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On The Beach 1989

An Impossible Vision:  Conceptual Art in the '70s
Tim Johnson

Once the monopoly of 'artists' over 'creativity' and 'culture' is broken, it becomes possible for people to create real history and real change from their own personal experience. This is what 'art' really is, and for obvious reasons it cannot be found in 'art' galleries nor in books; only by discarding the concept altogether and then, acting on our own awareness, changing our lives, does the concept gain meaning. 1.

Ian Milliss 1973

This was the prevailing ideology amongst an emerging generation of artists in Sydney in the early 70’s and lan Milliss expressed it perfectly. Artists were making a jump from new materials to new methods, intentions and contexts and although this period in Australian art is pivotal and the influence of experimental work by artists at that time (including painters2) is still very much in evidence, it was barely collected3 by public galleries and documented primarily by its own practitioners and a few writers and critics. It is only by sifting through surviving documents and memories that its history can be reconstructed.

The options of working in print, film and tape (video and audio) are still open to the artist, and performance, in or out of an art context creates the interaction between artist and audience. Most painting is not really conceptual since its information is visual and our attitudes to it are influenced by taste. But much recent painting, especially by artists from the early 70’s shows the influence of conceptual art. Paul Taylor in describing Imants Tillers painting White Aborigines (1983) calls the two large figures ‘the performers of the painting’4, notes the use of a text and observes that here “Art has arrived at a situation of absolute reality.”6


In its purest form conceptual art is language where the subject matter of the text is art. Ian Burn and Mel Ramsden working with Art Language successfully practiced theory as art. Previously Burn had exhibited Two Glass/Mirror Piece (1968) and Four Glass/Mirror Piece (1968) in The Field exhibition and in the catalogue he lists Mondrian, Cage, Robbe-Grillet and Buckminster Fuller all of whom influenced conceptual artists in the early 70’s. Together with Ramsden's monochrome canvas No Title (1966) this work looks like a last attachment to traditional art materials and formats just prior to the development of a new art. Of course the mirror reflecting the gaze of the viewer is still viable subject matter for artists and curators and the basis for much theoretical painting. It is worth noting that in the 80s theory itself is in question. Richard Dunn writes, “theoretical activity is no praxis at all as it transforms style, perceptions, representations, sensations but not materially the world itself.”6

lan Burn and Mel Ramsden worked with Art Language, exhibited as part of the group, and contributed to the magazine. In the mid 70’s they edited issues of The Fox and Mel Ramsden is still involved with Art Language. They exhibited together at Pinacotheca in 1969 and again a year or so later with Roger Cutforth. Their art helped alter the status of the art object so that it no longer occupied a privileged position and the language involvement was no longer secondary. As Noel Sheridan points out “Art Language played an important part in changing the traditional relationship between art and criticism. In consuming the critical role within the written art work, they went a large part of the way towards shifting the power-base of entrenched formalist critical practice”7

Others working with language were George Collin (Art Dialogue), John Nixon, Sam Schoenbaum, Nigel Lendon and Terry Smith (Art and Language and Modern Masters in Australia), John Fisher and Donald Brook in his criticism.


“We do now realise that anything can be art. That is any materials or element — in any sense — can be made to function within an art context”8

“The fact that I'm no longer using language, media, art environments, art audiences, galleries, performance etc. have raised new questions and transformed the work in ways that I hadn't expected” 9

The central discovery was that art and life are inseparable. Not because one can't consider the question without first making a distinction but because what was acted out, even chosen at random generally turned out to be frighteningly real. The fantasies of art became the fantasies of life.

“They were all attempts to catalyse — that is to get people to react to what I was doing, to each other, to their own inhibitions and exhibitionism. One thing that nearly everyone reacts to is sex so we used it as the subject of the work. I tickled people, undressed them, threw things at them and so on. Because it was an artwork people were able to allow an extreme situation to develop without feeling guilty. They were able to examine their own feelings — art legitimised eccentricity. The people in the performances learn about themselves at the same time as I do because I'm externalising my experience, making it common property. That's what art's about — communicating experience.” 10

“Here is the beginning of an art founded deliberately on the premise that there is no non-epistemic seeing — no innocent eye — for form to work on.” 11

“About 34 years ago in discussions with Robert Klippel, I remember positing a theory as to the perfect condition of art ...the ideal state could only exist if that concept, as it formed in the creator's mind, could be apprehended through some process like telepathy... It was of course an impossible vision of a purely conceptual art.” 12

