Coventry is known for a number of things, not all of them complimentary – where you’re ‘sent to’ when no one wants to talk to you, Lady Godiva and her naked horse ride, Sir Basil Spence’s Cathedral, Europe’s first pedestrian shopping area (both the result of the extensive bombing of the city in the second world war) and the birth place of The Specials. As the UK’s Motor City, by the eighties the city’s economy had all but collapsed, unemployment levels were touching twenty percent and optimism was in short supply. It was to this city that that I moved to as an 18 year old to study car design for four years. I used to joke that Coventry was Birmingham without the culture. Imagine my surprise, that in the year of my birth, Coventry School of Art was a hotbed of conceptual thinking and an art revolution.
Conceptual Art in Britain looks at the 15 years from the mid sixties through to the start of the Thatcher era, and examines challenging and sometimes difficult works, many of which I had never seen before. Indeed, had it not been for my friend Denise, who was very keen to see this exhibition, I may not have visited it at all. One of the most interesting things about this show, and indeed the movement itself, is that the works on show all require you to think – what is conceptual art, what am I looking at, what is the artist trying to say? The ideas are often more important than the physical art object, and almost always it is the concept or proposal that fascinates the artist.
So if the ideas and the concepts are the important thing, then theories, philosophy, language and descriptions are ‘the art’. The pages outlining the concept or the artists philosophy become the artwork. A black canvas is brought alive by it’s title describing the different layers of colour painted to produce the lustrous black, or by a companion picture telling us that the content of the painting is invisible and known only to the artist, who won’t tell!
‘When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.’
Works such as Richard Long’s series of walks straddle conceptual and land art, and follow the concepts he initiated with ‘A Line Made by Walking’ and ‘England’ (a cross made by picking daisies in a field). A line drawn on a map is then turned into a walk, which is completed by the artist, regardless of the topography he has to traverse. A Hundred Mile Walk, 1971–2, is shown in this show, a circle drawn on a map and the accompanying descriptions concern both the artist’s thoughts, and the actual experience of walking the line.
Other artists question the materials they use, their impermanence or the idea of structure and design being governed by time or the interaction of the viewer. Keith Arnatt literally eats his words (in Art as an Act of Retraction, 1971). In another work, Self Burial (Television Interference Project), he is gradually buried alive, with images documenting of the process. These were cut into television broadcasts at precisely the same time each night over the course of a week, until he was gone. No explanation was ever given to the perplexed audience. Another perfect example of this is Soul City (Pyramid of Oranges) 1967 by Roelof Louw.
‘By taking an orange each person changes the molecular form of the stack of oranges and participates in ‘consuming’ it’s presence. (The full implications are left to the imagination)’
The work that perfectly highlight the difficulties and challenges of this type of art is ‘An Oak Tree’ 1973, by Michael Craig-Martin. A glass of water sits on a glass shelf, high on the wall, well out of reach. The accompanying plaque outlines a conversation with the artist, discussing why it is an oak tree. The work perhaps deals with transubstantiation, faith, and the trust the viewer has in the artist.
Damien Hirst in the Telegraph said, “That piece is, I think, the greatest piece of conceptual sculpture, I still can’t get it out of my head.” Anthony Caro, on the other hand, said, “Some of the stuff that’s called art is just damned stupid.”
And that I suppose sums up conceptual art – you either engage with the artist in a conversation about ideas, concepts and philosophy proposed by their artwork, or you just think it’s a load of pretentious bollocks. You can decide for yourself by visiting Conceptual Art in Britain 1964 – 1979 at Tate Britain until the 29th of August.
I took photos of oxygen molecules within the gallery spaces, which just happened to have artworks in the background, and you can see the full set of images here.