Gallery visit: Conceptual Art in Britain, Tate Britain, 10/02/16

I am incredibly thankful to John Umney for pointing me towards Merry Kelly’s Post Partum Document (PPD).  Since reading about her work and then seeing it at Tate Britain, I have decided to include her in A2, and she fits perfectly! I was really pleased to be able to go and see a section of PPD at Tate Britain yesterday morning, as they are currently exhibiting a collection of conceptual art made between 1964-1979.

The exhibition, although relatively small, has a lot of depth, and you are required to look very carefully and at length at some of the work. Often you are beckoned in to consider complex, quite intricate ‘manifestations’ – drawn in by the manner in which the work is presented. I was thrilled to see how important words and written language were to conceptual art, which I had not fully realised previously.  I’ve always been enamoured by the power of the written word, of course, probably due in part to having trained as an actor and being taught about subtext.  However, I have also recently become aware of how important writing was to me as a young girl, a fact that I’d sort of forgotten. I always wrote and received long letters from friends, family and pen pals – and later also wrote a diary where I scribbled down all my thoughts for several years. Sometimes I listen to what people say with intense interest, and read the words people write down with equal levels of fascination, wondering always just what those little vessels we call words can possibly tell us by their method of delivery and combination – and quite often the basic meaning of words are only the very tip of so much more once you begin to look beneath the surface.  I remember the theme of words and rhetoric in King Lear, how words can mean so much or so little, depending on how they are put together.  “Impression management” is a term used by writer and therapist, George K. Simon Junior. PhD, to describe how people with disturbed characters manipulate the way others see them.  Goneril and Regan were experts in impression management, although Cordelia sees right through their fancy speeches.  Words are one of the primary means of this activity – the business of managing impressions, sometimes with outright lies, falsehoods and propaganda; although of course there are other tools available. Images too, moving and still, which the Dadaists and Surrealists had satirised, and which are used especially nowadays on social networking.  The exhibition is filled with work that explores our relationship with words, politically, socially and personally.  And for me it has generated ideas and thoughts about how I could begin to include words in work I make.

I have gone on quite a lot about words but of course there is also plenty of work that is purely visual such as Keith Arnett’s Self-Burial (Television Interface Project) 1969 or the numerous black squares, and variations on the theme of black squares, which I will talk about in A2 . Whether word based or visually led, the concepts in the exhibition are often complicated, rich with nuance, history, dialectics, playful games around semiotics of course, and provocation, communicated as a combination of words as well as form. So the depth and breadth of some installations might be appreciated visually, aurally and spatially before you are even required to take any notice of text.  I have learned that much of the way of presenting work in this exhibition can be termed indexical, and Mary Kelly talks specifically of avoiding iconic images in PPD. So for example, she chooses not to rely on Madonna and Child imagery, although the work is very much in that tradition, but being conceptual has advanced beyond it (Iverson, 1997:41). Of course though words themselves are visual and some artists play with that, such as Michael Baldwin in his Index 003 Baal 1973.

However, the Tate blurb states, “…a key development that fundamentally changed the nature of art.  Conceptual art proposed an art where the idea or concept was placed above the work’s material form (which might, like a performance, be ephemeral), realising Marcel Duchamp’s dictum of putting ‘art at the service of the mind’. (Tate, 2016)  (Strange that I should so recently have come across Roger Ballan’s short film, Theatre of the Mind, which explores the stability of ‘the mind’.  What are we without a mind?  Insane he suggests.  Or perhaps just a collection of neurons and cells, organic matter, in the shape of what we have come to know as ‘human’. Lear’s mad ramblings, however, are far more prescient and reliable than his more sane mutterings.  And what of the Fool’s words – utter gibberish on the surface but cutting and accurate beneath that. Or another ‘mad’ character from elsewhere, Cassandra, is thought to utter only gibberish but her words, it transpires are more telling than people at first think.)  Conceptual art is aimed at people’s intellects first and foremost, again Brechtian in character.  So this art is at the service of the ‘cerebral mind’ and indeed, Kelly was accused of being too cerebral when she wasn’t being harangued by the press for using her baby’s faecal matter in her art. (Iverson, 1997:34)

I have just touched on the subjects introduced here and no doubt said lots of things that will prompt “but what does that suggest, mean, make you think” and so require further thought, analysis and connections.  I was, however, very pleased to have gone to this exhibition because much of what I have referred to in A2 so far can be strengthened and deepened by my exposure to the works I saw there. It’s an excellent resource for anyone studying art and modern art history – and thank you again to John!

Iversen, Margaret et al. (1997) Mary Kelly. London: Phaidon Press.

Simon, George K. (2011) Character Disturbance. Little Rock [Ark.]: Parkhurst Brothers.

Tate leaflet (2016)

Theatre of the Mind, (2016) Collaboration, Sydney College of the Arts, led by Roger Ballan (Online) Sydney: Sydney College. At: http://www.rogerballen.com/articles/theatre-of-the-mind/ (Accessed 11th May 2016)

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5 thoughts on “Gallery visit: Conceptual Art in Britain, Tate Britain, 10/02/16

  1. You’ve touched straight on my continual questioning regarding image and text and taken me along a slightly different track. My query regards the boundary where image becomes merely illustration for text and that certainly fits some conceptual art. what came into my mind thigh was when the image becomes an object as in an installation, so that we can walk around it, dissect it into parts that seem relevant; ut it under the microscope as it were.
    I think I’m travelling this route at the moment because of recent reading on Tracey Emin’s bed and what she evokes in the mind of the viewer plus a conversation I had at lunchtime today as to whether she is an artist or not.

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    1. Art is a funny word, innit? Complicated. I watched the Maplethorpe documentary last night (excellent) and I wonder if your friend would consider that art… No text there. None needed. I’m about to start the semiotics section and the whole language (visual/text/other) thing is just fantastically interesting. I can’t wait to write about Shelly’s work which I hope I will do tomorrow. I think you’ll find some of her ideas interesting and it might inform your thoughts about text/image boundaries. And then the long and arduous citation checking before I’ll have A2 ready. I have to find a way to include the citations as I go without it slowing me down and getting in the way of my thinking. By the way, do I need to reference King Lear in my ‘bibliography’ here? I’m not referring to a book anywhere – just knowledge of a play that’s roughly 500 years old. What’s the score with that?

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  2. Glad it worked for you. The piece that I saw at the Wellcome Collection is at one level only about words; how the artist feels her child is becoming somewhat lost to her as it develops the skill to write and therefore losing that exclusive mother child relationship/dependency. I thought it was fascinating.

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    1. That’s certainly one very important aspect. The whole installation – there are several sections – is so intricate and full of possible things to grab hold of, No wonder she’s thought of so highly. I’m gobsmacked by how rich and clever her work is. It’s really, really smart.

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