God is Great (#2) is a freestanding sculpture comprising a large glass panel mounted across the spines of five folio-sized hardback books forming a block in the centre. These books are bound copies of The Times newspaper from 1964. A cluster of three smaller hard-bound books appears to be protruding, at varying angles, through the glass in the centre of the work. The books have been cut in half and bonded to the glass surface on both sides with a semi-translucent silicon adhesive. Higher up on the glass a hole suggesting the profile of a half-open book has been cut, as though providing a slot for the addition of a further book. The three books are used editions of the Bible, the Koran and the Talmud. The Koran has a brightly coloured decoration on its cover; the Bible is a dull, dark brown and the Talmud is bright blue. A smaller pale copy of the Bible has been slotted, whole, into a hole cut into one side of the larger Bible. On the other side of the glass, a smaller version of the Talmud has been stuck to the cover of the Bible. Fragments of text in Hebrew have been torn from the books and stuck onto the glass and parts of the books.
As its title indicates, God is Great (#2) is one of several works Latham made with the same title between 1990 and 2005 (the works listed below are Courtesy John Latham Estate and Lisson Gallery, London). All the works are based on the three holy books on which three great monotheistic religions are based – the Bible, the Koran and the Talmud – reflecting the artist’s belief that all varieties of religious teachings share the same origins in the human psyche. In the first work, God is Great (#1a) 1990, the books are set in a broken, many-edged shard of glass mounted on the spine of a thick hardback book. In the second, God is Great (#1b) 1991, the three holy books appear to traverse a triangular shard of glass suspended in a metal frame. God is Great (#4) 2005 presents the three books lying in a pool of shattered glass, perhaps reflecting the global tensions that have erupted between people of different faiths in recent times.
When, in 1958, Latham began fixing books to canvases to create such wall reliefs as The Burial of Count Orgaz (Tate T02069), he was attracted to them for their formal properties. By the following year, in such works as Belief System 1959 (Tate T11841), they had begun to figure as symbolic elements – the repositories of systems of knowledge which are both helpful and, in common with humanity, fatally flawed. Such books as the religious texts named above have a divine authority, shared on a secular level with scientific writing and even with newspaper journalism. For Latham, these books which claim to reveal the ‘truth’ are the result of a subjective point of view which is always relative and never absolute. Books share with the human mind an imaginary realm and, in this way, an individual book in a Latham relief may represent a human character who is observing the world. Because of these properties books have a dual status in time and space as simultaneously static objects perceivable in an instant and the containers of abstract realms requiring extended time to be apprehended. Latham first used glass panels to replace the canvases on which his book-based relief compositions were made in 1982. During the rest of the 1980s and the early 1990s almost all his book-based works are freestanding sculptures in which planes of glass provide the support. In an interview conducted in June 1991, Latham commented:
In the last few years I’ve used glass to represent nothing, and it is an appropriate material to do this. It’s very hard, you can see through it, so it’s not an object. In photographs it’s difficult to puzzle that there’s anything there at all. But when you place a book through it, that is by contrast, very much like the extended world, like a person with a whole history that goes down a line.
(Quoted in eds. Nicholas Wegner and Sarah Batiste: Interviews with the Artists, London 1996, pp.152-6.)
Although the books in the God is Great series appear to traverse the glass panels they are set in, they are in fact bisected by the glass. For the artist, this division symbolises the divided state of conception at the root of religious systems. The three faiths brought together in these works emerge from a plane of emptiness to encapsulate systems of belief which unite some people while dividing and excluding others. In this way they powerfully represent the ambiguity at the root of human systems and knowledge which Latham sought all his career to express in events as diverse as the ritual burning of towers of such books as the National Encyclopedias in the 1960s and in his most famous work, Still and Chew/Art and Culture 1966-7 (MOMA, New York), the group masticating and subsequent distilling of an art theory text.
John Latham: Art after Physics, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Modern Art, Oxford and Staatsgalerie Stuttgart 1991
John Latham: In Focus, exhibition brochure, Tate Britain, London 2005, [p.12], fig.11 reproduced [p.12] in colour
John A. Walker, John Latham: the Incidental Person: His Art and Ideas, London 1995