An Oak Tree

Before Yearly Meeting, I am alone in the Tate Britain exhibition of conceptual art with two staff members. One comes over to chat as I look up at “An oak tree”. If you did not know it was an oak tree, you might think it was a glass of water on a transparent shelf about ten feet high on the wall. At eye level, there is a transcript of a real or imagined conversation about the oak tree. It is not a symbol of an oak tree, but an oak tree. The artist has made it one. This cannot be taught. It has the “substance and accidents” of an oak tree, which reminds me vaguely of the theology of transubstantiation.

We discuss whether when the water evaporates, they replace it- with special oak tree water produced by the artist? He does not know, you would have to ask the technicians. I came here for beauty- he says I would find that in the Painting with Light exhibition downstairs.

I don’t know, either, whether the shelf is part of the art work, or indeed its height and the spatial relationship with the conversation. I spend a little time reading the conversation, some time thinking of it, and very little time looking at the glass itself.

In the first room, there are a pile of oranges, and a pile of sand, roughly in a volcano shape. The sand moved me- the shape is precise, and not replicable once removed from this gallery floor. It is protected only by a line on the floor and an instruction, and our respect- for it, or for rules. So vulnerable, and so- unimportant, really, it is only a pile of sand. The staff member said the pile of oranges are replaced regularly: there was a smell, when the work was first exhibited.

There are three or four black squares. One is a secret painting, only the artist knows what it is. Another is four successive colours of acrylic paint on about five feet square, black then blue. It is mostly uniform black, and there is a thin strip of lovely blue at the very top. I could spend time looking at it.

Two congruent grey rectangles, one marked “PAINTING”, the other “SCULPTURE”. Again, there is the intention, perception, thing, and description; I can tell you of this because there is little more in seeing it than reading my description. I am unfamiliar with conceptual art because it was work expanding the concept of what art could be, and now the concept is wider, art works can do so much more.

In the Duveen gallery three dancers in black tights, short red tops, and clownish long necklace of large white globes dance, then move along black stripes on the floor. Oh, that one is a man! The Tate has just purchased its first performance art work.

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