Published  12/07/2016

Marie Yates: ‘In my view, everything is textual, and a text is visual’

Marie Yates: ‘In my view, everything is textual, and a text is visual’

A woman artist working conceptually with the landscape since the 1970s, Yates’s work has often been misinterpreted. A new exhibition at Richard Saltoun will hopefully reengage viewers in the relevant discourse


Marie Yates (b1940) graduated from Manchester Regional College of Art in 1959. After a period spent producing abstract paintings in St Ives, she returned to study fine art at Hornsey College of Art (1968-71). During this time, she was strongly influenced by the writings of Lucy Lippard and Yoko Ono and the beginnings of conceptual art. She began to produce her Field Workings – photographic and text works, documenting journeys or “procedures” in the countryside – and, in 1979, she made Image/woman/text (after Roland Barthes), exploring social preconceptions about photographic images of women, the way they are made, and their meanings.

In June 1977, Fenella Crichton wrote in Studio International: “Marie Yates is a woman working with landscape. Radical ideas do not fit easily into this framework, because we are deeply riddled with prejudices about both women and landscape, and as a result she has been widely misinterpreted.” This misinterpretation, sadly, seems to persist. Yates’s work is currently being exhibited at Richard Saltoun as part of the gallery’s conceptual art series, but the artist remains wary of labels. For her, art is key to social change and ought to form part of a larger discourse, critically engaging the mind.

Studio International spoke to Yates about her career and some of the works in this current exhibition.

Anna McNay: You initially started out in the early 60s as an abstract painter, working in St Ives. What made you change direction and turn to conceptual artwork?

Marie Yates: Let’s be clear here that we are talking about a time 50 years ago, probably before you were born; those times were different from now. You didn’t just change your mind and choose something else to do that was available. Turning from one direction to another doesn’t describe the complexities of such a move. I became gradually aware that there were art practices and discourses that were trying to question the institutional traditions in a strategy of resistance – and at a price. And I was painfully aware of my particular position as a woman painter.

At that time, around 1965, the category of art practice now described as “conceptual” hardly existed in the UK. Events of 50 years ago in one’s life are hard to remember, but what sticks in my mind was the painful searching for an alternative way of being a woman artist. The institutions of art differentiated and separated women’s art in such a way as to affirm masculine dominance and place a woman firmly in secondary position. Painting was at the pinnacle of those views and so I attempted to invent for myself another practice that was against those institutional traditions.

AMc: How influenced were you by the conceptual exhibition, When Attitudes Become Form, at Kunsthalle Bern, in 1969?

MY: I was very much impressed by the exhibition – I loved the catalogue and still have it, falling apart – but noticed with a heavy heart and sinking feeling that the ratio of men to women was 64 to three. I particularly liked the work of Victor Burgin, Joseph Kosuth, Sol LeWitt, Lawrence Weiner, Eva Hesse, Art and Language and John Latham.

AMc: Were you aware at the time that you were making feminist art? Was this something deliberate?

MY: I was most certainly not making feminist art in 1969. There was not even a category of women’s art in the UK at that time. Here, I have to quote from an article, Feminist Art, written by Mary Kelly and myself for Studio International in 1980, where we stated:

“In the 1970s, we saw the rise of the ‘women’s art movement’. It was stylistically and strategically heterogeneous but nevertheless recognisable as a consistent attempt to give a positive place to the work of women artists within the art world and the world at large.

“Until the Whitney Museum was picketed and threatened with human rights legislation in 1970, very few, if any, women artists were included in major public exhibitions of contemporary art. As a direct result of this action, the Whitney raised its quota of women by 20% and this indirectly affected later events such as the Paris Biennale 1975, which included 25 women, and the Hayward Annual 1978, where all the organisers and a majority of the exhibitors were women.”

On meeting Mary Kelly at a socialist conference in 1978, I went on to write a conference paper with her and Elizabeth Cowie, Claire Johnston, Cora Kaplan and Jacqueline Rose for the Socialist Feminist National Conference in London, March 1979, on Representation Versus Communication (also published in No Turning Back, The Women’s Press, 1982), where it was pointed out that where the first initiatives were feminist in the matter of the visual arts, the results were not. 

AMc: How have you seen things change for women artists during your lifetime? Are you satisfied with this change?

MY: There has been hardly any change at all and I am deeply unsatisfied. There are now more women making art, but then there are more artists than ever. Everyone is an artist, it seems. Art is still very much a creation of the institutions, not the artist. The project of feminism is even more demanding and necessary to conduct now in the face of our panic and uncertainty, tending us toward marriage and family-building as a response to the devastation of our shared social institutions, commonwealth and public sphere.

AMc: Did and do you see your art as having a purpose? Were and are you trying to say something through it or bring about any change?

