Keith Arnatt

Self-Burial (Television Interference Project)


In Tate Modern

Keith Arnatt 1930–2008
9 photographs, gelatin silver prints on paper on board
Image, each: 467 × 467 mm
Presented by Westdeutsches Fernsehen 1973

Display caption

Arnatt was fascinated with works of art that are created in the natural landscape but leave no trace of their presence behind. ‘The continual reference to the disappearance of the art object suggested to me the eventual disappearance of the artist himself’, he wrote. This sequence of photographs was broadcast on German television in October 1969. One photo was shown each day, for about two seconds, sometimes interrupting whatever programme was being shown at peak viewing time. They were neither announced nor explained – viewers had to make what sense of them they could.

Gallery label, April 2009

Does this text contain inaccurate information or language that you feel we should improve or change? We would like to hear from you.

Catalogue entry

Keith Arnatt b.1930

T01747 Self Burial 1969

Not inscribed.
Nine photographs, each 18¿ x 18¾ (46.5 x 47.5).
Presented by Westdeutsches Fernsehen (who retain transmission rights) 1973.
Coll: Acquired from the artist by Westdeutsches Fernsehen as a T.V. project 1969.
Exh: Konzeption\Conception, Schloss Morsbroich, Städtisches Museum Lever-kusen, October–November 1969 (repr.); Idea Structures, Camden Art Centre, June–July 1970 (repr.); Information, Museum of Modern Art, New York, July–September 1970 (repr.); Road Show, XI Bienal de São Paulo, 1971 (repr.); Seven Exhibitions, Tate Gallery, February–March 1972 (as ‘The Disappearance of the Artist’).
Lit: Keith Arnatt, T.V. Project Self Burial, Fernsehgalerie Gerry Schum Publication No. 10, 1969; Charles Harrison, ‘Art on T.V.’ Studio International, January 1971, p.30; Anne Seymour, The New Art, exhibition catalogue, Hayward Gallery, 1972, pp.66–8; Lucy Lippard, Six Years: the dematerialisation of the art object, 1973, p. 119.
Repr: Interfunktionen 4, March 1970, pp.45–6 as ‘T.V. Project Self Burial’; Klaus Honnef, ‘Zehn Fragenzur Concept Art’Magazin Kunst, 10 Jahrgang, Nr.38, 2 Quartal, 1970, fig 25, p.1776; Thomas Meehan, ‘A non-art article on art’, Horizon, XIII No.4, Autumn 1971, pp.4–5.

The artist told the compiler (in a written reply to a questionnaire, 24 June 1974) that ‘Self Burial’ was made at Tintern in Monmouthshire probably in June, but possibly July, 1969. He was aided in carrying out the piece by Ed Herring, a former colleague at Manchester College of Art where Arnatt taught from 1965–68. Herring helped by ‘filling-in’ at each stage of the burial and also took the photographs under Arnatt’s direction.

The artist emphasised that ‘the “burial” was done in order to arrive at the photographic sequence— the photographs are not merely a record’. And although they were used in the autumn of 1969 as a television project in collaboration with Fernsehgalerie Gerry Schum and Westdeutsches Fernsehen, ‘Self Burial’ was not conceived with television in mind. Nor did the artist have a particular exhibition in view.

Asked about the original purpose of the piece Arnatt replied: ‘I regarded Self Burial, at the time I did it, as a purely behavioural response to certain thoughts about art behaviour. I was then certainly drawn towards art which reflected procedures which might be described as “extreme”, or, perhaps, even “novel”, and the sort of art which interested me mostly was the art made by “radical” means. In such art, I felt, the procedures involved in making it had a ritualistic character (though one was not always very clear about the significance of the “ritual”). Therefore, the aspect of the nine Self Burial photographs that I initially considered important was the way I felt they must draw attention to the physical behaviour involved in the burial procedure itself. And though it was intended that the photo- graphs should convey the impression that something was happening to me, they really record— stage by stage— the product of a quite elaborate, uncomfortable and lengthy behaviour pattern. It was, perhaps the character of the behaviour that concerned me rather than its possible interpretation (something which did interest me immediately afterwards).’

