In Sol LeWitt’s Buried Cube Containing an Object of Importance but Little Value several rather uncomfortable looking people can be seen gathered around a hole: firstly digging it, then placing a small white cube inside it, and finally filling it in with earth. The work takes the classic form of conceptual art: several deadpan black and white photographs are laid out on the wall in a grid formation, each accompanied by a short matter-of-fact text description. The year was 1968, and the LeWitt work can be seen as riding the wave of the move in art away from the austere, self-contained, ideal form art object, and towards a more critical, engaged and contextual mode of working. While LeWitt would never do anything as trite as use a metaphor, it’s hard not to read his work as being a kind of burial ceremony for the exhausted logic of modernist art.
The Tate Modern’s latest conceptual art blockbuster show Open Systems: Rethinking Art c.1970 seeks to offer a coherent re-appraisal of the progressive work being produced around the world at that time of cultural and social sea-change. The aim of the show is to shed light on an important current running through it: a shared interest in exploring the role of systems and processes in creating works of art. Including the work of 31 artists – familiar names from Europe and North America, alongside lesser-known practitioners from South America and Eastern Europe – the exhibition takes a global look at this new phenomenon. Certain works included here have reached a status that lies beyond familiarity, and at times the experience is akin to flicking through the pages of a conceptual art textbook. Richard Long’s A Line Made by Walking, in which he had made exactly that by flattening the grass in a field and photographing it – stands confident, modest in its humble simplicity, but proud of its radical influence. And in Martha Rosler’s video Semiotics of the Kitchen you get the feeling that the artist has been performing her biting satiric whisk-wielding demonstration non-stop for the last thirty years, and a whole new generation of artists have grown up under its web of influence.
A potential pitfall of a survey of this kind of work lies exactly in its over-exposure; these artists have now moved in from their former position on the fringes and have become the establishment itself. While once their invective could be aimed squarely and without qualification at the artworld, their work is now inextricably bound up with that same establishment – and in return its institutions are only too happy to demonstrate how tolerant, open-minded, and left-field the artworld is now willing to be in showing those formerly controversial works. Hans Haacke is a case in point. A medium-sized room in this show is dedicated to his Shapolsky et al., Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971. The work consists of photographs and other information about the real estate holdings of the Shapolsky family in New York. The family owned huge numbers of slum properties, under several different company names, and Haacke’s research throws into sharp focus the extent of their power over the population. When it was first aired the work was considered sufficiently incendiary to force its exhibition to close down, with the curator being sacked in the process. Now however, the Tate Modern can relax, happily – almost smugly – taking credit for its decision to include this “political” work. Shame really then that its real political heart has been wrenched out by the passage of time.
Putting aside these issues – this is a historical survey after all – there is much to be fascinated by here. Even well known works like Mel Bochner’s Measurement Room can still raise a smile. The work consists of a near-empty room, the only addition being a series of measurements written directly onto the white walls in black lettering mapping out the dimensions of the space. From floor to ceiling, fifteen foot three; from the side of the doorway to the corner, seventeen foot nine. By being adapted to its new site each time it is shown the work still retains its stunningly straightforward ability to raise the viewer’s awareness of their own presence in a particular space. Helio Oiticica’s large installation Project FILTRO – for Vergara, New York 1972 engages the viewer in a different way. A large wooden construction almost completely fills the gallery; its doorway beckons you to enter, and in doing so you find yourself twisting and turning your way through a series of narrow corridors. The passageways are divided up into distinct spaces by coloured curtains, particular types of music, in one section a television, and finally just before the exit, an orange juice dispenser invites you to complete your multi-sensory experience. Oiticica had developed a unique classification system to replace the traditional categories of painting or sculpture, with Project FILTRO falling into the class of the penetrable (which roughly translates as “things that can be penetrated or entered into”). Whilst the New York school of conceptualism was busy pursuing its dogma that art was all about the idea rather than the form, Oiticica’s idiosyncratic system was much freer and didn’t have to eliminate the sensory pleasure of simply experiencing things. His work stands out here, surrounded as it is by an otherwise overwhelmingly black and white sea of dull images; it remains oblivious to the cry echoing round the exhibition – “art’s not visual, remember!”
According to the curator Donna De Salvo the show seeks to draw parallels between these artists’ own aesthetic systems and those of the real world, and that for many of them this meant questioning the authority of systematic knowledge. Gerhard Richter does this almost literally in his huge wall-based installation 48 Portraits – in which a series of photographs arranged in a large grid depict the faces of noteworthy figures from history. Though the images all come from the pages of an old encyclopaedia, their systematic display has the effect of removing any hierarchy of importance, and causes us to neglect the individuals’ impact on the world. Richter talks about ‘the neutrality of the encyclopaedia, which neutralises everything and all ideology,’ adding, ‘it is a fact: we make everything the same.’ The work has the effect of undermining the authority of the encyclopaedia, and by implication, of knowledge itself.
Perhaps the most compelling aspect of this show is its refusal to pigeonhole conceptual art in the usual art historical terms: there is no attempt here to give an over-riding account of the work in terms of its relation to what had gone before in art. Still radical and challenging even now, much of the work defies easy historicisation, its impact still being felt and absorbed by artists and critics working today. In one of the most poetic and resonant works in the whole show – a fuzzy black and white video entitled Broken Fall (Organic) – the artist Bas Jan Ader can be seen dangling from a branch of a tree high above a pond. As the seconds and minutes tick away, the inevitability of his impending fall looms larger and larger, until finally he succumbs to his own weight and plummets into the water. Flawed though the conceptual art project might have been in making any lasting difference to the world at large, its legacy lies in showing us that any system in art is at least worth pursuing, even in failure.