simply called this glass of water an oak tree?
A. Absolutely not. It is not a glass of water anymore. I have changed its actual substance. It would no longer be accurate to call it a glass of water. One could call it anything one wished but that would not alter the fact that it is an oak tree.
Q. Isn't this just a case of the emperor's new clothes?
A. No. With the emperor's new clothes people claimed to see something that wasn't there because they felt they should. I would be very surprised if anyone told me they saw an oak tree.
Q. Was it difficult to effect the change?
A. No effort at all. But it took me years of work before I realised I could do it.
Q. When precisely did the glass of water become an oak tree?
A. When I put the water in the glass.
Q. Does this happen every time you fill a glass with water?
A. No, of course not. Only when I intend to change it into an oak tree.
Q. Then intention causes the change?
A. I would say it precipitates the change.
Q. You don't know how you do it?
A. It contradicts what I feel I know about cause and effect.
Q. It seems to me that you are claiming to have worked a miracle. Isn't that the case?
A. I'm flattered that you think so.
Q. But aren't you the only person who can do something like this?
A. How could I know?
Q. Could you teach others to do it?
A. No, it's not something one can teach.
Q. Do you consider that changing the glass of water into an oak tree constitutes an artwork?
A. Yes.
Q. What precisely is the artwork? The glass of water?
A. There is no glass of water anymore.
Q. The process of change?
A. There is no process involved in the change.
Q. The oak tree?
A. Yes. The oak tree.
Q. But the oak tree only exists in the mind.
A. No. The actual oak tree is physically present but in the form of the glass of water. As the glass of water was a particular glass of water, the oak tree is also a particular oak tree. To conceive the category 'oak tree' or to picture a particular oak tree is not to understand and experience what appears to be a glass of water as an oak tree. Just as it is imperceivable it also inconceivable.
Q. Did the particular oak tree exist somewhere else before it took the form of a glass of water?
A. No. This particular oak tree did not exist previously. I should also point out that it does not and will not ever have any other form than that of a glass of water.
Q. How long will it continue to be an oak tree?
A. Until I change it.

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