The Archive: Signs of the Times – A Decade of Video, Films & Slide-Tape Installation in Britain 1980-1990 (1990)

Signs of the Times: A Decade of Video, Films and Slide-tape Installation in Britain 1980-1990, took place at the Museum of Modern Art Oxford in two parts between 7 October and 9 December 1990.

Signs of the Times was the first major exhibition of British video, slide-tape and film installation to examine the development of this area of work in the decade of the 1980s, and presented a number of key pieces by leading practitioners over two generations. The period between 1980 and 1990 had been one of the most innovative in recent history, building and elaborating on the semiotic theories of the seventies. Yet the work had remained marginalised within the art world, receiving little recognition by the British art establishment, and almost total disregard abroad.

At this time, video art was often overlooked by British art critics, theorists and historians. A suspicion of technology appeared to be a European phenomenon, making it much harder for established artists working in film, slide-tape or video, to gain recognition, more so than for young artists working with conceptual installation.

This seemingly unusual exhibition led to significant press coverage following its debut in Oxford. Referring to the curator at the time, Chrissie Iles in an article from Time Out’s Art Review, critic Sarah Kent wrote, “the Museum of Modern Art Oxford must be the only public space to have on its staff a specialist in video and alternative media… I’m not a lover of video – rarely does an artist over-come the clutter of the technology – but this selection is exemplary.”

Signs of the Times provided a platform for this largely unseen yet thriving practice to be explored in a substantial presentation. For the first time, the work of 14 major artists working with time-based media was presented through means of sculpture and installation. The exhibition occupied the entire gallery and was presented in two parts. It included the work of Rose Finn-Kelcey, Judith Goddard, Roberta Graham, David Hall, Susan Hiller, Tina Keane, Tamara Krikorian, Stuart Marshall, Jayne Parker, Holly Warburton, Chris Welsby, Jeremy Welsh, Anthony Wilson and Cerith Wyn Edwards.

For many of these artists, the medium was dictated by the subject matter of their individual works. Each artist touched upon the fundamental issues of their time, as well as the strategies, which were necessary for the survival of culture.

Following the first exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art Oxford, Signs of the Times then travelled to Leeds City Gallery and Leeds Polytechnic Gallery before moving on to numerous locations abroad.

This post was written by Ellie Nixon, with research and images taken from the Modern Art Oxford archive. 

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