Keith Arnatt, who died in 2008, after having had a retrospective exhibition at The Photographers’ Gallery in 2007, is a key figure in the history of British photography. He is also a key figure in the history of Tate’s photography collection, as is underlined in the current display of his work at Tate Britain, entitled “Sausages and Food”.
Why this funny title? Well early on, he challenged Tate for collecting only (so-called) “photographs by artists”, as opposed to “photographs by photographers”. This exhibition crystallises [once again] this divide between “art” and “photography” that Tate used to endorse. Arnatt himself went from being an artist who documents his conceptual art with photography, to an artist who fully expresses through photography. The exhibition touches upon both phases of his career.
You will love Arnatt’s sense of humour. Every single work involves laughter on one level or another: irony, ridicule, absurdity, from the sublime to the ridiculous, comic of repetition, word puns, etc.
Another running obsession of his is rubbish: Arnatt is one of those who take a close look at garbage, observes it and transforms it, like Baudelaire or Zola, into gold. His colour still lives “Pictures from a Rubbish Tip” (1988-89) are magnificent [this blog article talks about this series]. They call to mind a herd of other artists who have made still lives with discarded food and mold, such as Sam Taylor Wood in his time lapse of rotting fruit seen in the National Gallery’s Seduced by Art exhibition lately. Navid Nuur’s STAR/TING/POINT, recently exhibited at the Parasol unit Foundation, is one of the latest examples of rubbish elevated to still-life status that I have encountered. It takes the form of a photographic slideshow projected into a tipped rubbish bin.
In another series, Arnatt explores the genre of landscape photography, again unashamedly including dumping grounds in the frames, and experimenting with blocked perspectives. These landscapes call to mind the Lewis Baltz display at Tate Modern, where the same kind of black and white, frontal photography elevated austere terrains into aestheticised landscapes.
In the middle of the room, a window displays the original journal in which Keith Arnatt used the famous “sausages and food” phrase to illuminate his thoughts about the relationship between photography and art. Now I found this particular choice really ironic. First let’s remind that museums (and Tate among them, especially in the concomitant Schwitters exhibition downstairs) have this peculiar habit of fetishising artists’s original documents, journals, letters, and preferably hand-written documents by displaying them in such windows. I cannot get my mind around this practice, as I find that looking at these is utterly boring and fastidious. In my opinion, it fosters a certain attitude towards artists that tend to turn the attention away from their work and onto their person, which I do not particularly find clever or telling. In this specific case, Tate has used this fetishisation technique around a document that reveals a problem/tension in its history: the questioning of their collecting rationale. It is quite clever, as it sort of acts like a continued mea culpa. It can be viewed as a healthy practice of reflexivity on the part of the museum, which in the process of telling its own history, prefers truth to avoidance. It is all very good, I guess, but on top of the commission in the hallway (Simon Starling’s Phantom Ride, highly recommended!), which inspiration sprung from Tate Britain’s building’s history, it becomes too much self-referentiality in one place.
But even with these comments in mind, Keith Arnatt’s display remains a favourite. Looking at large photographic series all tightly hung together in tidy rows on Tate’s walls does excite me. The Keith Arnatt display shows the continuity within Tate’s photography collection: the focus on “new topographics”, the notion of series already explored in Tate Modern’s Photographic Typologies display in 2011, the reference to August Sander, etc. If you want to discover a British photographer and link his oeuvre with the recent history of art, this is perfect.
For more about Arnatt, check out this article from the Frieze Magazine archive online (a great resource!).
Keith Arnatt | Sausages and Food | 11 March – 6 October 2013 |Tate Britain | Free | Curated by Andrew Wilson