Keith Arnatt: Absence of the Artist - Art Collector

Keith Arnatt, Self-Burial, 1969, 9 black and white photographs, each 39 x 39cm. Courtesy: the artist and Spruth Magers, Berlin and London

By Emma Capps

The artist Keith Arnatt makes several appearances in the retrospective of his work currently on show at Sprueth Magers. We see him first in Art as an Act of Retraction (1971), a series of portraits in which Arnatt appears to be literally eating his own words (consuming eleven separate pieces of paper that read, one by one: “eleven, portraits, of, the, artist, about, to, eat, his, own, words”), and then later, in Self-Burial (1969), we see him again (but not for long), as the artist gradually disappears into a pit of dirt – his face assuming a resigned, indifferent expression as his body descends into the earth.

In most of the works on display, however, Arnatt is (as we have been told) absent. In a black and white photograph we see a brick wall, attached to which is small piece of paper that reads simply: “The Absence of the Artist”. In
Artist’s Piss (1970) we once again almost catch a glimpse of Arnatt, but are instead offered an alternative – we see where he once was, but is no longer.

Keith Arnatt, Art as an Act of Retraction, 1971. 12 black and white photographs, each 33.5 x 22.5cm. Courtesy: the artist and Spruth Magers, Berlin and London

Throughout these works (all of which were conceived between 1967-72), Arnatt explores and performs the rituals of disappearance and absenteeism. In a text work submitted to Camden Arts Centre in 1970, Arnatt asks:
Is it Possible for me to do Nothing as my Contribution to This Exhibition? In the form of a long excuse (rendered with a logician’s precision), Arnatt explains why, instead of doing something – he had decided to do nothing.

This process of doing nothing – or of choosing to omit, refuse, bury, and obscure – is Arnatt’s great gift. As he once asked (and to which there seems no possible answer): “If art is what we do and culture is what is done to us – what would culture do to us if art is what we didn’t do?”

Absence of the Artist shows at Sprueth Magers until 26 September 2015.

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