Research notes – Keith Arnatt

Keith Arnatt (1930 – 2008) was a British conceptual artist and photographer.

Some of the following observations derive from an article by Ian Walker entitled “Between seeing and knowing”, apearing in the book “Keith Arnatt – Rubbish and Recollections”, published in 1989 by the Photographers’ Gallery. Ian Walker was discussing Keith Arnatt work both and how the made the transition from conceptual artist to photographer.

In “…Earth Plugs”. Arnatt cut a hole into the ground and lined it with fibre-glass: a “plug” was made to fit it exactly, filled with earth and topped with turf. When the plug was removed, the hole was all too evident, but when replaced, one could locate it only if one knew already where it was. The plug had two opposing states – in or out – but in which state could it be said to be “functioning”? When it was out and therefore inoperative, or when it was in and therefore invisible? Arnatt commented that his concern was “with the relation between what one sees, or does not see, and what one knows, or does not know”.(1)

Earth plug link

This is interesting because a photograph primarily deals with what one sees, but many times it also deals with what one does not see. The camera always captures more than one sees, simply because one is too preoccupied with the subject and fails to notice what is going on in the periphery, and sometimes even quite close to the centre. Sometimes what one does not see compliments what ones sees perfectly. In many occasions there is the temptation to “crop” or “clone out” what we did not intend to photograph, but I think sometimes we crop too much. Sometimes what is there is better left there.

There is also the issue of asymmetry of information. The photographer knows better than the viewer what is there at the moment he or she is taking the picture. Sometimes this knowledge works at a disadvantage for the photographer, because our prejudices may affect the way in which we portray something, resulting in many missed picture opportunities. In many occasions, though, the photographer may use such knowledge to deceive or to mask. To show something in a way which is different from reality and to manipulate the viewer into his or her point of view.

“Following on most directly from “Earth Plugs” was “Invisible Hole” (1969), a square hole cut in the ground with mirrors on its four sides and turf in the bottom. Unlike the “Earth Plugs”, the hole was not physically hidden, rather its invisibility was the result of imperfect perception. The mirror not only “simply” reflected what was in the hole, but also reconstructed it, and any attempt to understand what was being seen involved a continuous sense of oscillation between two and three dimensions.

Arnatt was struck by one photograph of the Invisible Hole which became a work in its own right, the Invisible Hole revealed by the Shadow of the Artist. Considering that image, Arnatt began to understand the ability of photography simultaneously to document what was there and to transform it into something quite different.”(1)

Invisible hole link

Indeed, photography is not only a record of what we see, but a tool to transform reality. It can probably never be a fully accurate record of real life or a substitute for being there, but its greatest power lies in transforming meaning by virtue of light and composition.

In relation to “Self Burial – Television Interference Project”, Ian Walker says:

“…It is important that these are static images – lugubriously deadpan in their very stillness – pretending to be “stills” from some probably very slow event as the artist effortlessly descends into the ground. The illusion is convincing but also quite unconvincing, for logically we know that it couldn’t have happened like that. We can imagine all the activity – the digging, the climbing in and out – which must have gone on between frames. Still we half believe in the events, if only because the photographs themselves are so very straight. The pictures are “documentary” even if the performance is bogus; a fictional narrative is created from factual single images. “(1)

Self burial link

Again, the relationship between knowing and seeing: we know they are fake, but we see they are real. The artist may also know they are fake, but the public does not know how they were faked…There is an interplay between what we know and what we show in a picture which can be a form of art on its own. In modern club photography you may often see this process but in inverse: we are soo used to photographs being overcooked with post-processing that occassionally you may have a picture of something real but unusual and the viewers would mostly assume that it was “photoshoped”. In that case, the viewer may seem them as fake, but they do not know they are real.

——————- ooo ——————-

A.O.N.B. – link

Miss Grace’s Lane – link

Pictures from a Rubbish Tip – link

Industrial Gloves – link

Boxes – link

Arnatt’s later work as a photographer, as opposed to his early use of photography as a conceptual artist, makes extensive use of everyday, mundane objects as the focal point of pictures. Starting with A.O.N.B., Arnatt peppers the landscape with man-made objects which are sometimes incongruous or which, under standard parameters of aesthetics would have been avoided or removed for the purposes of taking a “successful” landscape photograph: rubbish tips, abandoned cars, sign posts and the like. This theme is elaborated further  in Miss Grace’s Lane, where rubbish and dereliction becomes the central theme, but the composition and use of light somehow improves the aesthetic impact of looking at what one would normally find repulsive. While the treatment in A.O.N.B. and Miss Grace’s Lane seems to be natural in the sense that these object are seemingly photographed “as found” (although we may never know if that was the case), the use of derelict objects in subsequent projects, such as in “The Tears of Things” or the “Industrial Gloves” series, have a distinct “studio” feeling to them: the objects seem to have been taken away from their environs, isolated and then taken from such an angle and with such lighting as to transform them into abstracts. Nearly every object is afforded the same treatment: shallow depth of field, dark background without any distinct features, and a very close-up point of view. In the middle of these two approaches, the Howler’s Hill  / Pictures from a Rubbish Tip projects stand like the “missing link”: while objects still give the impression of being taken “as found” (although in this case we do know they were actually picked up) many of the photographs feature close-ups and give very little background information. The “Boxes” series follows from the above but the treatment of the light in here is slightly different with frontal flash is used to give the subjects a harsh, direct illumination that puts them clearly in the spotlight. It is clear from this progression that Arnatt was preoccupied with the transformative effect of photography, an aspect he already recognised from its use of the medium while working as a conceptual artist, and taking this to the extreme he was able to extract beauty from objects that we would normally find repulsive or simply ignore for being mundane.


(1) Ian Walker: “Between seeing and knowing”, appearing in “Rubbish and Recollections” – Arnatt, K (1989). London: Photographers’ Gallery.


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