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Latham's Skoob Box.wps

Latham's Skoob Box.wps

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Published by JOHN A WALKER
article by John A. Walker about a work of art called 'Skoob Box' by the British artist John Latham
article by John A. Walker about a work of art called 'Skoob Box' by the British artist John Latham

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Published by: JOHN A WALKER on Sep 06, 2009
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Consumed by Fire: the Life, Death and Resurrection of John Latham’s Skoob Box

John A. Walker (Copyright 2009)

Photos of the original Skoob Box (1959-60). Copyright Latham Estate. ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------One of the strangest British artworks of the 1960s was John Latham's Skoob Box. (Skoob is 'books' in reverse.) This work has almost been forgotten because it was mysteriously destroyed by fire at the Round House in London during the late 1960s by unknown hands for unknown reasons. A reconstruction of the Box

has been undertaken. The Box was an environmental structure, a wooden cube 7ft x 7ft x 7ft - made from double-skin hardboard lined with canvas. Inside were three relief elements made from old books and other materials extruding from the walls and ceiling positioned where a right-hand spiral would intersect them. The work was completed when someone stood inside and contributed their attention. (It accommodated one person at a time; there was a low entrance door which closed to produce a dark interior.) Above the head of the viewer, embedded in the ceiling, was a single book plus two lights - one white, one 'black' (that is, ultra-violet) - operating with a dimmer to produce a three-phase sequence of 'black', white and twilight (each phase lasted 15 seconds). Besides books, relief materials included plaster, metal castings, wire and an old telephone. Touches of fluorescent paint were added to the page openings of the book so that they glowed during the 'black' light phase.

Exploded diagram of the Skoob Box, published in Studio International, May 1968. Copyright Latham Estate. ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Latham (1921-2006), was one of Britain's most iconoclastic avant-garde artists. He became notorious in the late 1950s for his assemblages made from mutilated and burnt books. By 1964 he was constructing towers made from encyclopaedias and artbooks in order to incinerate them in public. The Box began life in 1959-60. It was a logical extension of Latham's movement from spray-gun paintings to

book reliefs. There was a certain irony in the fact that a major work by a 'destructive' artist employing fire should itself suffer the fate of being destroyed by fire. To understand the meaning of Latham's construction one needs to be familiar with his earlier work and ideas. At that time several of his assemblages had triadic compositions consisting of clusters or masses of books and metal; some of these were connected by snaking metal wires or pipes. In the Box the three clusters of books and junk represented different states and levels of human consciousness: 1) an instinctive state represented by a random; disordered mass low down on wall one; 2) a more rational state - a smaller mass, a more orderly library high up on wall two - capable of observing state one; 3) an intuitive state a single book ·and lights on the ceiling - capable of observing states one and two. State three Latham equated with the artist, a person capable of encompassing and going beyond states one and two. Latham explained the workings of the structure as follows: ‘In the Skoob Box there is a mass on the low left wall that is random deposited junk, some books in it, but a heap in disorder. It could correspond to the memory bank of the Dmitri character [In Dostoyevsky‘s 1880 novel The Brothers Karamazov]. Like he never got outside of it. On the adjacent wall and at eye level there was a smaller mass, a more or less orderly library. Now, observation from a point outside the primary experience-record will give rise to reflective information, 'cerebral' as it is called, characteristic of 'an intellectual'. So the interaction of the two centres of information can correspond with the second

brother (Ivan). I was using a tangible spatial analogy for relationship between two kinds of experience as we have them; and continuing this principle of observation from a new position, there is a third mass - at a position where the spiral curve continued through masses 1 and 2 would meet the surface - which is on the ceiling. This carried one book, a black light and an occluding white light. From O2 is a means of access outside rationality to problems of action not available to an intellectual approach to the world.’

