‘ Sum Of All Human Knowledge’: The Pursuit of Truth in The Work of John Latham (1921-2006) By Kimberley Campisano
<ul><li>This conceptual interdisciplinary artist’s work in painting, sculpture, </li></ul><ul><li>installations, intervention, and film was founded on his search for and </li></ul><ul><li>development over his lifetime of a unifying philosophy that integrated </li></ul><ul><li>quantum physics, psychology, art, language, and an attempt to unify </li></ul><ul><li>disparate ideologies into a post-religious cosmological quest for a single </li></ul><ul><li>theory to unify mankind and eliminate conflict – no modest goal. </li></ul>One Second Drawing, 1971 British artist , John Latham is most recognized for his works from the late 1950’s until his death in 2006 that utilize the book as art object and adaptable material – ripe for reusing, alteration, assemblage, burning, and even on one notable occasion, chewing.
Man Caught Up with Yellow Object, 1954 His theories, often developed in collaboration with his wife, Barbara Stevani and others, were generally concerned with the structure of events in time: ‘flat-time’ (time experienced as a linear fabric in a roller that accumulates events), and ‘Event Structure’. ‘Event Structure’ suggests that the most basic component of reality is not the particle, as understood through physics, but a ‘least event’ or the shortest departure from a state of nothing. (P.S.1) A concern with time and the search for the ‘le ast event ’ led him to the use of explosive du st-cloud spray gun instant paintings. He was, in 1954, the first ‘ fi ne artist ’ to use spray paint.
Skoob Burning, mid 1960’s His cosmology 'Event Structure,' was developed throughout the 1960’s and it linked together many disparate fields of knowledge. Events-based art was part of the emergence of performance art and happenings, and Latham occasionally took part in events with Fluxus artists such as the Destruction in Art Symposium in London in 1966 constructing large "skoob towers" (‘books’ spelled backwards), and then setting fire to the structures. <ul><ul><ul><li>… it was not a gesture of contempt for books </li></ul></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>or literature. What it did intend was to put the </li></ul></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>proposition into mind that perhaps the cultural base had been burnt out . - Latham </li></ul></ul></ul>
This was a simple recognition that printed language could not adequately describe an event-based reality. Also in 1966, Latham initiated a participatory event that helped to shape his reputation further, as well as to get him fired from his teaching position at St. Martin’s School of Art: And I was trying to say look, the dimensional framework is simply misunderstood. Three dimensions of space is inert and it is purely for the business of measuring up. Otherwise it doesn’t show us what is going on. But I invited a number of these members ( students) of the College to my place to party, and the party was called ‘Still and Chew’. I knew what was going to happen. And they were presented with a book out of the library by Clement Greenberg and it was called ‘Art and Culture’, and I had picked it as one of the relevant titles to have them chew up. And they were asked to tear a page off, and chew it and put the residue in a little flask. I had signed for this book in the library’s register, and it took them six months to tell me that they wanted it back. And it was only then that I was able to get the distillation going, and took it back and presented it in a little phial - I had to even squirt the liquid in there. Anyway I said ‘this is the book’. (Latham in Jakobsen)
Toward a Phd for Dogs, 1977 It is not difficult to see the connection between the material embodiment of intellectual pulp produced by Latham and his St. Martin’s students in Still and Chew and the growing debate between the primacy of process over object. The vial and correspondence are now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Through all of this Latham was also making films, notable Erth , which included the 6 minute piece, Encyclopedia Britannica. This film’s subject matter once claimed itself to be the ‘sum of all human knowledge’ - a staggering assertion (one that Wikipedia now lays claim to) and a perfect target for Latham razor. In his review of the piece for Cork Film Centre's online journal, Matt Packer describes his sensation of viewing the ever-accelerating rapid fire pacing of one page after another: <ul><ul><ul><li>The speed of each successive page cancels the previous, to a point where text reduces to a pale blur, and images barely register: the entire book devoured by the force and duress of its own pages … </li></ul></ul></ul><ul><li>The effect of watching Encyclopedia Britannica (or the sequence as it appears in Erth), is one of initial anxiety in trying to make legible what is happening too quickly. But this illegibility of the book as a text or as a resource soon gives way to an overwhelming and mesmeric visuality, perhaps what could be loosely described as a mode of reading that transcends into a mode of viewing. (Packer) </li></ul>
God Is Great #4 Latham’s work seems to have finally found a home in the 21 st Century that may not have been fully afforded him in the 20 th through two recent retrospectives (one posthumous). In 2005, the Tate Britain installed a multi-decade retrospective, John Latham in Focus, that featured a new body of work, God is Great and Belief Systems as Such . This series involves the holy texts of the three Abrahamic faiths (the Talmud, the New Testament, and the Qu’ran) along with various configurations of glass, some shattered. The shattering of glass and its symbolic role in the dissecting of knowledge that occurs in his God Is Great series derives from his belief that violence and conflict between the people of the world is the result of ideological differences.