Daniel Thomas writing in 1976 cites Christo's Wrapped Coast Little Bay, the 1971 visit of Harold Szeeman and the exhibition he curated as the beginning of local interest in “the new international movement.”13 He describes the work exhibited at Pinacotheca, Watters and Inhibodress in the following terms: “Already by 1970 Pinacotheca Gallery in Melbourne was a focus for reflective, quiet concern with everyday life, its processes and its visual banalities, as in the work of Robert Rooney and Dale Hickey. Watters Gallery in Sydney was a centre for the rougher, more casual, funky art of Mike Brown, Tony Coleing and John Armstrong. Inhibodress Sydney, 1970-72 was the place to see conceptual ar,. body art, performance and video by Mike Parr and Peter Kennedy.” 14

Of course there was a lot more than this happening as lan Milliss points out: “the critical fixation with Inhibodress and 'official' avant-gardism has accidentally created the seeds of a real avant-garde situation in parts of the Sydney art world. Working outside the gallery system by choice, unreviewed though not particularly unknown, there have appeared several young artists producing work more sophisticated and less self conscious than that of Inhibodress.”15 The real developments were not towards the institutions as Daniel Thomas suggests, “by 1975 in Australia, the new art had achieved its own big-city institutional support” 16 but into the community (mail art. murals, projects etc.) where together with other art forms (music, theatre etc.) effective social change was achieved, (Vivienne Binns. Betty Kelly. Terry Reid and lan Howard 17).

In a discussion about the history of contemporary painting as it is represented in Art & Text reference is made to this question. “The most striking thing about the construction of this history is that in itself it perpetuates an enormous forgetting of the developments of those arts which are definitive of the 60’s and 70’s, broad left, socially and politically motivated arts such as community arts and feminist arts. This constitutes a gross erasure achieved through the classical conservative tactic of simple ignorance and the validation only of artworks or aspects of artworks which are insular, self-reflexive and aestheticised.” 18

“The attempts by some of the more extreme artists working in the area of art activity to create a closer relationship between art and daily life proved to be fairly fruitless; as in the case of those artists exploring the field of art language, their work inevitably remained the product of an esoteric coterie. Even those members of the Australian public sympathetic towards art, who make up a very small proportion of the total population, find themselves at a loss to relate to these often simplistic manifestations of avante-garde art. This situation raises doubts not only about the value of such attempts to use art as a means of consciousness-raising in a specific community environment, but also about the genuineness of the artists' efforts to communicate their meaning effectively.” 19

Some observers were critical of the new art, and for its practitioners, many of whom viewed language as sacred, performance as ritual and the community as performer participants, this was disturbing. For various reasons some left the art context altogether while others confronted the forces that were attempting to neutralise them. In 1973 Vivien Johnson wrote: “to the extent to which the artist succeeds in depicting authenticity he commits the audience to a voyeuristic role in conflict with the authenticity required. The work responds by incorporating the performer/spectator dichotomy into the works in the ways described and by elevating the audience's situation to the subject of some art.” 20

Anne Marsh ten years later makes a similar statement showing the ongoing validity of the ideas: “The context and the audience: that is a direct relationship. You are the audience. The point is to break down the rigid distinction between the two.” 21

Conceptual art, for those who will accept the label, is best thought of as an art where the concept or the context is expressed with little or no separation from the object. In its purest form this 'object' is language. It can be used to enact, situate, simulate or stimulate the artwork. Work that requires an object, even the text itself, or uses objects temporarily aligned with the art conventions takes many forms. Some sculptural work in hindsight looks modernist but many of those artists are still working and producing their best work today where they are able to freely inform their own models with workable theory (Marr Grounds, Tony Coleing, Aleks Danko). Performance art has come to borrow heavily on other art forms (theatre, dance, music, fashion etc.) and media. But with a history that reaches back through the 20th century its requisition by conceptual artists and its conceptualisation is likely to continue.

John Fisher is an artist whose work is as tough and searching today as it was in the early 70’s. Ongoing investigations under the heading, “Art Being” have resulted in performances, mail art, tapes and publications such as his Art-Being Notebooks. The real context for this work is still an unknown factor but the sign in his studio window reads “self.” Perhaps this work will become more accessible to an art public and more people will come to love its mesmerising theory.

