Review: John Latham, Serpentine Gallery ‘What Does it all Mean?’


The Spring show at the Serpentine Gallery comes from John Latham, a leading British conceptual artist who died in 2006. And, I tell you now, it’s a baffling one but also equally fascinating.

The small exhibition looks to encompass all strands of Latham’s work, including sculpture, installation, painting, film, land art, engineering, found-object assemblage, performance and the artist’s theoretical writings. And what unites them is Latham’s fascination with examining and challenging time and history as a linear form, preferring his ‘flat time’ approach where all strands of the universe come together as one.

So, what does that mean in practice? Well it means exploding books, encyclopaedias suspended in glass and surrounded by sand, white tiles with an ever-increasing smattering of ink (or should that be stars? The cosmos?) on them, fragile glass spheres…. There’s also large canvases of thick strands of colour that seemingly snap into two, or where the strands themselves seem to temporarily disappear into some kind of vortex before reappearing.

And then there are the words: “The mysterious being known as God is an atemporal score, with a time-base in the region of 1019 seconds” writ large, high up on one of the walls.

It’s impenetrable and intriguing in equal measure.

Latham certainly was one for challenging the way we see the world and, in that, these works certainly do enchant you. There’s something about the way they are put together that intrigues you. Take the exploding burnt books, for example. The piece winds its way around two walls of the galley – the first piece starting as blank piece of Perspex, before the dots appear, then those dots get ever-larger before they transform into books half way around the wall, and then these books take over by the final stage.

There is a flow to his works that draws you in.

Sadly, I can’t say the same for the accompanying show at the nearby Sackler Gallery. Here, contemporary conceptual artist showcases pieces they feel are inspired by Latham and/or respond to the show specifically.

Try as I might, I couldn’t get excited about Douglas Gordon’s table tennis table (no, really) or Laure Prouvost’s Teabags Drying on a Radiator (no, I’m serious). I know Laure won the Turner Prize a few years back but I couldn’t sense anything insightful about her dried teabags. And the games tables from Douglas Gordon… Well, I think the best that can be said there was that, when I visited, other visitors were so bemused that no games were being played.

Maybe we’re just too used to conceptual art now to be shocked or surprised by it anymore.

Serpentine Gallery, to May 21, 2017

Admission free.

Installation images by Luke Hayes

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