Time Base Roller is a sculptural installation expressing the complex concept of ‘time-basis’ Latham formulated in the 1950s and 60s, through which he attempted to reconcile the infinite duration or space of linear time with the brief moment of immediate apprehension. The sculpture consists of a long metal roller wired to a motor and attached to the wall just above eye level on two steel brackets. The roller is covered in red and white striped canvas with the stripes running along its length. Three sections of canvas hang at intervals along the roller: the central canvas has strong, vertical black and white stripes while those on either side are undyed. Latham used a red marker pen to rule vertical lines on the raw canvas and then, using black marker pen, his son stencilled a mixture of real and nonsense words in vertical formation between the lines. For the artist, the text is a children’s code representing the ways children hear and understand words. A three-way wall-mounted switch permits the visitor to cause the canvases alternately to unroll slowly to the floor and roll back up again. As they roll down and up, a narrow strip of letters and lines is visible along the roller. The whole words on the canvases are never visible as the roller is oriented so that the back of the canvas is visible as it unrolls. For the artist this process is analogous to memory – what remains visible in the mind as all other knowledge and events become hidden with the passage of time, like the letters no longer visible on the reverse of the canvas.
In Latham’s theoretical system, explained in notes accompanying the work, the horizontal dimension of the cylinder is treated as a scale with the whole history of time as its outer limits – a temporal version of the spectrum of light. The spectrum of the roller is divided into thirty-six different stripes or ‘time-base bands’ which represent areas of human knowledge referred to by the artist as ‘principles of action in any mental activity’. Each band represents a duration fourteen to fifteen times that of the one on its left. Vertical lines drawn onto the raw canvases on either side of the central striped canvas demarcate some of the conceptual divisions. The left-hand side of the spectrum represents the domain of physics (or short-term events) and the right-hand side that of cosmology (long-term events); all other domains of knowledge and time lie in-between. Letters of the alphabet on the unrolling canvases evoke meaning through words formed by accidental juxtapositions occurring as the canvases move. The image which remains in the viewer’s memory after the canvases have unrolled is, according to Latham, ‘a memory store, a universal blueprint and record, our atemporal or timeless condition so often reconstructed during the recorded history of the race.’ (Quoted in Walker, p.121.) In this way the roller represents a cultural spectrum of understanding and meaning graded in accordance with the time-base concept.
Latham trained as a painter at Chelsea School of Art (1947-51) but quickly tired of traditional painting and determined to establish a new kind of art and a cognitive framework for a new cosmology. In the mid 1950s he discovered spray painting with a spray gun which allowed him to reconfigure painting as an event, the temporality of which, according to the artist, generated space. Spray painting permitted the process of the work to be evident, while the scattered, random configurations of the paint invested it with cosmological connotations. This combination is particularly evident in his monumental painting Full Stop 1961 (see Tate T11968) and in his later series of One Second Drawings (Tate T02070). The relationship between space and time is at the root of Latham’s notion of time-basis, which was later crucial to the development of his art and his search for culturally more expansive categories of knowledge. His theories fuse physics and philosophy with the visual language of art. This was the 1972 O 1_1 O project at Gallery House in London, which lasted 18 months and resulted in a series of ‘Object Lectures’, the final version of his ‘Time-Base Theorem’ and the work, Time Based Roller 1972.
Latham created a second time-base roller, The, in 1976 (Estate of John Latham).
John Latham: Art after Physics, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Modern Art, Oxford and Staatsgalerie Stuttgart 1991, pp.12 and 17, reproduced cat.38 p.97 in colour
John Latham: In Focus, exhibition brochure, Tate Britain, London 2005, [p.10], fig.10 reproduced [p.11] in colour
John A. Walker, John Latham: the Incidental Person – his Art and Ideas, London 1995, pp.120-6, reproduced p.120