One Foot Has Not Yet Reached the Next Street
'One Foot Has Not Yet Reached the Next Street' by Keith Arnatt was at the Gallery of Photography, Dublin, April - May, 1997
Review by Martin McCabe
In terms of introduction, the work of the British artist, Keith Arnatt is known to most art students at any rate for his Self-Burial TV Interference Project of 1969. This was an 'intervention' which used a series photographic images of the artist burying himself in a hole which were broadcast on television over a period of a week or so; one at a time they were literally dropped, unannounced and unexplained, into the televisual flow. It endures as a work because amongst other things it traversed video art as anti-television, conceptualist practices, performance, and photography at a specific historical moment when new agendas and paradigms were emerging. But that was then. TV has done a couple of revolutions since. While just about coralled into the so-called 'breaks', TV advertisements today use similar tactics to Arnatt's in infiltrating the fabric of everyday life at any and every possible juncture and space. Arnatt's exhibition at the Gallery of Photography entitled One Foot Has Not Yet Reached the Next Street is a series of large scale photographs of found objects taken from a dump. This includes toys, household items, clothes, paint tins, garden ornaments, etc. They are photographed in situ using available light and are consequently imaged with a minute depth of field which acts to focus the attention of the viewer onto certain parts and qualities of the objects isolating them from their context and environment.
They are implicitly elevated in this manner. Thus old worn bricks for instance, ( Bricks 1990 ) are monumentalised, almost totemised. They become quasi-landscapes with textures, contrasts and topographical features. In this regard, there is a certain epiphanic quality to the images where contemporary material culture is retrieved from the fate of a land-fill. Images of rubbish, the cast off, waste have been seen in the images of Jeff Wall, Chris Killip, Mike Kelley et al. yet with Arnatt they perform differently. These acts of recuperation and elevation of the culturally abject are imbued with a deep melancholy in the precise collecting, framing and their positioning in this context.
The accompanying press material underlines with a protesting voice that "no trickery is used". This defensive positioning of the purity of the work on its own is rather banal but when coupled with a more contentious framing of the work deepens the sense of resignation and confusion the work suggests. Arnatt has cited Turner, Blake, et al. as a tradition that has informed this series. Indeed the invocation of English Romanticism underscores and compounds the problems in reconciling a heritage and philosophy with a social context and historical moment. The main body of the gallery contains the largest scale and most abstract images. Gloves for instance are rendered almost as studies in colour and form. (In fact without the titles, some would be unidentifiable). The inclusion albeit obscured of a label on the bottom of one paint pot proclaiming "a quality British product" reinforces this reading further. The mourning of a past tradition which rendered the universe 'sublime' in light and painterly signifier is echoed in the palette of the brick images and the plaster cast dogs. How is this engagement with the past if that is what it is to be read? The distorted puppies' and toy's smirks at least provoke a smile if not more but contradict the metaphysical gesturing of the other images. How much of it is play and irony?
In an adjoining space, the representation of the paint pot in a smaller series again throws up the issue of the painterly signifier and the art historical discourse around it as some possible entrance point. In particular, the images of the paint pots in their frames are literally supported by the paint pots themselves on the floor of the gallery. The notion of support or pedestal is crucial here in that Arnatt is literally putting the paint on a pedestal. At the same time, it might well be a mistake to seek some overarching codified agenda or set of concerns at work here. The almost regimented formal approach to the material and the application of the photographic apparatus suggests a coherency of purpose but fails to confirm this.
Returning to the where this came in, conceptualist art practices were never really an end in themselves although many practitioners were satisfied with this teleology early on. It was an attempt to force other concerns beyond the art object onto the agenda; to politicise the institutional set of practices around art and cultural production in general. It was not just a game. There were higher stakes. The most important contribution was a radical de-idealisation of the art-object and art production. In the contemporary context where conceptualism is back as a 'style', Arnatt seems to be retreating. There is a hint that this is form of aesthetic 'back to basics'. The style, format and dimension of these images bestow a certain gravitas and portentousness onto the subject matter. And yet at the same time, it can also render them ridiculous and ironic. It is in this field of ambiguities and contradictions that Arnatt's images get lost.