conceptual art and photography

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.  

4 responses
Do you think someone viewing your photographs of the walk past the trees & xanthorrhoea would "get" the concept you had in mind? Or would it be OK if they gained another concept, eg. "these photos show the artist has an appreciation of the vegetation in his/her immediate environment"? In what sense could I gain a different concept from Rusch's series of gasoline stations, other than some vague sensation that these are spatially isolated but rather uniform representations of something ugly but necessary to our way of life"? I'm just trying to get my head around conceptual art.
Pointy Spicule
here is a place to start I came across it after I'd done the post.
OK, thank you for the link @Encounter Studio blog. It occurred to me that a "happening" I attended many years ago might have been conceptual art: an artist dug up a fish he had buried in foil for some time & nailed it to a tree. I thought it was vaguely interesting & a little bizarre but didn't really "get" an overall satisfying thought/concept around it. My guess is this was conceptual art & whatever thoughts the audience generated in response were the concepts, regardless of the artist's main intent???
Pointy Spicule
The Art Institute of Chicago, which put on the exhibition Light Years: Conceptual Art and the Photograph, 1964 – 1977, in March 2012 says that the greatest contribution of the Conceptual era was to turn contemporary art into a field without a medium.

They say that conceptual photography took many forms—from photo-canvases and mixed-media sculptures to photobooks, magazine articles, slide and film projections, and postcards, as well as "straight" photographic prints shown singly or in series. It is this diversity of objects and presentation methods, rather than any fixed, categorical notion of photography or art in general, that is the lasting legacy of Conceptual Art: the establishment of contemporary art as a field without a medium.