Evidently, the Skoob Box was intended as a model of the processes and levels through which humanity achieves a state of knowing or insight into the nature of reality. As 'stores of information' the three relief elements or centres of attention had, for Latham, broader connotations: first, appearances or sense perceptions which give rise to naming or language; second, abstractions, generalisations rational explanations learnt via education; and third, an undescribed source inaccessible to reason but accessible, from time to time, to intuition.

On the floor of the Skoob Box footprints were marked showing where the viewer should stand. When a viewer completed the work, he or she occupied a fourth observation point that encompassed and transcended the three states of consciousness represented by the relief clusters inside. One cannot help but note similarities between Latham's Box and another cabinet that became famous in the United States during 1950s, namely Wilhelm Reich's Orgone Accumulator. (Latham only learnt about Reich's cabinet after he

had completed the Skoob Box.) Reich (1897-1957) was an Austrian psychologist who contributed to sexual politics by arguing that regular orgasms were essential to a healthy life and that units of cosmic energy existed called 'orgones'. Mental illness was caused by orgone deficiency. This lack could be treated in a specially constructed box made from layers of organic and inorganic materials. The cabinet was designed to accumulate orgones and then to transmit them to the patient. Reich died in prison in 1957 after being prosecuted by the American authorities as a fraud but became a cult figure during the sexual revolution of the 1960s; his theories are still influential in the sphere of alternative medicine. Latham's Skoob Box also came to serve a medical purpose. The Box had a short but lively existence. In 1962 it travelled to Paris in order to appear in a Latham show at the Galerie Internationale d'Art Contemporain. Then, for a time, it was stored in the basement of Kingsley Hall in London's East End. During the ’60s this building was the centre for The Philadelphia Association, the radical anti-psychiatry initiative of R. D. Laing, Joseph Berke and others. In 1964 a handdrawn, exploded diagram of the Box was reproduced in Jeff Nuttall's My Own Mag, a small-circulation, duplicated magazine which began publication in November 1963. (Nuttall, an acquaintance of Latham, Alex Trocchi and William Burroughs, was a key figure in the emerging underground or alternative subculture of London in the 1960s.) The illustration was accompanied by a satirical; typewritten text added - one presumes - by Nuttall:

'All persons using or constructing a Skoob Box or misusing the Kingsley Hall, or

using the Kingsley Hall for anything but its appointed function as occupational therapy centre for radio active cases past the stage of fitness for admission to official shelters and all persons concealing information which could lead to the apprehension and psycho-analysis of John Latham (Designer of the Skoob Box) will be summarily castrated.' (l) One of Laing's and Berke's patients was Mary Barnes (1923-2001), a schizophrenic who was later cured and who became a painter in her own right. In her disturbed state, Barnes would lie in her own urine for hours and smear her body and nearby walls with her own faeces. Infantile regression also necessitated a return to the womb. No wonder she found the Skoob Box therapeutic; it was a cosy nest, a retreat. Barnes arrived at Kingsley Hall in 1965. In her memoirs she recalled:

'The first Saturday I was in Kingsley Hall Ronnie [Laing] was there. He shows me the Box, made by John Latham. "It's in the basement. You can get in it: We try it, it's beautiful. A big wooden box. You bend down to go in the opening. There's coloured lights inside. They go on and off. All different colours. Wires and books on a wall, and it has a floor. It's super. Stay in the Box and you really go places. I want to try it. John has to come and fix it up a bit more. I really want experience of the Box.' Later on she remarks: 'Coming home from therapy ... I would run down, down, to the Box. This was my biggest delight, the Box. I sat still in there. Bringing blankets and my quilt

down from my boxes, I lay, cuddled in with my things. Then I watered. This worried me, suppose the Box was damaged. It might not "work". I was "going somewhere" in the Box. It was to give me experiences - out of this world. The lights came on and off. You watched them. I went upstairs, wrapped in some bedclothes. There was a meeting. In a whisper: "Ronnie, I have watered in the Box". "You have watered in the Box," I nodded. Ronnie was quite nice and smiling. Not cross. It seemed it was all right. I went back to the Box, feeling nice.'(2)

