John Latham

Encyclopedia Britannica


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Not on display

John Latham 1921–2006
Film, 16mm, projection, black and white
Duration: 6min, 10sec
Presented by Tate Members 2012


Encyclopedia Britannica 1971 is a silent film. It starts with a shot of the open outer covers of a copy of the Encyclopedia Britannica, then the first double page spread of the title page of volume 1, before plunging the viewer into single-frame shots of every double page spread of sequential volumes. At one frame for each double page, the sum of human knowledge that the Encyclopedia represents is rendered illegible and unreadable. As the film continues, the image becomes progressively overexposed. The film was made in the Lisson Gallery, London during Latham’s first solo exhibition there, John Latham: least event, one second drawings, blind work, 24 second painting in November–December 1970. The film was shot, one frame at a time, by musician David Toop and gallery owner Nicholas Logsdail; the final film was subsequently presented as part of the exhibition Wall Show at the Lisson Gallery in January 1971. It was also included in Prospect 71, Projection at Düsseldorf Kunsthalle in the same year, which was the first European art exhibition to be devoted to video and film. A statement in the exhibition catalogue for Latham’s solo show at the Lisson Gallery stated that the Gallery would be located ‘inside Encyclopedia Britannica’ for a short period during the course of the exhibition. The resulting film provides documentation of this event, the catalogue stating that: ‘During the third week of the exhibition the gallery will be at places other than Bell Street, for short periods, probably not much more than a minute at any place, and the show there will be recorded on video or film’ (John Latham: least event, one second drawings, blind work, 24 second painting, exhibition catalogue, Lisson Gallery, London 1970, back cover). The film was produced in an edition of three plus two artist’s proofs; Tate’s copy is number three in the edition.

Encyclopedia Britannica returns to the subject of Latham’s Skoob Towers of 1966. Here copies of various sorts of text books, magazines and encyclopedias were constructed into towers and then blown up or burnt. One example is a Skoob Tower Ceremony that was presented by Latham on a site between the University of London and the north entrance of the British Museum as part of the Destruction In Art Symposium in September 1966 – for this, three towers made up of encyclopedias, Punch magazine and Metropolitan Museum Seminars in Art were burnt (ibid., pp.19–20). These works challenged traditional ideas about the nature of the sculptural object, in that they were made to be destroyed, observers seeing them disintegrate and become without form. This sense of formlessness and violence equates with the direct way in which, with this film, Latham made the text of the encyclopedia – and therefore the knowledge contained within its pages – utterly unintelligible while at the same time presenting that knowledge in a visual way. Latham believed that it was ‘necessary to behave without knowing. Knowledge is an illusion that people have’ (John Latham, ‘Antiknow’, in Catalogue of Courses, Anti-University, London 1968, unpaginated).

Books, as containers of knowledge, were a consistent motif in Latham’s work for almost fifty years, from his move from the two dimensions of spray painting to the three dimensions of his first book, or ‘skoob’, relief in 1958. The use of the term ‘skoob’ (the word ‘books’ in reverse) indicates the reversals that Latham sought in perception, in this case from reading to seeing, his concern being with how an observer understands an object in time as an event rather than as forms held in space. Furthermore, books initiate a temporal activity of a particular character: the turning of a page is an activity that emphasises a linear understanding of time. Latham’s intention with his stop-frame animation films was to show an object which did not in itself move, but which nevertheless changed its appearance as time passed. For Latham, film thus defined his key idea of ‘Event Structure’, which he described as proposing ‘a cosmology where the initial entities remain the same but display endless variation and development’ (quoted in Walker 1995, p.58). The historian John A. Walker has observed: ‘the powerful illusionism of film conceals its event-structural nature as a sequence of atemporal signs. In his own films he seeks to expose those signs while simultaneously utilizing film’s real/reel time character to introduce certain changes.’ (Walker 1995, p.58.)

Further reading
John Latham, Art after Physics, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Modern Art, Oxford 1992.
John A. Walker, John Latham, The incidental person – his art and ideas, London 1995.
John Latham Films 1960–1971, Lisson Gallery/LUX, London 2010.

Andrew Wilson
January 2011

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