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Book in processed oil shale from Bing

Book in processed oil shale from Bing

Two books, rocks and canvas gauze, c. 1976


Copyright The John Latham Foundation. Courtesy Lisson Gallery.

Latham famously incorporated books - the keepers of all knowledge - into what he called 'skoob' works ('books' spelt backwards). His ' Artist Placement Group' residency at the Scottish Office's Development Agency in 1975-6 led to a series of proposals for some of the nineteen huge derelict heaps of red shale waste known as 'bings', found in West and Midlothian near Edinburgh. Using and abusing books throughout his career, John Latham took advantage of the high symbolic value of the book in the late 20c, both as a reassuring marker that knowledge and values were well ordered and kept safe, while at the same time using the deep unease linked to a book's destruction. 

John Latham

John Latham is a British painter, sculptor, conceptual artist, performance artist, video and filmmaker. He studied at the Chelsea School of Art, London, from 1946 to 1950. His concern from 1954 was not with the production of art objects as an end in itself, but with various processes and consequently with the recording in three dimensions of sequences of events and of patterns of knowledge. In 1958 he introduced torn, overpainted and partly burnt books into assemblages.

The destruction and parody of systems of knowledge implied in Latham's work was apparent in 1966, when he organised a party at which guests chewed pages of Clement Greenberg's book Art and Culture; the remains were then fermented into mash, distilled and returned in a test-tube to the St Martin's School of Art library.

Solo exhibitions include P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, New York (2006) and Tate Britain, London (2005). His work was shown in many group exhibitions including documenta 6, Kassel, Germany (1977) and the 51st Venice Biennale (2005).