Encompassing many strands of John Latham’s diverse conceptual practice, ‘A World View’ is not a retrospective exactly. Works produced in the 1960s, like ‘Event Structure’, can be found next to ‘Painting with tennis ball marks’ from 1990. Neither chronological nor particularly thematic, the show’s organisation drives home one of the main characteristics of Latham’s work: to a greater or lesser extent all of it reflects his peculiar and esoteric theories of universal time, and his theory of art as event.
It is appropriate that a show documenting a chameleon-like oeuvre consistent in its exploration of the theoretical frameworks of time begins with a video projection. The dizzying, flickering shapes with an occasional injection of speech-like sound monopolise the viewer’s time, foreshadowing on the level of experience what is to come in terms of conceptual rigour: a developing body of ideas on the issues of time, event and duration.
One of the first works in the exhibition, ‘Event Structure’ of 1966-1967 unites textual, sculptural and painted elements, and acts as a manifesto of sorts, introducing the viewer to the all-permeating theory so central to Latham’s work. Upon closer reading (and much aided by the recent addition of explanatory wall text) it subverts the habitual perception of the art object in spatial terms. In proposing to view the object as a trace of the event, ‘Event Structure’ enacts a perceptual shift. Seen as events, ‘One Second Drawings’ (a collection of white enamelled boards with miniscule constellations of black specks of paint) conjure an image that extends beyond the spatial and into the temporal: one second’s worth of black spray-can discharge condensing on the glisteningly white surfaces.
The conceptual framework outlined in ‘Event Structure’ conditions the way one views the following works. Each transcends mere form to figure as a conceptual proposition, inviting reflection on the processes of production as well as reception. The most complex articulation of this idea is found in one of Latham’s most famous works on view, ‘Time Base Roller’ of 1972. The roller, operated by a switch, reveals and obscures vertical lines of text, and is supposed to constitute, in Latham’s words, ‘a memory store, a blueprint and record, our atemporal or timeless condition’.
Social and political themes in Latham’s practice are explored in ‘Niddrie Woman’ and ‘Derelict Land Art: Five Sisters’, two installations resulting from his involvement with the Artist Placement Group (APG). In claiming the status of land art for large heaps of coal and shale waste not far from Edinburgh, Latham calls for a celebration of a century of ‘anonymous work’, dissolving accusations of a lack of political and social engagement.
While the relatively small scale of the exhibition does not allow for a full picture of Latham’s complex theoretical oeuvre, a collection of ‘token’ works highlights key moments and strands in his long career. The recent, if somewhat belated, addition of explanatory texts under the works’ titles furthers and expands this view through a peephole – a view of the theoretically complex and often esoteric world view of Latham.