John Latham

Posted in CF Writing, Research, Sited work by chrisfremantle on July 8, 2006

Several years ago I made a pilgrimage to Livingston to visit the Five Sisters, a bing on the edge of the town. I understood it to be a major, unsigned, piece of land art associated with that elusive artist, John Latham.
I documented the work of art on a slide film. Although I did not climb on the work at the time, I did view it from a number of perspectives. That documentation resides in the archive of the Scottish Sculpture Workshop, with no associated texts of explanation.
I was caught up in myths, in part of my own making, that surround Latham. I connected some limited knowledge of the Artists Placement Group (APG), through picking up that there was a connection between Latham and these large bings, legacies of an industrial landscape in the Lothians, to the land art of artists such as Smithson. I assumed that Latham had been involved in the shaping of the Five Sisters.
I have since discovered that the connection between Latham and the bings in the Lothians is of a different sort. Latham had proposed the re-imagining of the bings as monuments. His work involved re-conceptualising the bings as valuable aspects of the landscape, rather than as huge problems.
His work consisted of photographs and plans. This work was exhibited as part of a survey at the Tate in 1976.
John Latham developed work in response to the bings that mark the landscape of the Lothians. This work asked us to consider the bings as other than simply blots on the landscape. This work related the bings to other major man-made landscape monuments.
Latham neither engaged in the physical shaping of post industrial landscapes as American artists were doing, nor did he engage in the form of work of other English artists moving out of the gallery during the same period through strategies such as walking.
The former entered marginal post industrial spaces and used the processes that had scarred them to shape them again. The re-shaping of the landscape also implied a re-valuing of those landscapes.
The latter adopted a ontological position: exploring what aspects of being can be shared with others. This exploration of the nature of individual human experience and the limits of sharing was interpreted through an ethic of take only photographs and leave only footprints.
Latham’s work is of a different order again. His work proposes that we can choose to see the landscape differently by an act of will. This is made easier if it is undertaken in the context of a broader reading of man’s marking of the landscape.
His work related to the bings, and other projects undertaken with Steveni under the heading of the APG have had a very significant, if little documented, impact on the visual and other arts in Scotland.
David Harding, founder of the Environmental Art programme at Glasgow School of Art, amongst others, acknowledges the seminal importance of Latham’s work.
It is timely to highlight the work of Latham, Steveni and the APG. Their archive is being given to the Tate this spring (2005). It is proposed that works relating to Scotland should be revisited.
© Chris Fremantle 2005
For a coherent and researched discussion of Latham’s work in Scotland see Craig Richardson’s article for Map Magazine Autumn 2007

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