During the late 1960s when first produced, Keith Arnatt’s conceptual artworks asked the viewer to define (or forego definitions of) just how much the artist needed to give of him or her ‘self’ in order to make a work. Sometimes this was asked outright, in pieces such as “Is It possible for me to do nothing as my contribution to this exhibition?”, a text work submitted to a group exhibition at the Camden Arts Centre in 1970. Other pieces dealt with acts of omission, withdrawal and not following through with the artist’s intended gestures, as the work. At a time when critics valued artistic bravado, bold performative gestures and creative autonomy, Arnatt confronted these claims, drawing instead on aspects of failure, doubt and contingency within his experience of being an artist. He once said “I’m not and never have been authentic.” (1)
Artists’ withdrawal from and disillusionment with the ‘turbo capitalist’ art-making machine and its normalizing mechanisms are ever more present today. Works by the Ladies Invitational Deadbeat Society (LIDS) or emerging Icelandic artist Saemundur Thor Helgason, for instance, point to the unimaginative and inadequate structures- whether financial or technological- that support most contemporary art exhibition practices. In their refusal-letter-as-contribution, the LIDS propose their return to refusal as “a move towards advocating for a radical change of pace in the arts … in the face of capitalist overproduction.” But contemporary art’s echo of Arnatt’s critical work of the 70s doesn’t mean we should find the latter easy, summative or pellucid.
As an artist who, parallel to Barthes’ writing of ‘The Death of the Author’, similarly rescinded his privileged role as the maker of meaning, his work was in making the audience work- whether in parsing the difference between said and saying, represented and representation or intention and realisation. In other words, he wanted to provoke action, curiosity and questioning in his viewers. Take, for example, the photograph ‘Invisible Hole Revealed by Shadow of the Artist’ (1968) wherein the making of an invisible hole likely represents a disappearing from the art world without trace, so that the act of self-negation cannot be recuperated as event or gesture. And yet the photograph, photographer and artist’s shadow all attest to this invisibility, contradicting the premise at the moment it is represented. Similarly ‘The Absence of the Artist’ (1968), a photograph of a sign bearing the titular words posted to a brick wall, speaks as much to the artist’s presence- the maker of this object- as to the absence alluded to in the text. If reception and concept are different things, as Arnatt so often draws attention to, then what does the current staging at Sprüth Magers, seven years after his passing and fittingly called ‘Absence of the Artist’, do to these original works? Or rather, following Stephen Horne’s call to critics and viewers to be affected and make active relations with works of art, what can we do to make this work strange, discontinuous and to maintain the questioning spirit it was made with? (2)
For this viewer, in the context of this exhibition, each work resonates with the artist’s precarity and the drama of loss, and is intensely affecting. Even if they were initially conceived as comments on his withdrawal from and disapproval of the art scene of his times, betraying a wry humour, I can’t help reading in them the literal death of the author and the transience of physical presence. Looking at ‘Self-Burial with Mirror’ (1969), where Arnatt’s face sticks out of the ground to gaze at the viewer through a mirror reflection, his knowing look of surrender suggests he was always thinking of this one final vanishing trick, wherein the photograph would be at its ultimate distance from reality, giving presence to a truly, yet noticeably, absent man.
(1) See http://www.frieze.com/issue/review/keith_arnatt1/