Conceptual Art in Britain 1964-1979: Tate Britain

The palpable scent of oranges and a reconstruction of Roelof Louw’s 1967 ‘Soul City’ (A Pyramid of Oranges) sculpture opens Tate Britain’s Conceptual Art in Britain exhibition. This sculpture not only immediately engages visitors’ senses, but also acts a microcosm for the ideas behind conceptual art as a whole; whilst some visitors looked quizzically at the pyramid and others played an active role in changing the molecular form of the sculpture by taking an orange. All of the artworks on display were created between 1964, the year Harold Wilson’s first Labour government was elected, and 1979 when Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives gained power – yet despite nods to contemporary politics in certain works the exhibition failed to offer much explanation or context of the era these pieces were created. Noteworthy exceptions to this do appear in the final gallery with Victor Burgin’s ‘Lei-Feng’ which repeats a Vogue advert nine times with juxtaposed added captions relating to the ideological training of a Chinese soldier under Mao, and Conrad Atkinson’s photographs on the troubles in Northern Ireland. Outside that, the exhibitions’ strength for me lied in its ability to amuse, as I laughed out loud on more than one occasion! Keith Arnatt’s series of eleven black and white photographs entitled ‘Art as an Act of Retraction’ shows the artist with pieces of printed card crumpled in his mouth – symbolically almost eating his own words. Likewise Michael Craig Martin’s ‘An Oak Tree’ simply displays as a glass of water on a glass shelf alongside a series of questions and answers written by the artist in which he maintains that this particular glass of water has transformed into an oak tree with wonderfully hilarious conviction.

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