God Is Great #2, 1991 <ul><li>In God is Great #2 from 1991, an eight-foot sheet of glass penetrates, dissects and is held in place by symbols of God’s law and Man’s journalism. </li></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>For the artist, this division symbolises the divided state of conception at the root of religious systems. The three faiths brought together in these works emerge from a plane of emptiness to encapsulate systems of belief which unite some people while dividing and excluding others. In this way they powerfully represent the ambiguity at the root of human systems and knowledge which Latham sought all his career to express (Manchester) </li></ul></ul></ul>
God Is Great #1, 1989 All books figure, to some extent as symbolic repositories of knowledge, many of which are helpful guides, others didactic treatises. But all contain only partial truths and are, therefore, like humans, the more flawed the more they claim or imply the ‘tr uth ’ . In 2006, P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center in Queens, New York presented Time Base and the Universe , an exhibition of 30 works spanning 50 years. Organized in collaboration with the artist and John Hansard Gallery at Southampton University, it opened mere months after his passing. Latham was finally recognized by the curator, David Thorp as " an artist's artist. His significance places him between Joseph Beuys and Robert Rauschenberg as someone whose ideas and influence have helped to shape late twentieth century art." (P.S.1)
Belief System #1, 1959 On a personal note, when I came upon an artist whose concern (obsession?) with time led him into a long life that veered ever further from normal discourse, and whose career has either directly or indirectly been part of most late 20 th century art movements, I was most touched by never having known about him before “ in part because (he) fell through the cracks of the stylistic categories in which postwar art was commonly divided. ” (Schimmel, 53) That irony seems all the more poignant, as his life pursuit was the search for a unified theory that transcended false divisions of human knowledge and disciplinary practices.
Philosophy and the Practice of, 1960 I too have questioned the comprehensibility of discursive language without denying its ability to make meaning widely available. Isn’t that a good thing? And yet, what have we accomplished if it is not recorded for posterity? The implications are vast and personal – political in scope. For if faulty impressions become truths, and theories become unalterable, how do we determine which ‘fa cts on the ground ’ to devote our attention to?
Painting is an Open Book, 1961 Often curious and difficult to decipher, Latham’s’ criticism of the art market, integration of the multiple domains and art media, science and philosophy remains challenging and rewarding. I am fortunate to have discovered some one who was there all along and one who, the more he attempted to identify and articulate a unifying ‘tr uth ’ , the more he became illegible.
<ul><li>Hunt, Andrew. (April 2005). John Latham, Lisson Gallery, London, UK. [Electronic version]. Frieze </li></ul><ul><li>Magazine. Issue 90 . Retrieved from RSS on http://www.frieze.com/magazine/ </li></ul><ul><li>Jakobsen, Jakob . 'Interview with John Latham about the London Anti-University, his relation to knowledge, </li></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>and what it means to chew a book. ' Flat Time HO, Peckham, June 2, 2003. ｩ Copyright Jakob Jakobsen 2006. Video and transcript retrieved from John Hansard Gallery: </li></ul></ul></ul><ul><li>http://www. hansardgallery .org.uk/exhibition/archive/2006/latham. htm </li></ul><ul><li>Manchester , Elizabeth . (March 2006). God is Great (no. 2) 1991 in John Latham 1921- 2006 . Retrieved </li></ul><ul><li>from the Tate Britain http://www. tate .org. uk/servlet/ViewWork ? workid=83953 & tabview=text </li></ul><ul><li>Packer, Matt. (08 Oct 08). John Latham's Encyclopedia Britannica . Review retrieved from </li></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>Experimental Conversations: Cork Film Centre's online journal of experimental film, art cinema and video art. http://www. experimentalconversations .com/reviews/169/john-lathams-encyclopedia-britannica/ </li></ul></ul></ul><ul><li>P.S.1 MoMA (2006). John Latham: Time Base and the Universe. [Press Release]. Retrieved from </li></ul><ul><li>http://ps1.org/exhibitions/view/123# </li></ul><ul><li>Schimmel, Paul. (1998). Leap Into the Void: Performance and the Object. In Ferguson, Russell </li></ul><ul><li>(editor). Out of Actions – Between Performance and the Object 1949-1979 . (pp. 53; 57). London: </li></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>Thames and Hudson. </li></ul></ul></ul><ul><li>Tate Britain. (2005). John Latham in focus; the art of John Latham (1921-2006). [Press Release]. </li></ul><ul><li>Retrieved from http://www. tate .org. uk/britain/exhibitions/latham/default . shtm </li></ul>