Saturday, 27 October 2012

Down the rabbit hole of conceptual art…

A few weeks ago I watched a video on the OCA website of an interview with one of the tutors, Jim Unsworth, about his practice. One of his comments was ‘I’m not a conceptual artist…’ This made me think – ‘do I really understand what conceptual art is?’. So off I went to Wikipedia for some education…

I guess the title is quite explanatory really… In conceptual art, the idea is more important than the resultant piece of artwork ‘The idea becomes a machine that makes the art’ (Sol LeWitt). Wikipedia notes that it is important not to confuse intent with concept in defining a work of art. Duchamp is considered to have paved the way for conceptualists, with his exhibiting of ‘readymade’ artworks, most famously ‘Fountain’ in 1917. It only appeared as a real art movement in the 1960s (Wikipedia) and fits in well with the 60’s attitude of breaking away from the mainstream in life and art. Interestingly, Wikipedia says that ‘Conceptual art also reacted against the commodification of art’, which goes against the modern phenomenon of artists such as Damien Hirst who are playing right into the hands of the art market currently. In line with this thinking, conceptual art was often recorded through documentation – for example by photographing it. This is perhaps the start of conceptual photography, though not in the same sense as it is thought of today. I find it interesting to note that for conceptual art to be successful, it didn’t matter if it was not executed properly – that is, the ‘artist’ didn’t need to have any specific ‘artistic’ skills! I admit to having walked around many modern art exhibitions and commented with my husband that ‘I could have done that!’ – I knew enough at that time to also comment ‘but they had the idea to do it’, which was my basic understanding of conceptual art at that time!

Wikipedia has a great section on ‘Notable examples of conceptual art’ which is quite an amusing read and shows the large variety of ideas and concepts that have been executed as art in the last few decades. There were also some links at the bottom of the page – I have included a couple below that I found interesting, particularly Sol Lewitt’s “Paragraphs onConceptual Art” and the Stanford Encyclopaedia entry. So after doing some reading, I feel like I’ve got a somewhat better grasp of what conceptual art is, however, how this relates to photography I’m less sure. Many of the examples of photographs mentioned in the articles are _of_ the art, not the art themselves. So I chanced upon Source magazine online, which happened to have three short videos entitled ‘What is Conceptual Photography?’. Perfect. Notes below:

Part 1:
John Hilliard, taken from for personal study purposes
John Hilliard, taken from for personal study purposes
  • Not a commonly used term in art (conceptual) – not commonly applied to oneself.
  • Most photographs have a subject matter.
  • John Hilliard – video of him and fellow videographer spinning and filming each other and the background and shown together.
  • ‘Idea art’ another early name for conceptual art.
  • Less ‘critical’ industry around art in the 1960s – not like there is now. The artists had to do the thinking and writing for themselves – nobody else was doing it.
  • The ‘documents’ were the important part – e.g. the photographs.
  • John Hilliard – interested in the technical apparatus. Exposure, speed – how to incorporate means of production into image itself. The subject is the object. E.g, 60 seconds of light. Reducing the question of ‘what exposure do I use’ to different prints.
  •  Hilliard – drafts up his ideas first (very prescriptive) – he draws it first, and thus is very conceptualised
  • ‘Camera recording its own condition’ – the same image 70 times
  • Point of view – e.g. the cat with dog/woman – two images overlain and flipped (i.e. looking at the cat from two sides) – i.e., why make this picture from this place or that place?

Part 2:
Suzanne Moody, taken from for personal study purposes
  • Suzanne Moody ‘Make love to the camera’
  • ‘Dialogue around photography obsessed with representation rather than the mechanism’
  • Sean O’Hagen (Guardian)
  • Lucy Soutter – content can be recognised, but the ideas and historical references are not always recognised by the viewer
  • Conceptual photography term can be a bit derogatory to other forms of photography – suggests that there is no thought involved in ‘other’ kinds of photography
  • Paul Graham ‘the unreasonable apple’
  • What was the driving force of art before concept? Response of the eye, poetic, tactile, emotional – these things are ‘out’ now!
  • The idea may be obvious, but it may be held back
  • One way of looking (photography) – given one point of view, and sometimes it’s deceptive. (Suzanne Moody) – ambiguity is interesting. You can never work it out.

Part 3:
Broomberg and Chanarin, Taken from for personal study purposes
  • ‘All photography is conceptual, and all photography is not conceptual – all photography is an abstraction of reality’ Oliver Chanarin
  • Artist v Photographer
  • A separate genre – closer to the art world than most other photography is
  • All contemporary photography is conceptual to some degree (Lucy Souter)
  • Difficult, obscure and meaningless work – and something happens and meaning is found
  • What do you expect to see? What do you want to see? … a document in its true sense (Chanarin and Adam Broomberg)
  • ‘photojournalism is being controlled, censored’ (Broomberg)

The videos gave lots of thought to the various aspects of conceptual art and conceptual photography, and I shall continue to look more into this as an interesting genre.


Broomberg, A & Chanarin O (2011) Universes-in-universe Website [online], Available from: [accessed 14 July 2013]

Hilliard, J (2012), Tumbler Feed John Hilliard [online], Available from: [accessed 14 July 2013]

Hilliard, J (2008), Artfacts [online], Available from: [accessed 14 July 2013]

Lewitt, S (1967), Paragraphs on Conceptual Art [online], Available from [Accessed 27 October 2012]

Moody, S (2004), Suzanne Moody [online], Available from  [accessed 14 July 2013]

Tate Museum (2012), John Hilliard Artworks [online], Available from [Accessed 28 October 2012]

Source Photographic Review (2012), What is Conceptual Photography? [online], Available from [Accessed 27 October 2012]

Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (2007), Conceptual Art [online], Available from [Accessed 27 October 2012]

We are OCA (2012), Open College of the Arts’ blog [online], Available from: [Accessed 27 October 12]

Wikipedia (2012), Conceptual Art [online], Available from [Accessed 27 October 12]

Wikipedia (2012), John Hilliard (artist) [online], Available from [Accessed 28 October 2012]

1 comment:

  1. I've also had those same thoughts regarding "I could do that" and then realised that my brain just doesn't seem to work that way. I'm still trying to work out the role/importance of the camera in it all.