BY Jeremy Millar in Reviews | 05 MAY 93
Featured in
Issue 10

Keith Arnatt

BY Jeremy Millar in Reviews | 05 MAY 93

It has been said that the one thing of which we can be certain is that we can be certain of nothing. Although time has transformed this statement into a banality of conventional wisdom, it does still possess a sense of uneasy equilibrium, a sliding of distinctions which Keith Arnatt's work has often shared. The images on show emerge from the series Pictures from a Rubbish Tip which Arnatt worked on towards the end of the 80s, although that is not to say that the photographs here mark a distinct progression. Instead it is to acknowledge a closing-in of attention, a narrowing of focus. The shift in selection not only transforms the object but also the frame in which it is placed (and to borrow a phrase, Arnatt is always more interested in tracing round the frame than in that which it contains). Landscapes become still-lifes, yet still-lifes which are marked through and through by the landscape, like veins in a marble ashtray.

When his earlier landscape series, A.O.N.B., which centred on Tintern Abbey, attempted to confuse the simplistic dualism of nature/culture, there remained the suspicion that, despite the cool elegance of the New Topographics style, human debris was violating the idyll. In this later series, The Tears of Things, such doubts have been resolved, but only in that they have become simply irresolute. Here, the high heel of a printed snakeskin shoe rises up, nervously, like a cobra which senses defeat, while a plastic cow lies on its back, its legs in the air, as if stricken by rigor mortis, the lens peering vet-like into its man-made arse. This is undoubtedly nature morte, but not nature killed by the asphyxiating constraints of culture. Instead it is a nature condemned to death by its own recycling, no longer an original presence to be symbolically opposed to culture.

These issues are explored further in another series, The Sleep of Reason. Here, Arnatt has photographed cast-concrete garden figurines, again grounded in nature, their forms, this time, canine. But these share none of the wet-nosed vitality of Koons' puppies. Instead these are sub-mongrel, the results of poor production, moulds over- and under-filled, damaged and deformed, eventually, at Arnatt's specific request. This sense of interference is crucial, bringing to mind the genetic curiosity of DuPont's famous OncoMouse™. Here a gene associated with cancer was inserted into a mouse for laboratory experiments, the 'discovery' being patented in 1988. The experimenters had, effectively, invented an animal. Even the inscription in the Goya etching from which Arnatt took his title - Abandoned by Reason, Fancy Produces Monsters - seems like a plea to restrain the biotechnocrats.

In such cases, as in Arnatt's movement of elements in his earlier tips series, tampering is virtually undetectable, an effect which could have occurred 'naturally'. The confusions also occur on a much larger scale - the evening sky, for example. The series Canned Sunsets seeks to question what it is to represent this phenomenon, a genre as ubiquitous, packaged and devoid of spontaneity as the laughter which the title suggests. Bases of paint tins are photographed amidst paper and cellophane, the stark geometry of the images evoking Caspar Wolff, even when one can bears the sticker Made in Britain. This work achieved an even greater poignancy when Arnatt visited São Paolo in 1991, where this work represented Britain in the XXI Bienal. Seeing the intense purples, golds and blacks of the sky, Arnatt realised that he was indeed looking at a man-made sunset, this time made in Brazil, the light refracting through the haze of one of the world's most polluted cities.

It is this sense of transformation which for almost 25 years has most excited Arnatt, his choice of the most debased of subjects allowing the necessary space for art to display itself. The photographs' high-gloss makes them adverts for nothing, and like adverts they have moved beyond the true and the false, their verification, instead, the self-fulfilling prophesy. Fascinated not by the raw material of the images but by what they are turned into, we might say, along with Wittgenstein, that these photographs tell us nothing about the objects except that they allow themselves to be described, which is indeed the case.

Jeremy Millar is an artist and head of the MA writing programme at the Royal College of Art, London, UK.