Arnatt’s conceptual photography changed the landscape of British art, though his legacy remains somewhat misunderstood…
Words by Alexander Stubbs
Often under-appreciated, Keith Arnatt’s influence on conceptual art is huge, particularly in Britain. In 1969, Arnatt produced a series of images titled “Self-Burial” and broadcast them on German television over a period of several days, with each image being displayed only very briefly. In “Self-Burial”, we see Arnatt standing alone in the landscape. As we move through each photograph, Arnatt begins to disappear until, finally, he is absent from the landscape all together.
Viewing “Self-Burial” singularly and with the distance of time- as originally intended by Arnatt – provokes in the viewer a sense of unease. Arnatt could, as some critics have suggested, be playing out his own suicide; as the viewer, one becomes complicit yet powerless. If, however, we experience “Self-Burial” in its entirety and all-at-once, the physicality of Arnatt’s work becomes clearer. The artist is simultaneously mediator and the one being mediated. Subtle changes in the landscape become more evident to the eye, and Arnatt occupies the position of self-reflecting artist and decomposing sculpture.
Playing with themes of trace and the artist’s presence, Arnatt encouraged a criticism of the conventions of art. As Luke Skrebowski writes, Arnatt “used grids to scrutinise the artist’s photographically mediated position within the work’s mise-en-scéne.” For Arnatt, the egotism he saw in his contemporaries fuelled his satirisation, though he always remained concerned with his own perception as an artist, as seen in “Untitled (Study for Trouser-Word Piece, I’m a Real Artist).”
‘Real’ artist or not, Arnatt’s influence is undeniable; a testament to the importance of conceptual art – as well as conceptual photography – on the art world as a whole.