I have no Art training- I have just done a lot of looking- so visiting an exhibition called A Lesson in Sculpture about John Latham, an artist who I had never heard of was a bit of a challenge. I always think of the Henry Moore Institute as quite hardcore whatever it is showing. It’s a serious place, quite forbidding behind its sleek, grey, modern facade- a fortress of Art which seems to be built for people who are in the know. There is nothing necessarily wrong with that of course, but it can be quite daunting. You don’t go in there to parade your ignorance.
My first reaction was to rush over to the two Cornelia Parker pieces, My Soul Aflame (1997) and Just When I Need Him Most (2005) and greet them like old friends. I know and love her work and I had seen them before in her exhibition at the Baltic in Gateshead. Two charred hymnbooks, rescued from a church that was struck by lightning in Lyrtle,Texas, open at the pages showing the hymns which give them their titles. When I told a committed Christian about them after first seeing them he looked at me wide eyed and said, “I wonder why God did that?” An atheist would enjoy the wit and irony. I stood in front of them thinking about how fragile life is, how objects can change and resonate through time, and how we can never really know.
It took a while, and an interesting conversation with one of the people guarding the fortress, before a return visit was able to help me start to see what was going on in John Latham’s work. Like Cornelia Parker he was also interested in time and transformation and changing objects quite violently. Often this involved books. Destroying books is an action with a lot of forceful associations, most of them unpleasant. Latham was removed from his teaching post at St Martin’s College for “distilling the essence” of a library book- a fine euphemism after seeing what he has done to some other books. It was a book of critical essays about Art by Martin Greenberg and his action seems to me to be both appalling and admirable- a nice example of Art triumphing forcibly over one of its hangers on. The books in this exhibition which Latham has destroyed to make his work don’t seem to me to be forlorn, maligned objects. You may not be able to read them any more but they are still there, surviving trauma, and the knowledge that they have already passed on cannot be so easily wiped out. There is real power in them as they skewer each other, lie there half hidden amongst the wreckage, or remain frozen in time, stopped in motion as they collide with each other. It’s all quite macho, cold and scientific, very male, especially the room which celebrates all the anonymous work done in the coal industry where piles of red shale and coal waste have been designated as sculpture with a soundtrack of shovelling.