Review: Conceptual Art in Britain 1964-1979

April 14, 2016
  • Rating: ★★★☆☆
Tate Britain

When you enter this exhibition, you’ll see a pyramid of oranges stacked up in front of you, giving the gallery a pleasant citrusy aroma. Go over and pick one up – this is allowed – and hold it in your hand for the rest of the time you’re there. You’ll want to glance down at it occasionally for a hit of colour in this otherwise monochromatic room, which compensates for a lack of aesthetic pizzazz with its tone of intellectual playfulness.

Conceptual art in Britain is set up as a direct response to modernism – an elusive term if ever there was one – with its concerns about colour and shape. The artists displayed here were far more interested in context and participation than an evaluation of their brushwork. In fact, there’s virtually no brushwork at all. For them, art was contextual, mutable and transient – hence the oranges, which will simply rot away if the Tate allows them to, which I suspect it won’t.

Many of the pieces are neat, self-contained thought experiments, conversations between the artist and the viewer that challenge you to define your relationship to the pieces. One of the more succinct – if a little glib – examples is Malcolm Craig Martin’s glass of water, perched innocuously on a high shelf. Only it’s not a glass of water; it’s an oak tree. There’s a Q&A explaining that the artist has made the glass of water become an oak tree, but has left all the qualities of a glass of water. Youmight see a glass of water, but it’s actually an oak tree, alright?

Several works are just black squares, the absence of anything making the viewer consider what really constitutes a painting. One, by Mel Ramsden, comes with the framed slogan: “The content of this painting is invisible… to be kept permanently secret”. The hidden thing, of course, only exists in the mind of the person looking at it, creating a dialogue rather than a static piece of art.

The exhibition carries on in this vein: one work shows a map of a tract of ocean, which is just a blank square; another is a mirror accompanied by a lengthy treatise explaining that it is in no way unique and can be replicated by anyone at any time, before explaining how light refraction works.

Something approaching light entertainment is provided by two photographic series by Keith Arnatt. One shows him being slowly buried over nine pictures until he is invisible (these were broadcast over nine days on West German TV, for two seconds each, with no explanation). The other is an intellectual ouroboros featuring 11 photos of Arnatt eating 11 scraps of paper bearing one word each spelling out the sentence “eleven portraits of the artist about to eat his own words”. The objective is to tie your mind in a knot; job done.

I was frazzled by the time I reached the overtly political pieces in the final room, including Conrad Atkinson’s photographs of protest murals in Northern Ireland and Margaret Harrison’s women’s rights piece Homeworkers. This is an exhibition that gives little and demands a lot. There are plenty of worthwhile moments but you have to work for them; it’s the kind of thing that will appeal to nerdy art historians and people who love cryptic crosswords.

First published in City A.M.