MY: Of course, I am convinced that art should be inextricably bound up with social change, that cultural production can be a discourse in the shaping of social reality, a textual practice that exploits the existing contradictions towards productive ends.

AMc: Can art play a role in social change?

MY: Of course, and it does so, but it is far too limited.

AMc: Text has always played an important part in your work. What comes first: the image or the text?

MY: This is a difficult question because, in my view, everything is textual, and a text is visual, but if you mean, when I am making a work do I see a set of images in my mind’s eye, the answer is not necessarily. I may see or remember a text, or an image, or hear something, or everything all at once.

AMc: You have written: “The separation of the visual and the textual in art discourses finds echo in the separation of pleasure and desire from politics and theory in other perhaps more vocal discourses.” How do you therefore assess purely image-based artworks?

MY: In my understanding, there are no purely image-based artworks, because everything is textual, based in language and discourse. All art is shot through with language and cannot be understood except through the discourses of art. Whenever we look at an image, we have to make sense of it, and that sense-making will be discursive; a conglomeration of texts, rhetorics, codes. The production of meaning of an image is unstable, dependent as it is on what is brought to it in the act of looking (which is verbal). A reading of Roland Barthes provides the means by which cultural objects could be seen as “texts”. The text is not an “object”, but a space between the object and the viewer, a space of chains and layers of meaning, continuously expanding, with no fixed origin or closure. The boundaries that define the work are dissolved, the text opens out on to other texts. Layers of meaning can be carefully excavated and distinguished, one from another, in an attempt to see how it all works.

AMc: In works such as Oppositional Frameworks 1 (from Signals 1975-78) (1976), you contrast adjectives such as “underdeveloped” and “body” being associated with “female” and “developed” and “mind” associated with “male”. Are these your personal associations or assumptions of society’s view? Would you use the same words if you were making the work now in 2016, 40 years on?

MY: These are your interpretation and personal associations, not mine. And no, I would not make this work now, for we are living in a completely different political context from 40 years ago and your enquiry is ahistorical, to say the least.

AMc: In Image/woman/text (1979), you speak of the images of women as “signs emptied of meaning”. What do you mean by this?

MY: I spoke in 1979 of “documentary images of woman” as being notoriously malleable (they can be used to sell anything), signs emptied of meaning, where identity and recognition are set in play and the viewer is drawn in to imagine and complete the meaning.

AMc: You write (in the same work): “The production of meaning and contents is approached as a process of the social and discursive fields which give the context of the work.” Do you see your work as part of a specific discourse or dialectic?

MY: Yes, indeed. Art discourse, among others.

AMc: Do you see a difference between images of women made by women and images of women made by men? Does the gender of the artist affect the artwork? And does – or should – it affect the viewer’s reading and viewpoint of the work?

MY: Of course, and of course. And the reader’s sexual orientation, too. But the reader makes the work in the end. The work does not have a viewpoint: that belongs to the reader.

AMc: To what extent do you believe we build our identities based on, or influenced by, the imagery we are exposed to?

MY: To a great extent – in fact, in my opinion, completely.

AMc: For your Field Workings, you used the landscape and displayed photographs and texts in a documentary style, recording journeys you had made in the West Country landscape. How would you define the work of art in such cases? Is it the printed matter displayed on the wall? The relationship between the text and image? The journey or place they document? The relationship each individual spectator brings with him or her?

MY: I would define it as a critical strategy of resistance to the institutional traditions, a political practice where the spectator is invited to involve their critical awareness, providing room for reflection and throwing off the fixed meanings ascribed to artworks by the media and the academy, to construct new meanings of their own in the process of observation and independent thought.

AMc: Dorset Field Working (from Signals 1975-78) (1975) is displayed on the wall in a rectangle, with a blank space in the centre. There is a lyrical quality to the writing and it speaks of “a pause”. Is this space in the centre the “pause”? A space or stage for the viewer to create or illustrate his or her own imagined experience of the place you describe?

MY: The space can be whatever the viewer decides it is.

AMc: Can this work be read in either direction from any starting point?

MY: Yes. The units (documents or texts) comprising the piece were processual units: a. Sequence of experience, or b. Sequence of reading.

The processual units have a temporally symbolic relation to a. starting bottom right and moving bottom left etc, though this is not conditional to the reading/observation of the piece. Observation might begin anywhere and is more than likely to start with a random scanning of units – thus providing the logical backcloth for the temporal reading, while still retaining the sequential relationship of any unit to any other. The processual nature of the piece structures itself in the observer’s mind. The readings behave as echoes.

AMc: What exactly do you mean by the term “procedure”, which recurs throughout the work?

MY: Action / process / goings on.

AMc: What was the purpose of these journeys? Did you produce any artworks in the landscape? Did these remain?

