Keith Arnatt works of the late 1960s and early 1970s were installations and acts thought of as environmental or contextual modifications. Mirror-plug, 1968, and Invisible Hole Revealed, 1968, were among a number of similarly titled sculptural-environmental installations with actual perceptual effects as components. Trouser-Word Piece, 1972, and Art and Egocentricity - a Perlocutionary Act?, 1972, incorporated quoted text and in these works Arnatt used pieces of linguistic philosophy (of the 1960s) in a reductive, almost derisive, dissection of a range of protocols linked to meaning in art works to include even apparently radical works by himself and his contemporaries (other conceptual artists).
Self-Burial, 1969, like the earlier Liverpool Beach Burial, 1968, was a theatricalisation of Arnatt’s interest in what he thought of as distinctive, ritual, egoistic, behaviour connected to making art, and (also as Self-Burial (Television Interference Project), 1972, which photographically documents a 1972 transmission of Self-Burial on German television) is in the sequential form of its original staging. Sometimes simply (An Exhibition of the Duration of the Exhibition, 1969; Is it possible for me to do nothing as my contribution to this exhibition?, 1970; Art as an Act of Retraction, 1971) a work is precisely the content of its title or a question under a specified condition. Is it possible… ?, for instance, remains a specific asking.In removing the artist as apparent presence in works Arnatt's work changed in the 1970s. He had shown early series installed in long rows intended as reproducing a directed engagement with his subjects. In this way the lost work An Institutional Fact, 1972, connects to The Visitors, 1974-6, and Walking the Dog, 1976-9. In the series Gardeners, 1978-9, in privileging the depiction of his subjects’ immediate environments and in producing an accumulation of background detail (recalling an interest in landscape elements in historically nominally portrait painting) across sequences of images, he assumed the possibility of a type of literate referencing.
His landscape photographs used a kind of pictorial conventionality. In series such as A.O.N.B. (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, an institutional acronym), 1982-5, and The Forest, 1986, Arnatt saw this as a consequence of an interest in typological and genre pre-occupations which were artefacts too (in the sense that subject-matters are emphatically, again, art historically marked by type). In the 1980s he would talk of his interest in art historian Norman Bryson's adoption of the expression ‘rhopography’ (the overlooked; the insignificant). Later colour works deployed all of the artifice he associated with picture making, including (Notes from Jo, 1991-1995) apparent self-effacement or ridicule. A strategy that connects later works to early works.
Arnatt was capable of making fairly austere deflationary observations through works, for instance ‘I’ as an indexical is played with in just those shifts of contexts which it was thought produce change of reference (Trouser-Word Piece, 1972). He thinks that the content of a photograph is its content in use, there’s no flatly productive gap between that and some document. His shadow pieces mock the idea of that type of productivity in a way that connects to his general derogation of the authentic trace in art works. In Mirror-lined pit (grass bottom). An invisible hole revealed by my own shadow 1968, the artist produces a shadow across the work and the shadow’s appearance depends upon its having been photographed, but, in giving the appearance, there is no additional content of the work (the photographic print associated with the work derives its content from the work including the act of photographing it).
Nor are the series of the 1970s and early 1980s performative (the word meant something distinct to Arnatt in the 1960s, connected with pragmatics)—the thought is jejunely problematic as it implies that later works which are series of photographic prints and works represented by a (surviving) photograph have as a uniform component a further decision to make a work as a photographic thing. Arnatt never thought of himself as being a photographer. Quotations or material from interviews that seem to indicate that he did usually suppress the context in which he was discussing an idea either impersonally or with irony.
At some point in the early months of 1970 Arnatt made a written proposal to Klaus Honnef in Aachen offering to do the following:
‘On May 8th. 1970, I will travel by air, from London, to the nearest airport to Aachen. I will complete my journey to the Monachau open-air exhibition site by bus, train or any available transport. On arrival at the exhibition-site (or as soon as is practically possible), I will defecate* (*‘to shit’ or ‘to crap’ (English colloquialisms)) on a pre-selected location chosen by yourself. As soon as this ‘act’ is carried out, I will catch the next available bus/train back to the air-terminal and take the first possible flight back to London.’
There follows a diagrammatic instruction on exhibiting the work showing a sign and piece of cordoned-off grass with a small heap just off centre. It’s reasonable to think of Arnatt's work as quite generally cordoning-off some enlarged area, and his works considered by the artist as anticipating certain sorts of limited reactions construed in a complex sequence involving the deposited thing. That motif anyway is present in early works as well as later series (two versions of Defecation Piece, 1969,1970; Dog Turds, 1990). The projected act, or interference, is restricted in its intelligible significance. The action itself takes place in seclusion, there is, as he says in his proposal to Honnef ‘... no question of it being a public performance’.