Ed Herring (1945–2003) was a British artist who had an international career in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He is generally considered to be a 'conceptual artist', though he would have resisted being placed under such a label since he regarded all art as conceptual.
Born on 26th February 1945 in Southport, Lancashire (northwest England), the son of a telephone engineer, Herring was christened Albert Edward George. He studied art at Harris School for Art, Preston between 1962 and 1963, followed by the Manchester School of Art between 1963 and 1966, and finally the Central School of Art in London between 1966 and 1967.
In the late 1960s, his installations in the landscape explored the subtle relationship between nature and change. Herring's later work would reveal his interest in communication: particularly in coding and decoding. He was close to Keith Arnatt and Terry Atkinson, both in terms of art politics as well as friendship.
In fact, it was Herring who photographed Arnatt in his famous work, Self-Burial (Television Interference Project) (1969).
#KeithArnat, Self-Burial (Television Interference Project), #c1969 pic.twitter.com/A5akN1xXJd— Javier Tursi (@jatustein) June 10, 2019
All of Herring's work was broadly influenced by Marcel Duchamp, in that it questioned the role of art, of art galleries, and the relationship of the artwork to its audience.
Herring read widely from Plato to Marx and beyond, and collected many quotations in notebooks, two of which are quoted below as they illustrate accurately the artist's thinking and provide an understanding of his work. They are both from Jack Burnham's seminal essay 'Systems Aesthetics' published in the September issue of Artforum 1968.
'The specific function of modern didactic art has been to show that art does not reside in material entities, but in relations between people, and between people and components of their environment'.
Burnham quoted the conceptual artist Hans Haacke, which Herring also took care to copy in his notebook: 'A "sculpture" that physically reacts to its environment is no longer to be regarded as an object. The range of outside factors affecting it, as well as its own radius of action, reach beyond the space it materially occupies. It thus merges with the environment in a relationship that is better understood as a "system" of inter-dependent processes. These processes evolve without the viewer's empathy. He becomes a witness. A system is not imagined, it is real'.
Later in life, Herring taught at a number of institutions, both in Manchester and London. Sonia Boyce was amongst his Foundation Course students at East Ham College of Technology (later to become Newham Community College).
Works: a summary
Herring first concentrated on modest-scale installation work in the landscape. Photography was used to document the work and he continued to use this method up until 1970. This date marks a shift away from the overt seduction of visual imagery towards work based on words, ideas and acts.
Process, particularly the intervention of nature, was important in the early works. It was this dialogue with the elements that distinguished Herring from earlier artistic experiments with chance, the kind achieved by artists of the Dada and Surrealist movements. The small, intimate scale of the artwork also separated Herring from those affiliated with the Land Art movement in America.
Herring withdrew from the art scene in 1973, removing all of his work from the Nigel Greenwood Gallery in London. He preferred to work as a teacher, considering this a more honest way of working than being part of the art market 'circus'. In doing so he disappeared not only from the art scene but from art history until after his death in 2003. Herring's importance has since been re-affirmed by the fact that the Tate acquired eight pieces of his work in 2012.
1960s: key exhibitions
Herring exhibited in two group exhibitions at the Camden Art Centre, London, in 1969: 'Environments Reversal' in the summer, and 'Survey '69 New Space' in the autumn.
Herring's main contribution to 'Environments Reversal' was the work 1,000 foot canvas. This involved a primed canvas – 1,000 feet in length – that went from the interior of the Centre, out of the main entrance, down the steps and into the garden. It continued around the garden area before returning to the Centre by going up over the roof and passing through the upper part of the main entrance.
The second exhibition, 'New Space', was dedicated to four artists: Herring, Timothy Drever, Peter Joseph and David Parsons. Herring made another installation in the garden.
Initially called 'Proposal for work in a public open space', Herring later renamed the work Chemical Boxes. It comprised of 20 specially prepared boxes, metal lined and filled with different water-sensitive chemicals. They were arranged in rows, before being buried. The boxes in each row were connected to one another by small pipes. At the top end of each row was an area for collecting rainwater, which was fed into the boxes. The aim was to let rainwater infiltrate the boxes and create a chemical reaction. The finished result – buried underneath the lawn – was invisible to the public.
A follow-up exhibition, called 'Sequel', took place at Swiss Cottage Library, London in 1970. Herring exhibited the chemical reactions in the original boxes, once unearthed, revealing a striking range of colours and patterns. It must be noted that the process was the most important element and not the finished result.
Herring also exhibited work inside the Camden Art Centre during the exhibition 'New Space'. This consisted of his photographic documentation of works (five of which were acquired by Tate) that he created in isolated parts of the English countryside: Lancashire Site Project (1968–1969), Chemical Packed Cuts (1969), Tea-Bag Piece (1968–1969), Oiled Earth (1969), Zinc-Plated Wood (1969), Tie-Up (1969), Float (1969), Steel Line (1969), Grass Re-organisation (1968), and White Bar (1967–1968).