MY: No, the artworks were produced in the studio much later on. Nothing was left behind at the time. The purpose of the journeys was the production of the documentation, which formed parts of the material for the artworks.

AMc: Did you ever consider yourself to be making land art?

MY: No, I never considered myself to be making land art, for several reasons – one is that land art was finished by 1974 when the fuel crisis happened and all the huge grants and awards made to American white male artists dried up and everybody went home. But also because I was not using the landscape as art, I was questioning its use.

AMc: In the current exhibition at Richard Saltoun Gallery, your work is being paired with that of John Latham [1921-2006]. How well did you know Latham, and did you ever work together?

MY: I knew John very well and his family, and I worked within the context of their project APG (Artist Placement Group). I never worked with John on artworks. I was one of the artists involved with the APG and took part in their exhibit at the Hayward Gallery in 1971 with a placement presentation.

AMc: What does it mean to you that three of his works have been included in this exhibition?

MY: It is a bit mysterious, but it is OK and worth thinking about. It is a mixed exhibit and not a solo show.

AMc: Your Field Workings are described as “conceptual installations employing image and text, but without theorisation”. Is theorisation not an essential part of conceptual art?

MY: This quote of mine has been taken out of context and is referring to a period when I was a student at Hornsey College of Art and needed help with critical theory and was not getting it. Eventually, I managed to devise a form of theorisation, but it was hit and miss for a while. And, no, theorisation is not an essential part of conceptual art, as far as I know.

AMc: Your work is heavy on text and discourse and a visit to the exhibition at Richard Saltoun is not wholly an aesthetic experience, nor is it an easy one. The brain must be engaged. Texts (1977-79) explicitly talks about the distinction between art theory and practice as “two moments in one discourse”. Where does your work sit in this discourse? What makes a work such as Texts an artwork and not a piece of theory?

MY: I do hope that it is the mind that is engaged, and so sorry if you found it hard work.

AMc: You taught for many years at the University of the Arts, London. What do you think of the standard of art – in particular, conceptual art – being produced by students and young artists today?

MY: I leave that to the current educationalists to assess.

AMc: What would your advice be to a young artist wishing to work in this medium?

MY: What medium would that be? This reminds me of a statement from Art Language in 1971, which said that, owing to modernism, there is confusion regarding “conceptual art” from within and without. The tendency being to stress the diversity of means as some kind of end in itself – exemplified in museum exhibitions and publications: so that the artists have been identified and classified by their “materials”, ie paint, crayon, photos, maps, language, etc. While this is certainly convenient for the institutions, it also gives the implication that all the work is similar in intention and that only the modes of presentation differ. This is far from the case.

I would advise that no generalised advice be given to a young artist, as it has to be particular to the student. Everyone is very, very different.

AMc: In 1991, you moved to Greece. What led you to leave England? Do you still produce work out there now?

MY: I left England for personal, political and professional reasons. I needed time and space. I do, indeed, still produce art and have never stopped.

AMc: What are you currently working on?

MY: I am working on a very exciting project: On Not Going Home (2014-16). In this current project, I am attempting the representation of my presence in a certain place, through a series of images and texts. The work is a two-screen installation of projected texts and images with sound and wall installations, where the distant past is juxtaposed with the present: the 1970s and 2016.

Edward Said wrote that: “The achievements of exile are permanently undermined by the loss of something left behind forever”, where, on the one hand, the “left behind” for me is the artworks, landscapes, images and writings of the 70s and 80s in England, standing as a substitute for a home lost for ever and perhaps never existent, and, on the other hand, the present work in a different country, forming a kind of cool “afterwardness” (from Freud), where it is now too late to do anything about it, and too late to know what should have been done. And that may be all right.

György Lukács [the Hungarian Marxist philosopher and aesthetician] considered the novel the great form of what he called “transcendental homelessness”. He describes the term as “the urge to be at home everywhere”. He labelled modern novels, especially those of German Romanticism, as the artistic expression of this philosophy of trying to make oneself feel welcomed in any place or situation. According to Lukács, everyone has a sense that he or she once belonged somewhere. However, this place has been lost, and the purpose of human life is to once again find this place. The search for this place of belonging, for the “home” that will once more fill life with meaning, is the fundamental structure of the novel.

The exile’s new world, logically enough, is unnatural, and its unreality resembles fiction. The price one pays for narrative resolution is that it silently presupposes as already given what it purports to reproduce. Narrative only ever emerges in order to resolve a fundamental antagonism by rearranging its terms into a presupposed resolution.

Some Dimensions of my Lunch: Conceptual Art in Britain (1956-1979). Part 2: Marie Yates is on show at Richard Saltoun Gallery, London, until 22 July 2016.

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