Keith Arnatt (1930 – 2008) was an important conceptual artist whose early radical works tested assumptions about the nature of art production, the reception and legitimatization of art. During this period, his vision had shifted from complex physically realised actions to works whose reduced basis (composed of textual and photographic elements) which acts as a specification of the condition of the artwork. Arnatt’s use of photographic documentation in his works then appeared to undermine or at least deprecate a separable role of the document as authentication, and was, and is, influential.
As I developed my concept of using mirrors for landscapes, his works Earth Plug (1967), Mirror-lined pit, and Mirror-plug (both 1968) began to take an interest in me. These series of works all show the land, be it earth or turf, disrupted in some way. I was intrigued by his concept of using the mirrors and wanted to experiment with my own mirrors. Hence this analysis to understand his concepts behind these works.
A section of the earth has been excavated and replaced with a mirror-lined case, offering great confusion to anyone encountering it or its image. From certain angles, it appears an optical illusion that nothing at all has occurred – and it is this nothing having occurred.
Keith Arnatt’s Mirror-plug, together with both of his mirror-lined pits, features the removal and absence, as well as illusion. These works are quite similar to my mirror cube; the context of where the mirrors are and what it reflects, in essence. However, the difference is that his images of these mirrors are taken from a top down angle, which reflects the situation of the ground surrounding the mirrors, not the surrounding environment.
These works take precedence in the later works presented here: in the mirror-lined pits, this absence of work was an effect created with mirrors, while in later works Arnatt’s focus shifted to the very idea of doing nothing.
In an interview, he discussed how trying to comprehend a photograph of a Mirror-lined pit can be as tricky as approaching the object itself: ‘The photographs, more often than not, did not make at all clear what was photographed, but rather, presented the viewer of the photograph with precisely the same difficulty.’
Withdrawal or ‘doing nothing’ achieves its decisive form with “Is it possible to do nothing as my contribution to this exhibition?” (1970). Arnatt proposed that he did nothing for an exhibition at Camden Arts Centre and yet the proposal itself acknowledged – in the text that is the artwork, which appeared in the catalogue only – that ‘I can put forward the idea that “I did nothing” as my contribution to this exhibition, as an idea only.’
This idea persists to this day, paradoxically immortalising the artist’s desire to contribute nothing, to forgo the making of an artwork, and simply to disappear.