The relationship between culture and nature, of pollution and environment, is found in Chemical Packed Cuts and Oiled Earth, but also in Chemical Boxes. The first mentioned piece was located in a slag heap near Wigan.
The work Oiled Earth was described by Herring as: '35 units 1-inch polythene piping. Units deployed in an area of moorland and inserted to a minimum depth of 3 feet. Each unit filled with oil to a marked level 1 inch from the top. Oil allowed to find its own level according to the absorbency of the surrounding ground'.
The artist's own words were attached to the printed vintage photograph, now in Tate's collection. Despite the baldness of the description, the piece makes an obvious reference, not without a sense of poetic irony, to resources extracted from the earth being returned.
Teabag Piece, in the words of the artist, was 'a series of 12, 8-inch by 12-inch polythene bags nailed to a tree. Each bag containing one teabag and a measured quantity of local stream water. The bags were subject to progressive colour change, condensation, evaporation and extremes of temperature. The piece was photographed after construction and throughout the winter of 1968'.
Once again Herring took something that had been transformed by industry or commerce and reconnected it to nature, allowing in this case, for nature to intervene.
Two sound-based works were produced in 1971: one for the giant mixed exhibition called 'Spectrum' at Alexandra Palace, London, that featured John Lennon and Yoko Ono amongst others, and another for the Edinburgh Festival.
Herring's subsequent works concentrated on encodings and decodings, but the elements of chance and process remained present. He moved away from installations in the countryside and interactions with nature towards human activity and processes with works made to be exhibited in galleries. His later works also rejected the seductiveness of the pictorial element, so that he no longer used photographic representations to communicate his work.
In 1970, Herring exhibited in 'Idea Structures' alongside Keith Arnatt, Terry Atkinson, David Bainbridge, Victor Burgin, Harold Hurrell and Joseph Kosuth at the Camden Arts Centre (many of the members formed the collective Art & Language in 1967). His work, Proposition, consisted of a small filing cabinet measuring 16 x 20 x 39 cm (a single drawer of card files). Inside were some 400 cards, most of which were blank.
During the weeks prior to the exhibition, Herring had asked 50 people to keep one card in their possession for a week. After one week had passed, the artist collected each used card. A new card was then given to each person, replacing the used one. The process was repeated seven times, thus yielding a total of 400 cards, minus a number of cards that were accidentally lost. The artist then selected eight of the used cards, one card from each week's collection, and had the centre of the card micrographed (this is a photographic process that records the microscopic detail of the subject, in this case, the actual fibres of the paper card). The micrographs were then inserted at regular intervals in the body of 400 blank cards.
In 1971, Herring was invited by Alfred Pacquement, curator of the 7th Paris Biennale, to contribute as a guest artist. He produced Lacunosis, which he later exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford in 1973. The work consisted of 100 typed sheets, pasted directly onto the wall of the gallery. It contained its own code and, in order to unpack this code, the spectator had to move back and forth in front of the 100 sheets.
Aspects of Lacunosis were developed further in a more complex work called D.A.R.N, which stands for 'Derivative Analytical Reflexive Notations'. The work was influenced by Wittgenstein's writings and Herring's reading of Georg Henrik von Wright's The Logic of Preference.
This work was exhibited in 1972 at Gallery House, London and at the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, with Lacunosis. The London show, 'A Survey of the Avant-Garde in Britain', included Burgin, Ian Breakwell, Anthony McCall and John Stezaker. The work consisted of 57 panels and, like Lacunosis, contained its own key to unpacking the work.
ACTS from 1973, which is illustrated at the start of this article, is the last work Herring exhibited at the Nigel Greenwood Gallery. It is based on the Dewey Decimal System, the system used by libraries that allocates numbers to books according to subject matter. Once again Herring produced a work based on encodings, but this time a public rather than a private system. The viewer or reader of the work has the task of making the connections between ideas.
In 1984, Herring produced a small number of drawings for the auction in support of the miners' strike. He moved to France in 1991 and founded Atelier de la Rose, where he taught short courses in art and photography. He died in France in 2003.
Since his death, Herring's estate has been represented by the Richard Saltoun Gallery, London. The gallery included Herring in a series of group exhibitions in 2016. In the same year, Herring's work Proposition was included in Tate Britain's exhibition 'Conceptual Art in Britain 1964–1979'. It was the same work that had originally been exhibited in the 'Idea Structures' exhibition at the Camden Arts Centre, in 1970.
Sally Gaucheron, art historian and Ed Herring's widow