John Latham at Serpentine Gallery: Heirs to an agent of transformation

Ben Luke
The John Latham Foundation; Courtesy Lisson Gallery

A World View: John Latham
Serpentine Gallery, W2 3/5

Speak
Serpentine Sackler Gallery, W2 3/5

John Latham’s art is difficult to grasp, partly because he didn’t want it to exist in conventional terms. For him, objects were only a conduit for deeper thought; his ideas represent an alternative theory of the universe in response to a too-rational world.

He proposed a cosmology defined by time not space, which makes putting together a show of his work difficult. Much of what you see is only an arcane residue or document.

His one-second drawings, an example of what he called a “least event”, are made with a one-second spray of black paint onto canvas. His roller blind paintings, presented as conventional abstracts here, were originally blinds over windows, sometimes only partially glimpsed.

Books are attached to canvases, singed and overpainted, cut or torn and suspended in glass or plaster. This looks like violence, but it’s more esoteric, about re-envisioning language and knowledge. He wanted to change the artist’s role in society: his work in the Scottish landscape as part of the Artist Placement Group, which he co-founded, appropriates bings of coal waste as a figurative sculpture. Artists, for him, were agents of transformation.

This partly explains Latham’s enduring influence, the basis of Speak. It’s a hotchpotch of a show, with four artists of differing tempers and style emphasising how broadly Latham’s ideas can be interpreted.

The responses range from oblique reference to homage. Cally Spooner has created a kind of self-portrait across time: a graph which plots her metabolic rate, her artistic status and the fluctuations in the pound against the euro on the wall around the space.

Tania Bruguera’s contribution is an interview about her APG-like social art and call for others to take action, while Laure Prouvost creates a sensorily rich and whimsical sound, light and sculptural installation, subverting language, as Latham did.

Latham’s words are material for Douglas Gordon. His statements are printed and reversed in a text wall — reversal is at the core of both artists’ work. Gordon finds a playfulness in Latham, with billiard and ping-pong tables evoking his theories in the forms of games. A video of the young Gordon talking to Latham, again mirrored on another monitor, is a portrait of the thoughts of both artists, embodying the show’s spirit.

Until May 21 (020 7402 6075, serpentinegalleries.org)

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