Art as an Act of Retraction 1971 consists of eleven black and white photographic panels showing the artist in the process of eating pieces of paper on each of which has been printed a different word. These words are listed in the final, twelfth panel where they form the subtitle or explanation of the work: ‘eleven portraits of the artist about to eat his own words’. The tension here is between utterance and retraction – the eating of words made literal as the taking back of something already said; and yet Arnatt is not quite eating his own words but is ‘about to eat’ them. Using the figure of the artist as creator, art is retracted before it has perhaps been completed, putting the creative act into question.
Art as an Act of Retraction is one of a group of works which were exhibited, or intended to be exhibited in Keith Arnatt’s participation in Seven Exhibitions at the Tate Gallery, London in 1972. Other works from this group are Invisible Hole Revealed by the Shadow of the Artist 1968 (Tate P13145), Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of his Former Self 1969–72 (Tate P13143), Art as an Act of Omission 1971 (Tate P13144), I Have Decided to Go to the Tate Gallery next Friday 1971 (Tate P13142) and Rejected Proposal for the Peter Stuyvesant ‘City Sculpture Project’ (For Cardiff City) 1972 (Tate P13141). In their range they illustrate the move in Arnatt’s work from the making of situational sculptures to a documentation of performative acts that question – through a linking of philosophical text with image – the status of art and the role and identity of the artist, whom Arnatt shows to be in different states of disappearance. This group of work was presented by the artist to Tate Gallery Archive in 1972 and transferred to the collection in 2010.
Seven Exhibitions, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1972.
The New Art, exhibition catalogue, Hayward Gallery, London 1972.
I’m a Real Photographer: Keith Arnatt Photographs 1974–2002, exhibition catalogue, Photographer’s Gallery, London 2007.