The first ‘British Art Show’ was held in 1979. This September ‘British Art Show 6’ opened at the Baltic in Gateshead. Sixteen works from the first edition of this quintennial survey of contemporary British art, and the (now defunct) ‘Hayward Annual’ of the same year, were re-shown together late this summer. In 1979 I was a foetus, and so I’ve seen none of the one-off performances and only a few of the lesser-known paintings from the period in the flesh. Caught in a no-man’s-land – too distant to be contemporary, too recent to be historical – work from the late 1970s is often overlooked, but it marks a significant moment of divergence in British art. ‘1979’ highlighted a line drawn between the painters and the rest: a factional art scene where competition for gallery space put pressure on institutions such as the Hayward Gallery, which was accused by artists of showing an imbalance of exhibitions tending towards less traditional forms (performance, video, sound) and away from painting.
The jewel of ‘1979’ was Charlie Hooker’s re-staged Stroll On (1979). First performed at the Hayward, Stroll On is a live sound work. Four people play chimes as they walk in a circle around a spiral of sheet music spread on the floor while Hooker draws musical notes on the paper. The sound gets more complex as it rises to a climax and then recedes. This process takes a long time, and it’s an endurance test for the audience. As with Michael Snow’s film Wavelength (1967), in which a 45-minute tracking shot slowly zooms in on a snapshot hanging on the far wall of his New York apartment, Hooker makes you aware of the passage of time and creates a relationship between himself, the audience and the space that only exists for the length of the event. Both works are determined by their form, which is largely why Snow’s was so revolutionary for film and Hooker’s became a foundation for performance in the 1980s: experiments in duration and increasing efforts to make a connection with the audience.
Hooker developed performances in an attempt to make something that couldn’t be readily consumed by the art market. Fast-forward 25 years and enter Tino Sehgal, whose recent piece at the ICA The Objective of that Object (2004) featured five ‘interpreters’ chanting a recited script before departing into impromptu pseudo-philosophical discussion. Sehgal’s not so much pioneering as extending Hooker’s project, questioning the market value of art and the role of the artist in the gallery setting. Yet here their shared concerns diverge: Hooker was working with a desire to have an immediate relationship with the audience, but Sehgal is never present in his own performances. Instead, he acts as a distant puppet master.
While Hooker plays with duration, much of the work from the period has succumbed to the passage of time: some has been lost; some wasn’t intended to last. Michael Mason’s sculpture Agincourt (1977), built from recycled timber, was made of cut and assembled wood sections measuring three metres in either direction. Shown here as a maquette, it paid tribute to the original but, because it’s so tiny, failed to convey its forceful presence.
The late Euan Uglow’s method of painting was arduous and transparent. His process is rendered visible in Head of Pat (1978–9), which reveals the grid that Uglow used to transcribe the portrait. His paintings are laboured but seem unresolved despite his efforts; his lengthy obsession with looking only creates more distance between the subject and its image. Uglow has been lumped in with the ‘London School’, a term that gives a false sense of community. In 1979 factionalism wasn’t just between media, but among painting styles as well. Uglow’s realism contrasted with Albert Irvin’s rhythmic abstract landscapes and James Faure Walker’s chaotic surfaces, which strangely echo calm Impressionist water-lilies. Stephen Buckley’s works are full of contradictions, with elements of both relief sculpture and painting. His raw paintings can be understood as a bridge linking painterly, historical traditions with experimental practice. By the late 1980s this overall division of artists settled down to placid levels of difference, illustrating John Berger’s comment that ‘It’s not – and never has been – a question of all abstract art being fundamentally opposed to figurative art’. It was a competitive market for gallery space, where for a few years institutions were struggling to make sense of the increasing range of media that artists were using.
With the ‘British Art Show 6’ inclusion of 50 artists who have risen to the fore in the past five years, the emphasis is on the tendencies that link their individual practices. ‘1979’ was an educative survey of a period often overlooked in British art, and a prescription for what was to come.