Keith Arnatt Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of his Former Self 1969–72

Artwork details

Artist
Keith Arnatt 1930–2008
Title
Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of his Former Self
Date 1969–72
Medium Photograph, colour, Cibachrome print, on paper
Dimensions Support: 915 x 915 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition Presented by the artist 2000
Reference
T07647
Not on display

Summary

Arnatt’s first photographic performance project, Self Burial (Television Interference Project) (see Tate T01747), was created for the German television channel Westdeutsches Fernsehen. In October 1969, over a nine day-period, each of a series of nine photographs was shown for about two seconds. Originally called the ‘Disappearance of the artist’, the photographs document the progressive disappearance of the artist into the earth, providing a comic development of the theme of critical debate prevalent at the time: the dematerialisation of the art object. Arnatt expanded an interest in the nature of the art object with an investigation into and satire of the activities around the production of art itself. He stated: ‘the continual reference to the disappearance of the art object suggested to me the eventual disappearance of the artist himself … my work then was an oblique was of examining my own position as an artist as well as that of others’. (Quoted in 1965¿-1972 When Attitudes Became Form, exhibition catalogue, Kettle’s Yard Gallery, Cambridge and Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh 1984, p.29.)

In Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of his Former Self Arnatt mocks the manner in which much avant-garde art of the time incorporated the image of the artist as subject, object and creator of the work, again within the context of disappearance. He stood on the pavement at the door to the Newport College Art department while a colleague drew a chalk line around his shadow cast on the pavement and the wall behind. The silhouette was filled in with semi-transparent grey-brown paint and the scene was photographed. The resulting image depicts an anamorphically distorted figure positioned as though it is standing on the pavement. Because it is derived from a real body it appears natural, but at the same time it is clearly not. The feet are disproportionately large and the head is disproportionately small, while the height is that of a young child. Actual shadows on the left of the image and to the side of the drainpipe running up the wall heighten the confusion created about what is real and what is art. The white chalk line around the artist’s silhouette echoes the lines of white mortar between the bricks in the wall and a white line and arrow crudely drawn onto the bricks above the artist’s head. Pointing in the same direction as his feet, towards the drainpipe, the arrow adds a sense of purpose to the standing figure. Like the daubs of white paint on the wall on the other side of the drainpipe, the line and arrow were fortuitous discoveries – traces of anonymous urban graffiti that Arnatt incorporated into his work.

In an earlier related work, Invisible Hole Revealed by Shadow of the Artist 1968, Arnatt lined a square hole he had cut in a lawn with mirrors, thereby creating an invisible hole. It was only when a viewer’s shadow was cast over the hole that its presence was revealed, as is documented by the artist’s photographic portrait which became the finished work. Like his creation of the invisible hole in this work, and his self-burial the following year, Arnatt’s use of photography in his self-portraits became a means to undermine confidence in the veracity of photographic documentary reportage. He has commented: ‘I was beginning to become aware of the unreliability of photographic evidence and began to play with that feature. I felt that what a photograph could not tell or show might be just as significant as what it could.’ (Quoted in Roberts, p.47.)

Further reading
David Alan Mellor, Chemical Traces: Photography and Conceptual Art, 1968-1998, exhibition catalogue, Ferens Art Gallery, Kingston upon Hull 1998, pp.4-7, 43 and 69, reproduced front cover in colour.
John Roberts, The Impossible Document: Photography and Conceptual Art in Britain 1966-1976, London 1997, pp.46-52, reproduced p.46.
Live in Your Head: Concept and Experiment in Britain 1965-75, exhibition catalogue, Whitechapel Gallery, London 2000, pp.2 and 38-9, reproduced p.38.

Elizabeth Manchester
April 2004

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