FROM REAL TO REEL: JOHN LATHAM’S FILM STAR REVISITED

John Latham, Film Star, 1960, Tate Modern ©The estate of John Latham (noit prof. of flattime), courtesy Lisson Gallery, London

Film Star – Then how should I begin....?
Every film should have a beginning, a middle and an end – but not necessarily in that order. Jean Luc Godard The legend of Godard’s words echo through Tate Modern as I ponder the piece in front of me. Pages temporarily fixed against hurricanes that might blow, the undeniable remains of books burned in some horrible holocaust lay sprawled among a parched wasteland of metal rods, broken fixtures and melted plaster – a remnant metaphor to a steel and concrete bastion of knowledge and ideas. A ladder runs lengthwise through the rubble and ruin, a reference perhaps to our thirst for knowledge and civilization’s ill-fated climb up Wittgenstein’s ladder.

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FROM REAL TO REEL: JOHN LATHAM’S FILM STAR REVISITED

The winds begin to lift around me, slow and continuous, punctuated by jagged moments of sudden burst, producing a momentary settling of pages as the leaves of autumn landing in the now stilled breeze. Each instant produces a random juxtaposition of transient texts, each individually capturing a picture, a frame in what together becomes a moving cinematic metaphor of the unfolding of time. History, it seems, unfolds, not in some linear subterfuge of contradiction followed by sublimation but, in fact, as a haphazard juxtaposition of seemingly meaningless moments, each one giving rise to a new story, each story to be reinterpreted by the next in an endless cycle of supplanting and renewal. In it, there are no beginnings, or at least no beginnings that come first. This is John Latham’s Film Star, 1960, a large ‘book relief’ currently on display at the Tate Modern in the Energy and Process Gallery. It is located in Room 2, ‘Beyond Painting’, where it is displayed with the work of other artists, who in the 1950’s and 60’s, sought to explore, challenge and expand the artistic possibilities of “the painting” beyond the traditional method of applying paint with brush to the canvas.i Film Star, one of Latham’s monumental and groundbreaking works, is sensitively positioned between Lucio Fontana’s Spatial Concept Waiting, 1960 and Gunther Uecker’s White Field, 1964. Yet, could it be that this presentation of Film Star as merely a book relief which challenges the tradition of canvas painting obscures the essential significance of the work, perhaps even undermining an appreciation of Latham’s developing oeuvre in the 1960’s? Latham made Film Star in 1960. About 1958, he had begun experimenting with the potential of using books as found materials in his art, using them to create artworks that challenged dimensional boundaries. Books became central figures, perhaps even “actors” or “protagonists” in his art. He burnt them, defaced them, cut them, plastered them, painted them, affixed them to surfaces, turned them into sculptures, ate them, made them the central figures in his performance pieces and, as is the case in Film Star, even gave them starring roles in his film-making. Film Star showcases some fifty books of various size, weight and thickness. The subjectmatter of the books is equally random: gardening, reference, travel, surveys and histories.

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FROM REAL TO REEL: JOHN LATHAM’S FILM STAR REVISITED

Latham has altered the books, damaged their significance as words and instilled them with a timeless insecurity by cutting and rounding their edges, staining and singeing the pages and, in some instances, blacking out text, randomly obscuring titles while allowing others to remain untouched. The books are bound to the untreated canvas through an armature of wire mesh and plaster -- their pages spread open, their appearance fragile, their state unstable -- in any instant they might be blown about to resettle in a heretofore unseen concatenation of ideas, as might the leaves of autumn landing in a now stilled breeze. The work is designed to exist in these altered states as the artist intended an occasional repositioning of the pages.ii

