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John Latham, ‘Book relief’, 2003, Flat Time House, commissioned by Southwark Council

It is the fate of certain artists to be remembered for iconoclastic capers. Duchamp had his urinal, Yves Klein his gallery of air, while Manzoni suggested that he had not inverted a plinth but placed the Earth on it. In 1967 John Latham returned his overdue copy of Greenberg’s Art and Culture to St Martin’s library in a small glass phial, having reduced it to a pulped essence in a ritual mastication. There ensued 40 years of further pulpings, macerations, cleavings and burnings. Books fascinated him, but they also irked him. They perpetuate a rationalist tradition at the expense of intuitive linguistic expression: books cage language.

That’s just one of the impressions given by his posthumous Flat Time House, realised in the London home he occupied for the last 20 years of his life. Now the John Latham Foundation and Archive, the house is located on a watershed of urban gentrification, where Peckham turns into East Dulwich. Indeed, one might initially misconstrue its eccentric edifice as the fauxhemian gambit of a self-taught architect. Penetrating the plate glass window is a huge sculpture of a yellow book, held in place by kilos of mastic: this is ‘The Face’. Step inside and you enter ‘The Mind’, the room containing the five works that demonstrate Latham’s Time-Base Theory. That was his other gripe: he was convinced they had it wrong, the cosmologists, that they’d overestimated the importance of Space/ Object and underestimated the importance of Time/Event.

He illustrates this in the central work ‘Time-Base Roller with Graphic Score’, 1987, a long canvas rolled round an electrically powered drum. Printed on the back are stripes that symbolise the passing of time, but we only see these as the canvas winds back on to the drum. The Universe, suggests Latham, is that which is visible from the viewpoint of a given event. That event can be as short in duration as the movement of a particle, or as long in duration as the Universe itself. Humans perceive the Universe from the viewpoint of human life spans: according to the show’s literature, our understanding of it is ‘…restricted to our lived experience’. This restricted understanding is represented by the narrow band of stripes seen on the drum. We never see the whole thing, only a meagre cross section: even Stephen Hawking must extrapolate from the thinnest of slices.

John Latham 'Distress of a Dictionary', 1988, glass fish tank containing torn books, electrodes and cables 
John Latham ‘Distress of a Dictionary’, 1988, glass fish tank containing torn books, electrodes and cables

If I’ve understood him correctly, Latham is saying that the Universe is not merely subjectively perceived, but subjectively constituted—not anthropocentrically, as with Berkeley’s Idealism, but ‘pancentrically’, like Pascal’s description of Nature as ‘an infinite sphere, the centre of which is everywhere, the circumference nowhere’. Apparently, there is some equivalence between this model and quantum physics’ Consistent Histories Theory (Latham’s work having attracted the particular attention of Professor Christopher Isham). Fifty years after CP Snow’s famous Two Cultures lecture, there is an anxious parity between art and science, which seem to share a metaphysical plight: scientists’ descriptions of the Universe vary so widely as to resemble artists’ instantiations of the proper noun Art. Art is reconstituted with each successive work, each new perspective, why not the Universe too?

The house in which these ideas were hatched became a living mechanism for their demonstration. Passing through ‘The Brain’, ‘the room where Latham executed his writings on Time-Base Theory’, and continuing through ‘The Body Event’, ‘where the sitting, lying, sleeping and “plumbing” [took] place’, we notice arrows stencilled on the walls. These denote the ‘paradigm shift required for the establishment to take on board the new cosmology presented by Time- Base Theory’. At the back of the house is ‘The Hand’, Latham’s studio, where nine works form the show Distress of a Dictionary.

Here we see books chopped and charred, torn and mutilated. But Latham’s bibiliopathy has subtler registers. One stopmotion film peruses the entire contents of the Encylopedia Britannica in a disdainful ten minutes. Elsewhere, one of Latham’s own tracts is forced to share an aquarium with piranhas. The work most germane to his cosmology, however, is a facsimile of a text piece made in 1961, ‘The Life and Death of Great Uncle’. The words ‘the same’ are typed repeatedly till they change into ‘the sime’ and then degenerate into a swirl of punctuation. Accompanying this is a text in which Latham coins the word phonon, ‘a measure of the difference between what you expect to happen and what actually happens’. Even in a subjectively constituted Universe, the only thing we can expect is entropy. Entropy is as inevitable as the Big Bang was unforeseen. The former, after all, is the fallout of the latter. Perhaps art is the study of entropy’s contortions, the imposition of an ‘active’ viewpoint on a passive, degenerating cosmos. Where everyday artefacts, in their buff and preening innocence, seem to insist that entropy is not so, artworks know that it is. Which is why we preserve them.

Sean Ashton is a writer based in London