Of other pieces by Arnatt the most obviously related is the 1968 ‘Liverpool Beach Burial’. This, the artist wrote, ‘was really a performance piece concerned only with the physical pattern of behaviour involved in achieving a desired (but arbitrary) end. Unlike Self Burial it was not done to get a particular photographic result (the published photograph was simply a record of the completion of the performance). However, that particular photograph did suggest that photographs, and particularly sequences of photographs, might be an effective way of showing what I was interested in.’

Arnatt first began to make works using the landscape as matrix in 1967. All his pieces done ‘within the ground’ have a common origin in his interest in Claes Oldenburg’s contribution to the ‘Sculpture in Environment’ programme in which during October 1967 he dug a pit in Central Park, New York and filled it up again. All his own work from the ‘Earth Plug’ onwards, Arnatt told the compiler, contains ‘an element of contradiction— though “perversity” might be a better word— a feature which I thought I saw in the Oldenburg work. For instance, it does not seem very reasonable to dig a hole just to fill it in again. And it seems just as wayward to dig a hole and line it with mirrors in order to obscure the fact that such a hole has been dug in the first place. Again, contradiction is surely involved in my burial of an illuminated (switched-on) fluorescent light tube. The other related work, done “in the landscape” and on floors, was— originally— an attempt to operate with what was “given”. I tended, around ‘67, to prefer art to be not too distinguishable from its setting and wished to introduce as little “foreign matter” as possible into a chosen location. This has always been an important consideration for me.’

There are further ways in which the ‘Self Burial’ relates to Arnatt’s work within- the-ground generally. One is in the suggestion of illusionism of which Arnatt wrote: ‘An interest in illusion (and delusion), in the sense of creating a false impression runs throughout much of my work. For example, the ‘Self Burial’ photographs create the illusion that something is happening to me. And, in the later ‘Keith Arnatt Is An Artist’, I consider the illusion— or possible delusion— of “being an artist”.’

Another connection is with the idea of absurdity. The artist told the compiler ‘it is true to say that the apparent absurdity, or silliness, of Self Burial is an important part of what I liked about it— I always thought Oldenburg’s work had a strong element of the absurd about it, though I liked it very much and didn’t think it in any way unserious. And I also rather liked the slightly Chaplinesque quality of the photographic sequence— the fact that it shows me just standing there whilst something quite alarming seems to be happening to me (a metaphor for my con- dition as an artist ?).’

Arnatt’s work had already for some time previous to works such as ‘Self Burial’s 1969, displayed a marked interest in reductivism and dematerialisation. He ex- plained to the compiler that these notions had, for him, become ‘“a game to play” (especially evident in the later written things I did). It was, I suppose, an interest in the question of how far you could go if you took the two terms literally. However, to actually take them literally would be odd indeed, for it would appear that the point or the aim— of doing whatever you did (or didn’t) would be to arrive at “less and less” or “nothing at all”. The words “reductivism” and “dematerialisation” seem, to me, to be used in a way of talking which reflects the idea that certain ingredients in art may outlive their usefulness (in art) and are therefore discarded (whilst more is made of the remaining ingredients and/or new ones are added).’

This relates to Arnatt’s ongoing interest in what could be considered ‘radical’ behaviour in art. He told the compiler that he saw ‘radical’ as synonymous with ‘extreme’ and with ‘pursuing ideas to their limits’. For example, wondering ‘just how far certain aspects of recent art could be pushed’ and ‘appearing to take the notion of reductivism literally’ is embodied in his 1970 work ‘Is it possible for me to do nothing as my contribution to the exhibition ?’. Brinkmanship was also important to him in ‘the sense that I wondered how far you could go and still be considered an artist.’