Film Star and Unedited material from the Star
Latham made Film Star to take the leading role in a 16mm documentary film he produced in 1960 and named ‘Unedited Material from the Star’.iii The artist has filmed shots of Film Star open to various pages in order to present Film Star in animated form. The pages painted in twelve vivid colours, appear to open and close, and randomly turn to create a visual score of colour, word and idea. Indeed, the turning of Film Star’s pages highlights the artist-viewerwork triad and activates Film Star’s inherently performative nature, bringing it to life as it were, transforming it from static work to process sculpture and emphasising its extant potentialities, the realisations of which depend upon the direct engagement of the viewer. As the title, ‘Unedited material from the Star’ suggests, Film Star inhabits unstable dichotomies -- subject-object, possibility-actuality, idea-instance -- which cannot be fully appreciated without the film. Perhaps what is suggested is that Film Star is the ‘work of art’ and that Unedited Material from the Star is the unedited ontological precursor to Film Star, inasmuch as the artist (and, indeed, the viewer) must choose in which form(s) -- of the thousands, perhaps millions, of random groupings of open pages (only some of which have been documented in the film) – the work shall exist. Unedited material from the Star represents the limitless possibilities which, like Schrödinger's cat in the sealed box, comprise reality prior to its realisation -before the moment or event is perceived by the viewer -- while Film Star itself assumes one Page 3 of 7

FROM REAL TO REEL: JOHN LATHAM’S FILM STAR REVISITED

realised state which remains, nevertheless, precariously in a perpetual state of possible transformation. Indeed, inasmuch as the two works derive their existence from the other, neither Film Star, nor Unedited material from the Star may be primordial to the other.iv Latham’s Film Star, by causing the artwork to reach beyond the canvas, takes art from two-dimensional to threedimensional space. When viewed together with Unedited material from the Star, however, Film Star enters the fourth dimension, laying claim to the realms of what have been, what are and what could be. The problem of continuity over time vanishes; for there is no continuity as such. Continuity is, as it were, an illusion of the film-maker. Akin to the Kuleshov effect, any randomly thrown together set of images will suffice – even the unselected pages settling in the wind. What can be known when the wind, like a desert storm, continually reinvents the landscape? The viewer is thus trapped in a futile search for meaningfulness. Involuntarily and of necessity, one imposes meaning and structure – for knowledge is essential to the viewer’s existence! What else is there but to know? To know is to give life and to be known, to be! In a world of randomness, meaning itself becomes an act of capture. To comprehend is not just to understand, it is to own, to make one’s own, to enclose and engulf, and perhaps even, to consume. History, like a film, becomes realised in its being comprehended, and the random collusion of fragmented stories is in fact an act of story-telling, like the making of a film. That is the directive of existence -- the act of being in the world is an act of making meaningful.

Re-presenting Film Star
Latham began his career as an artist after service in the Second World War. He returned in 1945 to the bleak British environment that was post-war England, caught up by food shortages, widespread poverty and meat rationing, amidst the din and fallout of the

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FROM REAL TO REEL: JOHN LATHAM’S FILM STAR REVISITED

emerging Cold War, McCarthyrite terror campaigns, arms-race escalation and the debilitating uncertainty and impotence brought on by the hydrogen bomb. Art’s purpose in such an environment was part distraction and part soporific, in all cases, the manifesto being to look inward and divert attention from the troubles of the day, social, political and economic. Art’s scope and form was medium-specific and any straying beyond the limits of its medium were an anathema. Latham responded to his personal experience of Second World War and the Cold War which followed through his artworks, challenging these inconsistencies and searching for a framework of understanding that might succeed in resolving ideological differences. His practice was nothing short of experimental and radical, at times embracing Auto-Destructive Art, Tachisme as well as the Fluxus, Performance and Conceptual art. In fact, John Latham has challenged the creative scope of nearly every media -- performance, film and video-art, sound, found-object assemblage, sculpture, land art and even painting. His interdisciplinary collaborations gave rise to the Artists Placement Group and to his development of an utopian art or cosmological art, in which he sought to discover a new framework for comprehending an “event-based” non-linear structure of time.v Latham’s oeuvre demonstrates his concern with both language and time. His works bear out his fundamental belief that art (and indeed, our current notion of space-time) had reached an end point.vi He was convinced that the ills of civilization were primarily the result of our dualistic subject-object based linguistic-structural framework which prevented us from comprehending the true nature of the universe. Latham himself sought to instigate a kind of paradigm shift in which he believed artists would play a crucial role and his theories place him at the forefront of the very radical developments that began to shape Western art in the 1960’s. Film Star deserves to be presented and viewed and within this context. It is a piece that speaks to Latham’s exploration language and the dimension of time in art, philosophy and science. It is central to Latham’s development in his ‘book relief’ period, but also indicates his increasing concern with language both as cornerstone of ideology and the guise which drives international misunderstanding, as is alluded to in early works, such as Belief Systems,

