On a strict art historical reading, the expression ‘conceptual art’ refers to the artistic movement that reached its pinnacle between 1966 and 1972 ] Amongst its most famous adherents at its early stage we find artists such as Joseph Kosuth, Robert Morris, Joseph Beuys, Mel Ramsden and Ian Burns in Australia.
Whilst conceptual art on this interpretation might arguably be limited to works produced during these five or six years nearly half a century ago, it seems overly narrow – certainly from a philosophical perspective – to limit our inquiry to works produced during that period alone. The reason is that conceptual art, historically speaking, sets out to question our traditional conceptions of what an art object should be made of and what it should look like. The artwork is a process rather than a material thing or object.
Australian photographic art historians –eg., Helen Ennis and Gael Newton— make little or no reference to conceptual art, and its core idea that the locus of the work was deemed to be the idea or statement with the work being a performance of that statement. Do we infer that, unlike the US and elsewhere, there was no conceptual photography produced by art photographers in the late 20th century?
There were. I can recall Robert Ronney's Holden Park 1+2 (1970); Virginia Coventry's Service Road (1976-77); Ian North's Canberra Suite (1980-81). There may well be others.This photography was lo fi and it was used to destablize the formalist aesthetic that was hegemonic in the art galleries, such as the Australian Centre for Photography and the Australian National Gallery.
A example of a statement or idea is ‘Walk down a country road on the Fleurieu Peninsula and take twenty photographs of a tree (a pink gum or wattle) and a Xanthorrhoea’. The process is walking down the country road, and it is contrasted to the modernist idea of photography as a separate and definable “medium” distinct from painting, sculpture, printmaking etc.
On this interpretation of conceptual art, process matters more than physical material, and because art should be about intellectual inquiry and reflection rather than beauty or aesthetic pleasure, the work of art is said to be the idea at the heart of the piece in question. The inference is that there is a critical edge to conceptual art towards the art tradition and institution.
Hence the idea of an oppositional photography that establishes a critical distance from cultural conservatism; a cultural conservatism that has traditionally defined how we look at, and understand, the Australian landscape.