John Latham is generally considered to be a pioneering voice in British conceptual art. Born in what was Livingston, Northern Rhodesia (now Maramba, Zambia), he later studied in London at Regent Street Polytechnic and then Chelsea College of Art and Design. Over the last couple of years, his work has cropped up in several significant international exhibitions both in the UK and abroad, including the Conceptual Art in Britain 1964–1979 at Tate Britain during the middle of last year. In recognition of both his own innovative body of work, and also his vast influence on later generations of artists, the Serpentine galleries are now showing two concurrent exhibitions dedicated to Latham in Hyde Park, London.
In the main Serpentine gallery, A World View serves as a focussed retrospective, collecting pieces from across Latham’s multifaceted practice including sculpture, installation, painting, assemblage and moving image. While that may sound like a vast array of works, what is surprising as you walk around the exhibition is how much room each element has, even within the relatively unassuming rooms of the space. On entering, the first thing you encounter is a series of incredible short films playing in sequence. Highlights from this selection include Talk Mr Bard (1961) and Speak (1962), which are proto-psychedelic stop-frame animations, complete with grainy analogue soundtracks (Speak was famously screened by the band Pink Floyd at an early show). As circles of bright colour fly out of the screen at the viewer, strange acousmatic sounds crackle underneath.
These films, along with four others which appear in an adjacent room were originally shot on 16mm film, and their presence here sets the scene for Latham’s other works in a way which feels invaluable. Some of the oldest works here (including those which predate these film pieces), can feel startlingly contemporary, undoubtedly a testament to the longevity of Latham’s relevance. With their inclusion however, the exhibition gains a particular temporal/aesthetic tone which helps convey just how ground breaking much of this work was when it was first created.
In tandem with the films, the sculptural and assemblage pieces are the clear standouts from the exhibition as a whole. Just to the right of the entrance sits even tstructur re (1966-67), a sheet of hardboard with papers, cards and text across it like a kind of three dimensional project board. A close analysis of a dot of black ink on five sheets of paper, the work hints at a kind of conceptual underpinning which is highlighted in the accompanying exhibition text, but which can occasionally get lost simply by the visual strength of many of these pieces.
Latham was interested in the way we think about the passage of time, and in particular the way ‘events’ work within that spectrum, something which is perhaps most clearly examined in his One Second Drawing works or his Painting with tennis ball marks (1990). It is also explicitly analysed in even tstructur re where the appearance and disappearance of this blob of ink is examined and documented in notes. He viewed time as a kind of non-linear system, which expanded beyond individual disciplines or structures. Objects in the exhibition then, could be read as traces of events within this expanded conception of time.
Books feature prominently in the other assemblage works like the panels in The Story of the RIO (1983) or the frankly stunning Untitled (1958), a beautiful mesh of media distorted and protruding from the body of a dark canvas. These pieces recall some of Anselm Kiefer’s work, but they also tie Latham’s practice to that of contemporaries like Gustav Metzger, with whom the artist collaborated in the ‘Destruction in Art Symposium’ in 1966. These familiar yet deconstructed objects are transformed in an almost counter-intuitive way, and the longer you spend with some of these works the more you begin to discern in the mangled mesh of detritus.
On the opposite side of the gallery, books also appear in a collection of numbered sculptures entitled The N-U Niddrie Heart. Composed of glass, books, paper and plaster, as well as electrical components, the works are all connected by a line of sculpted sand running along the floor. Originally the series included 36 structures, present here at Serpentine are numbers 10, 11, 17, 23, 24, and 36. They’re supported by Derelict Land Art: Five Sisters (1976) and Niddrie Woman (1976), two works which immediately recall some kind of high school science project display (while also explicitly speaking to Latham’s interest in Land Art). Like the even tstructu re they incorporate different media as a kind of research study, featuring photography and glass jars with shale inside. Latham actually wanted to get the mines that these works document preserved as monuments – a permanent alteration of landscape preserved and approached as art because it involved a collective effort from hundreds of people over long periods of time.
John Latham’s legacy is explored further at the Serpentine Sackler gallery through a small group show named for the artist’s famous film work Speak. Featuring Tania Bruguera, Douglas Gordon, Laure Prouvost and Cally Spooner, each presents work which demonstrates the extent to which Latham’s often radical thinking continues to resonate today.
Bruguera’s work with the Immigrant Movement International (IMI) and Arte Útil (‘useful art’) speak to the role of the artist as a political figure and activist This is also explored in her work with the Institute of Activism Hannah Arendt (INSTAR), where activists work with people from different facets of Cuban society to educate and engage with building a more democratic society. It’s a very real and practical application of Latham’s notion of the potential for art and artists to facilitate wider social change.
Douglas Gordon contributes work which incorporates texts from some of Latham’s writing, as well as a video piece featuring fragments of conversation between Latham, Gordon and powerhouse curator (and Serpentine Artistic Director) Hans Ulrich Obrist dating from 1999. The exhibition also includes two sculptural works in the form of The Latham (Variations), two games (modelled on ping pong and a pool table) which viewers can actually play to experiment with notions of the event in space and time.
Laure Prouvost’s installation is easily the standout work in Speak; a collection of beautiful sculptural works utilising glass and light. Some recall the objects Latham used to create his incredible assemblages, familiar domestic items or moments transformed into something more, like a glass egg in a frying pan or a bottle of what looks like detergent. Lights above the darkened room highlight different elements while a soundtrack narrates the scene with an appropriately disconnected slant. Prouvost worked as Latham’s assistant in the early 2000s and her work reveals both his influence and her own unique artistic language.
Cally Spooner’s works are also a wonderful development of some of Latham’s notions of time and the event. Her pieces here also speak directly to a performative element that is largely implicit elsewhere in both galleries. On the left side of the Sackler gallery, a single performer runs through a series of exercises and stretches in a kind of perpetual preparation to exert. Around the entire space lines drawn in different materials reflect a collage of data on the artist’s career and metabolism, as well as the economy. Here the event is reflected in both object and gesture, and in this respect her work serves as perhaps the most contemporary expression of Latham’s ideas.
A series of related screenings, performances and talks round out the Serpentine’s diverse program of events in conjunction with the exhibitions. A World View: John Latham and Speak: Tania Bruguera, Douglas Gordon, Laure Prouvost, Cally Spooner are on show until May 21, 2017 at the Serpentine Gallery and Serpentine Sackler Gallery respectively.
By Will Gresson