Conceptual Art at Tate Britain

With two major exhibitions at the Tate and only time to properly ‘do’ one, I had the choice of ‘Painting with Light‘, an historic view of photography from the Raphaelites and Pictorialists onward, or ‘Conceptual Art in Britain 1964-79‘. As I had seen two ‘historical’ exhibitions in the morning, I chose conceptual art because it would be more challenging.


It is not, strictly, a photographic exhibition but it has a lot of photography in it, either as artwork (there are several items by Keith Arnatt, for instance) or as a record of an ephemeral work such as Bruce McLean’s ‘Six Sculptures‘.

Conceptual art is based on the principle that it is the concept or idea that is the artwork, rather than its material form. By analogy, an architect might say that it is the design and drawings that constitute his art, rather than the physical form of the building that is constructed from them. Or a cookery writer could claim that the recipe is more important than the meal produced from it by a cook following his instructions. (Arguing by analogy is always suspect, but that is as near as I can get). As a result, the notes against each exhibit go into some depth about the concept and the reasoning behind it, many of which feel like a bad comedian trying to explain his joke.

I can’t pretend to understand, or to like, much of what is on show. Self-analysing, I think the exhibits I enjoyed are those that display a degree of craftsmanship to accompany the original good idea, such as Arnatt’s ‘Invisible Hole Revealed by the Shadow of the Artist‘ or  John Hilliard’s ‘Camera Recording its Own Condition‘. I actively disliked ‘naked emperor’ gimmicks such as the mirror exhibited with a wordy description, worthy of Monty Python’s caricature Gavin Millarrrrrrrr (starts at 3:47 in this clip), about ‘dislocating modern ideas of perception…’


If conceptual art is all about the idea behind the artwork, then originality is vital. A pity then that one exhibit, Atkinson and Martin’s ‘Map of Thirty-six Square Mile Surface Area of Pacific Ocean West of Oahu‘ appears to be a copy of the Bellman’s map in the second fit of ‘The Hunting of the Snark’ (Dodgson, 1874, as collected in Gardner, 1974:56). I think Lewis Carroll would have appreciated many of the background ideas behind the other exhibits also.

Overall, my impression of the exhibition is similar to viewing a talent competition for conjurors. Much of it is fascinating and makes us think beyond what we see on the surface, but after a while I got bored with looking for the gimmick behind the performance.


Gardner, M. (1974) Lewis Carroll – The Annotated Snark, revised edition London:Penguin



One thought on “Conceptual Art at Tate Britain

  1. Pingback: ‘Shape of Light’ at the Tate Modern – Identity and Place

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