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FROM REAL TO REEL: JOHN LATHAM’S FILM STAR REVISITED

1959, and later made explicit in God is Great series.vii Film Star embraces the performative aspect typical of the Fluxus movement, while heralding the ideas which were taking shape in the landscape of the 1960’s just prior to Conceptual art’s crystallisation. Indeed together, Film Star and Unedited material from the Star articulate the ideas which would soon emerge in the British Conceptual art movement. Film Star stands as a monument to the notions of art as idea and its realisation through viewer participation, and of art as performance which may be subject to documentation; yet it trades on the inherent ambiguity that subsists between the work of art as idea or performance and the notion of “the document”. With respect to the latter, it raises the fundamental question: ‘Which is the more real and in which piece is the reality founded?’ And even more significantly within Latham’s oeuvre, together the works provide a lucid metaphor of Latham’s then developing ideas about time and event structure. In speaking of his book reliefs, Latham once said: Art is something additional to the appearances of Nature. We make art in order to represent experiences and ideas which are not out there in the visible world. I was looking at, constructing, an idea of structure in events. The book reliefs became not things but a 'score' for events. Music is another example of event structure. The works embody a relationship between the totality outside time - the whole event of the universe past, present and future - and connect it with the momentary, lived experience.viii John Latham died on New Year’s Day in 2006. Controversial to the core and equally tenacious in the propagation of his ideas, he has produced an extraordinary oeuvre spanning well over fifty years. There is growing recognition of his art as transcending the boundaries between form, idea, word and media; science, philosophy, practice and art. To say that his contribution to contemporary British art is significant is nothing less than understatement. His list of collaborations is as extensive as it is impressive. Yet Latham’s work continues to remain largely unseen, and often misunderstood, by the broader public. Today few ‘Lathams’ are on display in British public galleries leaving open the question of how the Fifth anniversary of Latham’s passing, now fast-approaching, will be recognised by the art community in London, his home.

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FROM REAL TO REEL: JOHN LATHAM’S FILM STAR REVISITED

i

As set out in Tate Modern description of the gallery room; see also http://www.tate.org.uk/modern/explore/room.do?show=2338&code=02&tourid=undefined&action=1
ii

See Tate Records, Tate Acquisitions File 1965-69, John Latham, TG 4/2/601/1 pp 9 &10: correspondence between John Latham, dated 14th November 1967 and Tate Keeper of the Modern Collection dated 23rd November 1967 discussing the need to regularly turn the pages in order to keep to keep the work alive.
iii iv

Unedited material from the Star by John Latham, 16 mm, colour, sound (optical), 12', 1960.

v

See, for example, John A. Walker, John Latham: The incidental person – his art and ideas (London: Middlesex University Press, 1995) (1-5); Beyond Preconceptions: the Sixties Experiment exhibition catalogue, originally published by Independent Curators International, New York, 2000 (eds. Michael Newman, Milena Kalinovska) originally exhibited at University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAM/PFA) October 26 through December 29, 2002; Flat Time House, website http://www.flattimeho.org.uk/project/16/; Andrew Hunt, ‘John Latham’, Frieze Magazine, 90 (April 2005), available at webpage http://www.frieze.com/issue/review/john_latham.
vi

According to Latham, a zero-state in art was reached when Robert Rauschenberg produced his 1951 ‘no mark’ canvases (the White Paintings), heralding what he believed was a convergence of art and science which would lead to a unifying inclusive epistemology based on time as event rather than space and time as distinct. See ‘John Latham: Extracts from an Extended Conversation in Flat Time HO 210 Bellenden Road, December 2005’ (Marianne Brouwer, John Latham, Laure Prouvost) in Tate Archives, John Latham in Focus exhibition, (12 September 2005 – 26 February 2006) http://www.tate.org.uk/britain/exhibitions/latham/furtherresources.shtm; Latham also said: “Art’s blank canvas as a work was equivalent to Einstein’s conclusion that gravitational collapse of the universe would proceed to nothing.” See ‘John Latham: Books for Burning’ (Interview with John A. Walker).
vii

God is Great (no. 2), 1991 is currently on display at Tate Liverpool. ‘John Latham: Books for Burning’ (p.9).

viii

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