What apparently interested Arnatt most about ‘Self Burial’ after he had done it ‘was the way in which it might be seen as “an ultimate gesture” on the part of the artist— particularly the “earth artist”.’ And he added to this ‘incidentally, I think the notion of “a gesture” does apply to much of my work.’ Clearly therefore it was important that the subject of the burial should be the artist: ‘Self Burial was as much a comment upon my own (preceding) art behaviour as it was upon others’ (I’d already dug quite a lot of holes), and the Self Burial photographs achieve their point when it is realised that the “subject” of the photographic sequence is identical with its author.’

Arnatt told the compiler that the question of using television came up in the course of a conversation with John Latham about how to make APG (Artist Placement Group) activity known to a wider audience. He recalled that he had suggested ‘that it would be better for APG to do something which exploited the nature of television rather than to just use the medium to tell people what APG did. And it was when I considered how one could achieve the maximum effect in the shortest possible time (television time being so expensive) that I thought of the idea of periodic interference (which, if carried out, was bound to raise the question of what’s going on). It was then a question of the nature of the material that one might use for a succession of visual interferences. I suggested to John that my Self Burial photos might fill the bill as the nature of the imagery made it unlikely that the individual photographs would be associated with the context of information in which they appeared. John tried to get the BBC to do this project though nothing came of it.’

The artist subsequently met Gerry Schum, of Fernsehgalerie Gerry Schum in Düsseldorf, at Charles Harrison’s house in London. He showed Schum the photo- graphs and discussed the possibility of using them on television. According to information from WDR— Fernsehen, Schum then wrote (14 September 1969) to Dr Werner Höfer, head of WDR’s Third Programme suggesting that he might care to take up the project, explaining its structure and its context and very specifically what needed to be done. He also proposed that it should be broadcast to coincide with the Cologne Art Fair, taking place 11–18 October.

Beginning on 11 October the photographs were inserted into the normal television broadcast schedule twice a day, first at 20.15 after the daily news and interrupting the station signal of WDR, the second time at 21.15 interrupting whatever programme was running at that peak viewing time. (See Keith Arnatt, T.V. Project Self Burial, Publication No. 10, ed. Fernsehgalerie Gerry Schum.)

On Saturday 18 October it was inserted into the cultural magazine ‘Spectrum’ (20.15–21.00.) And on this occasion Arnatt was interviewed .live about the piece and about artists’ use of new media in general. The interview was interrupted by the sequence of photographs in order to remind or make clear what was being talked about, but this was after the final photograph had been shown. The last and the first photographs were shown only once during the week but all the others were transmitted twice, as it were recapping the previous episode. The image stayed on the screen for two and a half seconds for the first two days, but this was subsequently increased to four for better registration. The artist told the compiler that viewers assumed the image to be a technical fault on the first two occasions, though by the second night they had begun to realise something was happening. The photographs were broadcast again by T.V. Hilversum, but all on one evening on 18 December. (Gerry Schum subsequently arranged a second project of this kind: Jan Dibbets’ ‘T.V. as a Fireplace’ transmitted in December the same year.)

With regard to the function of the piece within the medium of television Arnatt wrote: ‘I consider the latter to be a slightly different way of projecting what interested me in the former. Both have to do with— in the broadest possible sense— the “appearance” of art as well as the appearance of the artist. But, what especially interested me about inserting (unannounced) the nine photographs into the context of television— as opposed to displaying the same photographs in an “art context”— was the way they would be taken. In other words, I was interested in getting an audience to consider what might be going on. After doing Self Burial and seeing the photographs for the first time I was struck by the fact that the sequence was capable of widely different interpretation and that interpretation itself depended upon context. And though the nine photos are seen collectively within the context of TV they also appear— individually— within the context of a particular programme. How “disruptive” viewers felt them to be would depend upon the nature of the programme interfered with.’

Published in The Tate Gallery Report 1972–1974, London 1975.

You might like

In the shop