BY Ian Hunt in Reviews | 10 SEP 00
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Issue 54

Live In Your Head

I
BY Ian Hunt in Reviews | 10 SEP 00

The generous intention of 'Live in Your Head' was to provide an overview of the period of 'concept and experiment in Britain' from 1965 to 1975. It set out to do this by presenting selected works free of all but the most immediately necessary contextualisation: this was not to de-historicise them, but better to show the variety of ways in which they were, and are, part of their time, and yet are neither locked into it nor only the British cultural context. It was no small achievement to keep the sense of works primary in a show like this, over and above the unfolding cultural, political, hairstyle and trouser developments. Recent statements by many of the artists, useful as they are for encountering the range of opinions as to what the period's art was really about, were restricted to the catalogue.

Nevertheless, in a gesture characteristic of contemporary curating, it seemed as though the task of sorting and discriminating had been turned over to the exhibition's visitors. No bad thing, perhaps, but the tentativeness with which the main arguments were presented was excessive. Charles Harrison wrote of what he perceives as the 'loss of virtue' around 1972 in the catalogue to 'When Attitudes Became Form', a survey of the period curated by Hilary Gresty in 1984. It is the possibility of debating 'virtue' (not just culinary 'freshness') that is still part of the appeal of this period. The wideness with which the net was cast (an understandable impulse), made for generalisations about some import-ant tensions. It is precisely because the disagreements, failures and achievements of the period were more than personal or internecine that contemporary viewers who weren't there might have appreciated a shade more curatorial intervention to point out some lines of divergence.

What was the core appeal of dryness in British Conceptual art? John Hilliard's Camera Recording its Own Condition (7 apertures, 10 speeds, 2 mirrors) (1971), with its neat, impersonal arrangements, is exemplary. Social relations in photography is yet to arrive as Hilliard's subject. Without them, what's his work about? Just what it says. David Dye's Distancing Device (1970) is a periscope-like arrangement you need to walk away from to read - after a few attempts the single letters spell words: K-E-E-P G-O-I-N-G. It's like a mixture of Beckett (minus the angst) and an instruction from Monopoly. The viewer/participant so necessary to works of this kind has to work out the chart of a new puzzle, and, as so often is the case, it feels like an art in abeyance, functioning as a placeholder for political and social changes it dare not represent.

Perhaps more upfront political activity, teaching, structuralism or privacy was waiting in the wings. Marc Camille Chaimowicz is a fascinating artist to think about in this context: his turn to the domestic in the 1970s resonates with unresolved tensions of the world outside the door. Rasheed Araeen's For Oluwale (1971-3), documenting a racist murder, entered directly into debates British culture is still having with itself and its police force, and it showed up the absence of shared histories of subjects other than art.

The film programme was more than useful, in that the atmosphere of the London Filmmaker's Co-op deserves to be at least as well examined as the story of 'Who Did What Next at St Martin's School of Art'. The questioning of narrative pleasure was of equal significance to the questioning of the presence of art, and its relics have, unlike those of some of the artists, only rarely been priced up or offered for raiding by younger artists at first hand. The Co-op was also an arena in which Feminist thinking gained in force. On the other hand, the inclusion of some Concrete Poetry was less helpful, promoting a vague sense of 'word-image' activity rather than its variations of purpose. The use of language by certain artists in this period is part of a quite different development and merits separate consideration. British poetry from 1965-75 had its own convulsions and its own intense dialogue with American practitioners. It was beyond the scope of a show of this kind to tackle that particular bit of mislaid history.

'Live in Your Head' was, however, an overdue and positive contribution. Most surprising of all, it proved how valid it could be to present works of this moment in a national context.

If dryness figures as part of the local legacy, that is appropriate. There are plenty of reasons still for British art to consider putting its distress signals in code.

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