Mary Barnes in 1969. Photo Brendan Monk. ----------------------------------------------------------------------------Latham was not so sanguine about his work of art being used as a lavatory. Mental trips - induced by means of drugs and rock music/light shows - were

feature of 1960s underground culture. In Barnes' case, the magical qualities of the Box were sufficient to enable her to travel in her imagination. Another famous box of the era that had the same ability to transcend the everyday limits of space and time was 'The Tardis' - the time-travel spaceship disguised as a wooden police telephone booth in Dr Who. The hero Doctor of the TV series, first transmitted in 1963, was a 'Time-Lord'. Latham too was obsessed with time; he argued passionately that existing concepts of space and matter should be discarded and replaced with concepts of time and event. Following its stay at Kingsley Hall, the Skoob Box appeared at various rock music festivals including ones at which Pink Floyd played. Finally, it came to rest at the Roundhouse, Camden Town which, at that time, was the home of Arnold Wesker's Centre 42, an arts project informed by socialist ideals.

Latham recalls that, when he went to the Roundhouse to collect the Box for an exhibition, he was . told 'we can't find it'. He continues, 'I knew where it had been stored, and I went there to look. A man was around who told me it had been disposed of - on a bonfire. He told me he had saved a piece and went to get

it. The piece was a grey-painted book attached to a stainless steel pipe. I instantly recognised it. He gave me the piece and I have it. I tookthe matter up with a solicitor, Louis B. Diamond of Diamond & Co. There was correspondence. Wesker wrote in dudgeon to say not to waste his time on trivia. As I remember it, the case got stuck over liability, which the Roundhouse disclaimed .. .' (3)

Arnold Wesker and his ex-secretary, Margaret Groom, replied to my enquiries as to the fate of the Skoob Box, but both said they had no recollection of how or why it came to be destroyed. Diamond's records from the 1960s have also been destroyed by fire (!). He recalls that the Box was 'wrecked by some workmen who did not understand what it was and who were carrying out some job or other on the premises'. (4) Now that the Skoob Box has been reconstructed - by Latham with the assistance of Ismail Saray (of AND organisation, London) and financed by John A. Walker - a grievous loss to British art has been made good. Had the original Box survived, no doubt it would have been one of the highlights of the 'Worlds in a Box' exhibition shown in December 1994 - February 1995 at the Whitechapel Art Gallery (see AM 183).


Photos of the reconstructed Skoob Box, exhibited as part of The Attorney Project :

John Latham, Artist versus Physics, Philosophy and Theology, at the Festival Exhibitions, Edinburgh College of Art, September 1995. Photos courtesy of Ismail Saray and Jenni Boswell-Jones of AND.

Motor on roof of Skoob Box.


(1) My Own Mag (9) November 1964, p. 8. See http://realitystudio.org/images/bibliographic_bunker/jeff_nuttall/my_own_mag/my _own_mag.09.08.jpg (2) M Barnes and J Berke, Mary Barnes: Two Accounts of a Journey Through Madness, (London: MacGibbon & Kee, 1971). See also http://www.marybarnes.net/ (3) Letter to the author dated 6 April 1994. (4) Letter to the author dated 26 July 1994. ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------This is a revised version of an article published in Art Monthly, (185) April 1995, pp. 3-5. The reconstructed Skoob Box can be seen by appointment via http://www.and.org.uk/

John A. Walker is a painter and art historian. He is the author of John Latham the Incidental Person - his Art and Ideas, (London: Middlesex University Press, 1995). See also 'The spray gun and the cosmos: John Latham's spray-gun

paintings of the 1950s'. (Catalogue essay) (London: Delaye/Saltoun, Feb 2008), pp. 7-29. Plus chronology, pp. 36-37. Below John Latham photo copyright John A walker.

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