Art: The word made fresh

    Thank heavens for John Latham: he has brought religion to book. By Waldemar Januszczak

    Latham is 84 this year. He has been showing at the Lisson Gallery since 1969. But he began making art in the early 1950s and was apparently the first artist to work with spray paint, which will get him into an important aesthetic footnote somewhere. I remember reading about Latham setting fire to the Encyclopedia Britannica in a famous happening in the 1960s. His most notorious 1960s moment, though, involved the chewing up and distilling of the works of Clement Greenberg, the world’s most influential art critic at the time, whose haughty American opinions were masticated into a unique bottle of booze that was sold, I believe, to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where it has since been kept from view.

    The point is that this guy is hard-core. He’s a modern artist of the old school: utterly fearless, profoundly confusing and completely bonkers. You turn to him not for prettiness or decoration or things that look good on the wall, but for a world-view that contradicts every other world-view that’s going. In an increasingly uniform world, where so many identikit individualists display their individualism by doing the same things as all the others — piercing their navel, tattooing their neck, exposing their underpants — Latham is a genuine one-off, a mind that thinks differently on a nuclear level. And although I have never understood his work properly, or managed fully to grasp anything he has ever said about it, I find myself wel-coming his presence more than before. He is a man of courage as well as madness. And when a man like this takes on religion, you suspect that like is meeting like.

    The first notes of Latham’s return were sounded not at this provocative new display at the Lisson Gallery, but last year at Tate Britain, where he played a crucial role in Art & the 60s: This Was Tomorrow, the flawed but intriguing look back at British art. Other critics were iffy about the Tate’s trawl through the decade that supposedly swung, but I thought the key point — that there was immense darkness to these years as well as optimism — was well made. Principally by Latham, who greeted you in the opening room with a library’s worth of burnt books stuck to a canvas by their spines, so that their blackened pages flapped open at you like the gaping beaks of a mob of aggressive birds sticking out of a large box. It was ugly. It was uncomfortable. And it reminded us that the charred horrors of the second world war were still smouldering in the fabric of these times.

    Most of the artists in Art & the 60s were keen to forget all this and learn to twist. Latham examined the bombed-out factories and blitzed churches still scattered about London’s East End and decided to make use of their accusatory textures. It may not have been optimistic, but it was truthful. Which can also be said of the new pieces gathered in a small and bleak display at the Lisson Gallery that I can recommend only to masochists and the truly hardened lover of modern art.

    God Is Great is the show’s title, and also the title of most of the pieces in it. From your opening glimpse of it — the aforementioned sign in three scripts in the gallery window — you are tempted to turn away and go somewhere else. Latham is obviously seeking to confront, head-on, the religious tenor of our times. My first thought was: I should have gone to the photography show at Victoria Miro. My second thought was: I should have gone to the Carol Rama retrospective at the Baltic. But it was all too late. Best go in and face this dangerous darkness.

    The opening room is actually very white. Within it is a tall, minimalist sculpture made of glass, to which a cluster of carefully dissected books has been attached: one blue, one brown, one black. In the old days, Latham would have burnt these books in half to separate their tops from their bottoms. These days, he prefers a more progressive surgery that allows him to stick them onto both sides of the glass plate in such a way that they seem to have penetrated it. It is all rather elegant, even slick. You could see this minimalist literary trophy forming the centrepiece of a Hoxton loft.

    Then you get close enough to identify the books. One is a Talmud, the second a Bible, the third a Koran. Damn. Should have gone to Tino Sehgal at the ICA. Should have gone to Nathan Coley at Haunch of Venison.

    I was interested to see that this particular version of God Is Great belongs to the Tate. Funny. I don’t ever remember seeing it there. Whatever else the piece is about, the first point it obviously seeks to make is that the three core texts of the Muslim, the Jew and the Christian are utterly interchange-able, and that, at their deepest level, all religions are identical. Having noted this cosmic unity, Latham goes on to explore its implications in an eerie suite of glass-and-book sculptures, all of which manage to look minimalist and careful while simultaneously feeling loaded and dangerous — ice cubes of fire, as it were.

    The most dramatic of these installations shows the three great texts thrown onto the ground in a pond of broken glass, as if a bookshop had been bombed. It’s a spooky sight. Written on the wall above is a legend to treasure. “The mysterious being known as God is an atemporal score with a probable time base in the region of 10 to the power of 19 seconds,” booms the writing, seeking, as always, to sound like the considered con- clusions of a scientist rather than the wacky meanderings of an unusually wacky artist. As with the book-burnings of old, you cannot avoid the suspicion that Latham is busily making accusations while busily pretending to be involved in a complex scientific experiment. Unless, of course, he actually has calculated the true speed of God.

    It’s brave of the Lisson Gallery to put on this bleak and weird little show. It’s brave of it to double our maths homework by pairing Latham with Tatsuo Miyajima, whose work consists entirely of neon numbers arranged in various sequen- ces in various places. While Latham is a mad English hermit, Miyajima is a beaming Japanese Buddhist, whose cosmic investigations of the underlying patterns of the universe are easier to look at than Latham’s because they are achieved with coloured lights — and everyone loves coloured lights.

    The most Buddhist and Japanese of Miyajima’s new works consists of a square pond into which water is gently trickling, at the bottom of which, a set of neon numbers, scattered about the water like goldfish, flicker gently from 1 to 10 and back again. It’s a reminder, I suppose, of the relentlessness of time: the only force in our universe that can never be stopped.

    I suspect that these endless nocturnal countdowns also harbour a covert desire to comment on the unstoppable atomic destruction of Hiroshima. Yet on its surface, at least, Miyajima’s work displays the perfectly pleasant ambition to turn flashes of digital numbering into poetic specks of light. The most obvious analogy is with the sky at night.

    Pretty in parts, the show suffers from having at its centre a huge installation of tiny red lights that speaks the language of the on-off button on your video rather than the cosmos.