Joan Grounds' Fire Sculptures (1970) are an interesting early example of situational performance work. They were first initiated in West Africa in 1966-67 and continued up till 1972. More recently Mike Mullins as the Lone Anzac and other versions of No-One including recent performances in Orange with 130 volunteers has received national T.V. coverage demonstrating public interest in performance art. 22

A to Z music and Teletopa music, co-ordinated by David Ahearn, created some of the most exciting performances of the times. Ahearn with a classical music background and periods of study with Meale, Stockhausen and Cardew was an informed virtuoso. Concerts by A to Z music at Inhibodress and other venues included musicians such as Peter Evans, Roger Frampton, Ernie Gallagher, Geoffrey Barnard, Cathy Drake, Deidre Evans, were highlights of the scene. Microphones, tape recorders, texts and audience participation became important in a blend of music and performance. Three artists who also had an interest in experimental music were dancer Phillipa Cullin, who performed at some A to Z concerts and with synchronised sounds at the Mildura Sculpture Triennial, Peter Kennedy who by tying the branches of a willow tree in the Bonython gallery courtyard modified its sounds and “prepared’”a record by making geometric scratches across its grooves, and Gunter Christmann, who released his own record and still works in new music.

In 1981 Art and Language co-wrote the lyrics with Mayo Thompson for Kangaroos? a 12" Album by The Red Crayola and Art and Language. It contains the lines: “The Aborigines told those who'd come to stay/ That Kangaroo meant what did you say.” Alternative styles or art forms provide some of the more exciting examples of new art. There has always been an awareness that the process itself is art and that posterity may not need a collection of objects from the past. “Art practice is... alienated from the culturally generated theories (models) it serves when, for example, a romantic reconstruction of historical moments obscures acts in the present.”23

This type of art questions and challenges the idea of a stable scenario and a podium for the promotion and institutional acceptance of culture. One thing conceptual artists were challenging was the bulwark of tastemaking - the unseen curators, directors, trustees and board members who influenced their lives but were somehow unaccountable to them. Artists had direct access to the public through the media. Even as early as he mid 60’s poet Michael Dransfield appeared on the front page of the Mirror newspaper after a one man protest against apartheid at the wharves behind Woolloomooloo.

Robert Rooney's production line photographs of war savings streets and FJ Holdens, in the same way that Ed Rushca's books promoted artists publishing, helped to introduce photography as a medium for artists to the gallery context. Artists who worked with photography, xerox, systems or environments were Simon Close. Bill Gregory, lan De Gruchy, Bob Ramsay, Tony Kirkman, Dave Cubby.

“The real issue of recent art, the alteration of the convention art by investigating and altering the context in which it exists was lost in the rush to create a new Formalism.”24 Mike Parr, Peter Kennedy, Gunter Christmann, Tim Johnson, David Ahearn, Phillipa Cullin and Optronic Kinetics performed or exhibited at Inhibodress. For an account of Inhibodress itself see Peter Kennedy's article in Art Network25. Inhibodress was like a small institution but its exhibitions, communications and publications make it, together with Pinacotheca, a pioneering force in the introduction of new art. Besides Watters gallery in Sydney, the Fine Arts Workshop at Sydney University was a meeting place for Optronics Kinetics, Tim Burns, Mitch Johnson, Aleks Danko, Julie Ewington and poster collective members Colin Little, Chips Mackinolty, Michael Callahan, Marie McMahon and Toni Robertson.

Ted Colless's interest in punk and new wave bands in Sydney, his work on an independently published fanzine and his Super 8 films were an indication of the involvement of artists with a forthcoming wave of performances, recording, publishing and film making. At the Clifton Hill Community Music Centre in Melbourne and at Art Unit in Sydney among other venues a wide range of art related music activities took place.

Ian Milliss’ work was as interesting as his writing and in various group shows and non-gallery contexts he quietly explored all of the possibilities of contemporary practice. In a way he was exemplary of Donald Brook's proposal for a new inter- disciplinary art. From tiny Stella like shaped canvasses in the late 60’s, to freewheeling societal dramas and successful resident action in the 70’s his sensibility and awareness of himself as a free agent, able to choose or reject the mantle of art, serves as a model for future practice. Dave Morrissey grew vegetables in a park in Woolloomooloo and settled at Mildura with a small hut and a garden in a survival based ecological performance. Neil Evans used his body as a site when he ingested tape worm eggs and made his own occupation of space the subject of his waiting pieces.

During this time art became an umbrella that legitimised extreme or unusual courses of actions and the artist/audience dichotomy disappeared. Many of the performances, actions and events will be remembered, particularly the more masochistic reifications of pain thresholds, like Mike Parr's experiments with his own body and Stelarc's Event for Stretched Skin (1976).


