“Live In Your Head: Concept And Experiment In Britain, 1965–75”

Was there a British Conceptualism? Previous surveys of this development have mapped a cross-Atlantic phenomenon; more recently, “Global Conceptualism” made the case for a worldwide tendency. Current retrospective exhibits of Sol LeWitt, Martha Rosler, and Cildo Meireles have instead focused on the work of a single practitioner. Neither global nor monographic in approach, “Live in Your Head” examined the local context of Britain in the ’60s and ’70s. Inured to all the buzz surrounding Young British Art, the Turner Prize, Tate Modern, etc., one could easily wonder whether Conceptualism itself was being retrofitted as yet another manifestation of British hipness.

Not at all. In their catalogue preface, curators Clive Phillpot and Andrea Tarsia declare their discomfort with “facile or bogus nationalisms”; they state up front that the emergence of Conceptual modes in London took place within a broader international context. British artists traveled extensively, and non-British nationals were drawn to the cultural ferment of Swinging London and its numerous art schools. The identical cross-mix of media associated with Conceptual practice in other citieslanguage, serial number systems, photography, video, film, and performancewere very much in evidence at the Whitechapel, again confirming the international character of London-based work.

Yet if the exhibition stressed the global context of British Conceptualism, it also revealed the remarkable vitality of London at the time, offering a local understanding of a specific scene. Admittedly, the catalogue could have gone further than it did in explaining the numerous practices represented in the show (many unfamiliar to all but the most informed viewer). The longer essays respectively offered different narratives, credibly suggesting that a subject as complex as Conceptualism in Britain could be adequately addressed only from multiple viewpoints. Phillpot argues that the developments covered in the show were kickstarted by the Destruction in Art Symposium organized in London by the German-born Gustav Metzger in 1966 and attended by such artists as Hermann Nitsch and Yoko Ono, a narrative that constructs London Conceptualism in terms of a global neo-dada, “anti-art” impulse. Tarsia’s essay focuses on the widespread use of temporal media, including video and film. So far so good. But here we find Rosetta Brooks, one of the first curators to exhibit this work in the ’70s, espousing the chauvinistic viewpoint that the Whitechapel curators set out to dismantle. Observing that “Americans have felt free to appropriate every innovation developed in England in whatever way they choose” from pop to New Image painting, Brooks suggests that London alone was the site of origin of Conceptual modes without providing anything resembling an analysis to support this claim. Implying that Conceptual art is a European/US phenomenon of British birth (forget South America, Asia, and the rest) and that American artists are Yankee pilferers with no ideas of their own, her essay is an opinion piece at best; it has no place in a catalogue with scholarly pretensions.

Fortunately, the extremely rich exhibition allowed viewers to reach their own conclusions about the merits of the work in question. Like any historical show worth its salt, “Live in Your Head” disinterred a number of now-obscure projects of real interest. Certainly, there were well-known works: John Hilliard’s Camera Recording Its Own Condition (7 Apertures, 10 Speeds, 2 Mirrors), 1971; John Latham’s notorious Still and Chew/Art and Culture, 1966–69, a performance that entailed masticating pages from Clement Greenberg’s Art and Culture “borrowed” from the library of St. Martin’s College of Art, where the critic’s favorite sculptor, Anthony Caro, then reigned. Disintegrating Clem’s pensées in acid, Latham distilled and fermented the remains; shortly thereafter, he was dismissed from his teaching position at the school.

But other, lesser-known projects lent texture and depth to the show. Some looked as if they’d been made yesterday. Roelof Louw’s pyramid of 6,000 oranges meant to be consumed by visitors was a concept that returned, to much fanfare, in the work of Felix Gonzalez-Torres, while Keith Arnatt’s photos of himself with the placard “I am a Real Artist” point to ’90s “loser” art. Stuart Brisley’s Artist as Whore, 1972, a performance in which he covered himself in blood and rolled around in a corner, and Arbeit Macht Frei, 1972–73, a video of the artist vomiting (a work I found unwatchable), pointed backward to Vienna Aktionismus and forward to the so-called abject art of recent years.

Other projects were very much of their time. One revelation was the Boyles, an artists’ collective consisting of a father, mother, daughter, and son; this avant-garde Partridge Family has been producing rubbings of dirt, pavement, skin, sand, and snow since the mid-’60s. Judy Clark’s prints of her own skin and that of a male friend constituted another use of the indexical mode to examine biological definitions of sexual difference. A video by Gilbert and George of the artists getting soused, Gordon’s Makes Us Drunk, 1972, reminded a younger viewer that these blue-chip darlings once made work that was witty and fresh. Michael Craig-Martin’s glass of water placed on a shelf and then declared to be “an oak tree” severed the presumed transparency of sign and referent more intriguingly than many Conceptual projects of those years and demonstrated that Craig-Martin deserves as much acclaim for his art as for his role of mentor to the current Goldsmith’s group. These and other works made for an installation that was admirably focused yet capacious in scope. Not all of the practices brought to light were so wonderful; many warrant study, and many more are deservedly obscure. More than any specific work, though, the scene as a whole remains compelling, and one can only hope that others will follow the Whitechapel’s lead in recovering this radical British legacy.

James Meyer is assistant professor of art history at Emory University. He is the editor of Minimalism, forthcoming from Phaidon.