The Portable John Latham
Edited by Antony Hudek and Athanasios Velios, Occasional Papers in association with Whitechapel Gallery, London, 2010, £12.50, ISBN 978-0-9562605-5-0
This collection chronicles a life in the 20th century but not enough of its involvement with the period. Many of the items are one-sided correspondences or texts extracted out of their relevant context. For the growing industry of Latham scholars, these verbatim reprints from his personal archive includes correspondence with scientiﬁc and political cognoscenti. For biographers, the wartime sinking of Latham’s minesweeper and the loss of his three naval colleagues is described in a letter to his parents, but follow-up is elusive. Many other items are polyﬁlla publishing; they paper over the cracks and neatly ﬁll the gaps. That said, these letters, notes and announcements underline a lifetime of consequence and creative enquiry.
Latham returns to expansive subjects such as astrophysics through his efforts to collide art with science. And as the Demarco Foundation’s announcement ‘John Latham vs Physics, Philosophy, Theology’, a powerfully intense rhetorician is invoked. Such intensity, aligned to a general lack of a displayed context, means many of the items are unintentionally funny.
So, Margaret Thatcher’s response, if it exists, to Latham’s discovery of ‘a practical programme which introduces a new kind of professional role, normally or previously performed by “the artist” in society’, whose redeployment requires the approval of the Cabinet, remains unknown for now. As Latham’s letter cited black holes, Government Departments, the 1970s and an ominous ‘twelve ﬁgure sum’, I can imagine who slept better that night. Deep into the collection I found myself laughing as its disconnectedness has a Shrigley-like quality reinforced by the anachronistic aesthetic of the portable typewriter, which leaps out of almost every page. The nature of time was Latham’s abiding concern. As his performance directions for part two of his Government of the First and Thirteenth Chair, 1978, opens ‘after a time lapse of a billion universes’, you might have then found yourself excused sometime during the interval.
Recipients of his letters received a ponderous gift. As we read of Latham’s theoretical explication to another, the replies from gifted researchers such as Noam Chomsky or Martin Rees are shown grappling with the intensity of Latham’s exhortations and depositions (but ﬁnd themselves otherwise detained when Latham offered speculative companionship at a time and day of his setting). But these are my superﬁcial observations. Latham’s sensibility was sometimes intentionally impenetrable, the editors note in passing his ‘professed aversion to language as a ﬂawed medium’ and his need to submit language to his own authority. Clement Greenberg, whose Art and Culture Latham later masticated for his provocative Still and Chew, ﬁnished his handwritten card to an artist he found interesting but not admirable, and by establishing the very orthodoxies Latham detested, angled along with a personal touch: ‘part of the essence of art mocks & transcends conceptual thought & and in doing so relieves us of the strain inherent in the felt opposition between thought & feeling. Regards from both of us (we had a baby 1 ½ months ago, a girl).’
Latham’s output has been repeatedly subjected to peripheral, denuded critical thinking. Hudek and Velios’ book is another opportunity to takes us back to a restless original in British art. One cannot envy the scale of their task. The publication’s chapter structure is intended as a layering device designed to promote better understanding, yet their introductory essay is for aﬁcionados only. I found myself initially resistant, although their thesis aroused moderate interest. The editors have taken their cue from Latham’s attested interest in Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov as described here in his reprinted discussion with Charles Harrison (to whom the editors have dedicated this book). The assertion then is Ivan, Mitya and Alyosha’s ﬁctional characters are predisposed to ordering Latham’s ephemera into sub-divisions, to paraphrase, of ‘angry enthusiasm’; ‘intuition’; ‘dispassionate rationality’. I won’t bore the reader with further disquisition on this point. The tripartite structure has an additional web-based functionality but its general irrelevance to the subject may lead readers to feel the need for further enlightenment.
The editors are, however, concerned with theoretical constructs and never intended to publish a navigation of Latham’s life and work, in part recently evidenced in Claire Bishop’s article on 'Artist Placement Group' in Artforum, or vocalised late in life by Latham in his 'Artists' Lives' recording. Towering over all is John A Walker’s 1994 voluminous text on Latham. It continues to serve as the fullest comprehension and subsequent theories are adjunctival. Latham demanded that Walker’s book be withdrawn and threatened legal action through numerous letters which Walker later publicly released. Such are the perils of publishing.
Craig Richardson is a lecturer at University of Northumbria, Newcastle