“Conceptual art, the movement which coincided in the international modernist tradition with the emergence of Papunya Tula painting, proclaimed the discovery of ideational content as the fundamental quality of Art, but was unable to develop signifying practices that matched the requirements of its own rhetoric. Geoff Bardon was special among the many western artists of that period who searched out and documented instances in their own life experience which demonstrated the realisability of their ambitions for Art. In that he had both the perspicacity to recognise that in a remote desert community a group of tribal elders, Aboriginals were effecting a synthesis of their own traditions with western artists practices which surpassed the conceptualists' wildest dreams — and the humility to submit to the artists priorities.”26

The often widespread interest in conceptual art was sometimes met with resistance. Tim Burns was arrested during a performance at the Art Gallery of N.S.W. and reactions to the content of this writer's performances during Art Week at the School of Architecture at Queensland University in 1973 were used to bring action against staff at the university in an unsuccessful attempt to curb academic freedom.

The Joe Bonomo Story, a series of performances at Watters Gallery in 1973 brought another group of artists to public attention. Tim Burns, Mitch Johnson, Imants Tillers, Joan Grounds, Aleks Danko, Alex Tzannes and Robin Ravlich all participated and Julie Ewington described the event in Art & Australia.27 Mitch Johnson was the artist who cut the handcuffs from draft dodgers at Sydney University when Commonwealth Police and their captives were bailed up at Sydney University by a crowd of students. His other work included a ceremony on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin and a piece utilising mirrors and posts as a pun on post-object art, at the Experimental Art Foundation in 1976.

In a way it is the projection from a normally secure art scene where all is mystified, valued and valuable into a social context that reels under the shock of conceptual art. Performances, publications, video, films and photographs in a gallery are one thing but by and large our public galleries failed to collect or exhibit conceptual art. Since its real value lies in its location of an expanded range of art activities in a context away from galleries, the gallery as a studio space must remain an intermediary step. A host of art related activities have followed the liberation of art from galleries but presumably galleries will be expanding to include some of them.

The Art Worker's Union, the women's art movement, worker's art movements, community groups, Aboriginal art organisations, publications, alternative galleries, curatorial practices, many art related theory studies and current inter-disciplinary critical writings all share common ground with conceptual art. As mentioned at the beginning, this is a construction about a period in Australian art history. Perhaps the inaccuracies and omissions will lead to more of the story being told.


1 lan Milliss. "New Artists?" Object & Idea Catalogue, National Gallery of Victoria, 1973.
2 Robert Hunter, David Aspden etc.
3 Donald Brook collected work for Flinders University and some artists like Mike Parr are well represented in e.g. The National Gallery.
4 Paul Taylor. “White Aborigines”, Notes Tor Imants Tillers Exhibition at Malts Gallery, London, 1983.
5 ibid.
6 Richard Dunn, The Spirit of Practice! Notes on Art Practice, Art Projects, Melbourne, 1982.
7 Noel Sheridan, Artists Books, Bookworks catalogue, 1978.
8 Joseph Kosuth,"Art Education and Linguistic Change" Pinacotheca, Issue No. 1, 1970.
9 Adrian Piper in a Letter to the author, 10.4.1971.
10 Tim Johnson, "Contemporary Australian Art", A radio vision feature for secondary schools prepared by the A.B.C., 1972.
11 Donald Brook, "Lets Take a Closer Look at Art,. Sydney Morning Herald, 1.4.1971.
12 James Gleeson, "The Search for a New Concept", Sun Herald, 4.4.1971.
13 Daniel Thomas, "Art& Life", Anything Goes, Art & Text, 1984.
14 ibid.
15 lan Milliss, “Inhibodress Gallery 1970-72” C.A.S. Broadsheet, September 1972.
16 Daniel Thomas, ibid.
17 lan Howard's Action Man Story (1976) must be regarded as a classic work of the period.
18 Gordon Bull, “Art & Text and the Second Degree”, Local Consumption, Series 5, 1984.
19 Graeme Sturgeon, The Development of Australian Sculpture 1788 — 1975, Thames & Hudson, 1978.
20 Vivien Johnson, Introduction to Disclosure, Tim Johnson, 1973.
21 Anne Marsh, “Contention”, Live Art, Anne Marsh & Jane Kent, 1984.
22 See Critiques, Art Network, Winter 1985. Also the work of Ivan Durrant.
23 Richard Dunn, ibid.
24 lan Milliss, ibid.
25 Peter Kennedy, Art Network, Issue 6. 1982.
26 Vivien Johnson, Immpossible Dreamers, unpublished manuscript. 1984.
27 Julie Ewington, “The Joe Bonomo Story — A Show of Strength”, Art & Australia, January 1973.