Thursday, 30 December 2010


First published @HIT&MISS E-zine August 2009

Conceptual Art has been to the fore in recent months, with
Bruce Nauman’s retrospective at the Venice Biennale, Topological Gardens, winning a Golden Lion for best pavilion, with extensive promotion for veteran Marina Abramović’s performance and exhibition in Manchester and forthcoming retrospective at MoMA NY and with Jan Verwoert’s breezy history of British Conceptual Art in the summer issue of Frieze. The prestige of Conceptual Art steadily consolidates, now trails a pedigree and salutes seniors. Yet it is still expected to provide invention and experiment. Advocates routinely claim it as the most progressive branch of the plastic arts, if not the arts more generally, even as they look to its laurels. Conceptual Art claims the future, but cannot resist history. There is a problem here for the project, and this is a convenient point at which to consider it.

The casual reader is warned; this is a technical, even tricky read.

While Conceptual Art is generally understood as a movement commencing in the early sixties (hence the name properly is capitalized) there has always been a problem in defining salient characteristics for the style. A common assumption has been that, as the name perhaps suggests, idea or content to a work takes special prominence over materials or form (this is the view adopted in
Wikipedia, for example) although this will hardly distinguish it from many traditional works. Nor is it clear how this content or concept is defined, if not in relation to form. A ‘pure’ concept begs logic before art. Indeed, art is frequently taken to assert the indissolubility of content to form. So, ‘concept’ alone cannot distinguish the style. The Conceptual work is elsewhere seen as de-materialised in some way, yet clearly, such works have form or material and could hardly present content or concept without it.

Sol Le Witt’s famous formulation, that planning is foremost and execution deliberately downplayed, hints at a slightly different focus. The work acquires a recipe or plan that allows various instances to be generated in strict compliance, permanently or temporarily. This is commonplace in literature, music and other performance of course, where manuscripts, scores or scripts determine true instances or valid performance, but is unusual to painting or sculpture, remotely connected to prints. The plan is a phase or stage to the work and each instance of the performed or executed work, allows various circumstance and interpretation while complying with the plan. Permanent or temporary instances do not thus exhaust the work’s identity; the work’s identity does not rest only on instances of performance or publication. Together, these give the Conceptual work a strikingly different status, rather than material. We appreciate their materials for different qualities from traditional painting or sculpture. However, this may be experienced as indifference to material where execution is severely constrained and temporary, where beholder readily assumes the concept to be no more than briefly constrained execution. Immaterial is not so much wrong as imprecise.

Obviously much Conceptual work is not concerned with programming painting or sculpture. It often exhibits no more than text or records of events, by movie, still or audio track, of either the actions of people (often just the artist) or durations of a place, selected objects there. But these too are really to borrow from other branches of the arts, to sample phases to the identity of the work, through presenting them as plastic or fine arts. They are a way of examining the process by exporting it to an adjacent realm. Identity to a work in literature and the performing arts rests on compliance with a language or notation rather than number of instances or material. A poem, whether handwritten, typed or published remains the same work while it complies with the rules of the language of the first instance. A musical composition remains the same work when performed so long as it complies with the score. Equally, manuscript or score constitute a work even when unperformed or un-performable, unpublished or un-publishable. These matters achieve new focus in Conceptual Art.

The recording of performance by sound and/or picture, presents a similar but more recent extension to identity for a work. Recording in this sense is rarely of a single or uninterrupted performance but typically complies with script or score, or where this is absent, as in improvised or folk music or tales, with such recording practices in most other respects. The record is then an important stage to the work, so that we can rightly claim to have a copy of it as disk or tape, to know the work, at least in its recorded phase. And Conceptual Art is prepared to allow that recording need require no action or motion, may simply be of a duration for place or object.

Identity for a work outside of the plastic arts is thus a graded or attenuated affair, from only script or score, to all compliant performances or copies, or those from which a single script or score may be derived, to all recordings complying with script or score, performance and recording practices, and various combinations thereof. Furthermore, translations, transcriptions, adaptations and transmissions or broadcasts by radio, television and the internet, disperse identity still further, but hardly arrive at anything as vacuous as the work of pure concept.

These issues for identity or definition of a work are thoroughly demonstrated in different branches of Conceptual Art, such as Performance, Text-only, Video and Land Art, in installation or site specific practices. But they need not be a dry or academic exercise. Conceptual Art extends the reach and sensitivity of sampling through this flirtation with other art practices, allows new complexity to content and sample.

Later exponents emphasise production or set process, such as the commissioned works of Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst, while performance often invokes elaborate, sometimes controversial casting, such as in the works of Vanessa Beecroft or Santiago Sierra. But essentially work continues to deal in attenuated identity and instance; to allow us to discern norms and adventure to application, to see the work projected as phases and appreciate differences therein. These differences have nothing to do with the veiled allusion that thrills Verwoert, nor the indifference to text among YBA artists, signalled in Wikipedia’s confused and faltering account. Rather, they point to the advantage of a more adequate and integrated stylistics for Conceptual Art.

Finally, as a project, Conceptual Art cannot play both ends against the middle, indefinitely. Eventually, performance grows more elaborate or subtle, and rightly belongs to the performing arts. Eventually text grows more literary or print-dedicated, and belongs to literature. To boldly depart from the constraints of the plastic arts is to quietly enter a neighbouring realm. This is perhaps best seen in recent ‘video’ art, such as the work of Steve McQueen or Jem Cohen. Their movies are equally at home in film festivals, biennales or museums. But once secured in each, must promptly declare themselves peripheral. Motion pictures are not interested in being colonised by the plastic or fine arts, fine arts is not interested in becoming another distribution point for movies. The art-movie is a precarious compromise and effectively, the project stalls. The art-art movie, begs too much art, not enough movie.

Conceptual Art, even if divided into periods, never quite supersedes other styles or advances art by conspicuous technology. The more urgent the adoption, the more superficial it proves. The avant-garde, if there is just one, now lies in less predictable projects.