On John Lathams Filmsby Nathan Dunne
The former house and studio of British conceptual artist John Latham is tucked away among a row of sleepy terrace houses on Bellenden Road in South London. Known as Flat Time House, after Latham’s idiosyncratic theory of time, the façade has been replaced with a giant cantilevered book-sculpture called How the Univoice is Still Unheard. Since the artist’s death in 2006, Flat Time House has been transformed into a dynamic gallery space for younger artists with a curatorial program focused on Latham’s theoretical ideas and their continued relevance. On a recent visit I discovered the artist’s films, which form a key part of his work produced in the 1960s and early ’70s. Although Latham is known predominantly for his paintings and sculpture, these films are some of his most fertile experiments with form, utilizing paper cutouts, stop-motion animation, and sound-collages.
After the Second World War, having witnessed the sinking of the Bismarck during his Navy service, Latham studied at Chelsea College of Art and began experimenting with spray-paint on canvas. His amateur interest—and misunderstanding—of theoretical physics, led him to develop an antithetical cosmology that rejected space in favor of time. Latham’s rejection of space as the primacy of art was also a rejection of Clement Greenberg’s Art and Culture, a text that had been introduced into the British art school curriculum following the Coldstream Report of 1960, with a view to making art schools more “academic.” His personal dislike of Greenberg was also due to the notoriously pontifical art critic having dismissed his work as “patly cubist.”
While teaching at St. Martins College in 1966, Latham devised a performance that would become his most famous sculpture. He invited half a dozen guests to his house and had them chew pages of Art and Culture, which he had borrowed from the college library. The pages were then spat into a glass container and converted into a liquid. Latham was soon sent an overdue notice for the book that he returned to the library in a glass phial with a label that read: “the essence of Greenberg.” He was dismissed from his teaching post the following day; the work was later bought by the Museum of Modern Art.
Throughout his life Latham published numerous papers attempting to elucidate his theory of Flat Time, such as “Time-Base and Determination in Events,” (1976) and “Event Structure” (1981). But for all his emphasis on time, it is language that emerges as the most powerful driver of his work. As in the performance of Art and Culture, where language is reduced to an object, Latham’s films during this period are obsessed with the way language is manipulated for power and authority. In Speak (1962), pieces of colored paper are layered over one another in a psychedelic assault. As the strobe increases it’s as though the viewer is being pulled into a void bruised by rainbows. The ten-minute film was first projected during early performances of Pink Floyd at a church hall known as The Tabernacle in Notting Hill Gate. However, when the film was prepared for an exhibition, Latham created his own soundtrack, placing a microphone on the floor to pick up the rhythm of a circular saw that he was using to cut up books. The result is a blistering white noise that never lets up, a bottled scream where language is suppressed beneath the frenetic sequence of light.
Talk Mr Bard (1961) also features stop-motion colors, but with a more nuanced approach to language. Samples of radio and television broadcasts run into one another among a sputtering of French and Mandarin that quickly begin to drown in static. As the audio becomes incomprehensible, two words flash up: “FISH” and “BARD.” “FISH” emphasizes the circular form of the cutouts as a blinking fish-eye that is unable to fix on language. The eye is always slippery, losing words before they form sentences. “BARD” is an obvious reference to Shakespeare: Latham is taunting the playwright’s status at the center of the Western literary canon. The challenge is for language to overcome the babble of voices and fix on meaning through the veil of colors. Latham is suggesting that as Shakespeare tries to speak his words become images.
The approach to language in these films was heavily influenced by James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. Latham regarded the novel as a work that succeeded in marrying text and image in a wholly new way: the density of the portmanteau letters, words, and phrases served to interrupt the temporal act of reading in favor of multiple image renderings, many of them with roots in at least two languages or dialects. In his writing on the novel, Latham argues that trying to read according to a linear pattern misses the point of the work. Joyce’s use of words like “zeemliangly,” “applecheeks,” and “wordpainter” are meant to arrest the reader’s eye and become images on the page. By disrupting the temporal experience of reading, the reader is challenged to re-learn the act according to a new language where the words, letters, and dialects criss-cross in a dizzying pattern of starts, stops, and flowing visualfragments.
In Erth (1971), just as in Speak and Talk Mr Bard, Latham embraces this text-as-image play. The film begins with a dot of spray paint that enlarges into a black screen, a reference to the Big Bang. A soft German voice is then faded over the black at random intervals. Although it’s difficult to make out the exact words, it sounds like the voice is counting down the age of the universe. An image of Earth swims into view only to be replaced by a volume of Encyclopedia Britannica.With single-frame shots of every page in the volumes, the encyclopediais rendered unreadable. The image becomes increasingly overexposed until the camera zooms in over images of city-scapes and fields.
In the film’s title, thein “Earth” has been removed to suggest the separation of individuals from their environment. In contemplating Earth, the viewer is disconnected from the world without adequate knowledge and connection to the universe of which he or she is a microcosm. The snatches of voice emphasize this disconnection as if captured from an astronaut’s faulty transmission. Latham believed that the encyclopedia was a false repository of knowledge and in rendering it unreadable he created a cosmology where the objects remain the same but display endless variation and development. Like Joyce, he was attempting to combine different elements into a new, unitary form.
Over the last decade, these films have been rediscovered as part of Latham’s major body of work. Following a screening in 2000, the Lux Centre in London worked with the artist to produce a DVD and arranged for several films to be included in the touring exhibition “Shoot Shoot Shoot.” Latham’s art is characterized by its formal innovation and these films are extraordinary examples of the way he pushed the limitations of sculpture, sound, and language. His restless experimentation, coupled with his meticulous attention to detail, meant that his work exhibited formal ingenuity unmatched in British art of the late twentieth century. This formal and material innovation is what makes his films so compelling.
NATHAN DUNNE is the author of Lichtenstein and the editor of the essay collection Tarkovsky. He has written for The Atlantic, Times Literary Supplement, Aeon and Artforum.