John Latham - Skoob Tower Ceremonies (2010)

ADC staff
artdesigncafé - art | 30 September 2010

Nights of Skoob Sadness

An exhibition about John Latham’s ’Skoob Tower Ceremonies’ (1964-68 & 1996-1998), with sculptures by Gareth Long.
Flat Time House (FTHo), London
25 September – 24 October 2010

Press release text by Flat Time House

John Latham’s Skoob Tower Ceremonies, most of which took place between 1964 and 1968, were possibly the most controversial art works by one of the 20th century’s most controversial artists. The Towers were around 3m high, made up of books, usually reference editions, held open at right-angles to each other with their pages interleaved, and stacked on top of a metal framework and plinth. These improvised chimneys were set alight from below, usually in conceptually loaded public places: the Law Courts, British Museum and Senate House were all locations. The tightly-woven pages let in little air, making combustion a slow process— taking as long as a couple of hours. But when the conflagration finally came, the iconography of a flaming pillar of books was both an intellectual and emotional affront.

The collective memory still held powerful images of Nazi book burnings and all they symbolised; Truffaut’s Farenheit 451 (based on Ray Bradbury’s novel) was released in 1966. In this light, Latham’s Ceremonies could be interpreted as anti-intellectual, fascist acts of iconoclasm. Further Ceremonies took place during the Destruction in Art Symposium of 1966. DIAS, whose organising committee was led by Gustav Metzger, aligned tendencies to destruction in art during that period, to tendencies to destruction in society. As Jeff Nuttall expressed in his autobiographical account of the period, ’Bomb Culture’ (1968), in the shadow of the bomb, violence seemed the only possible artistic response.

John Latham, however, was trying to express a different but no less radical agenda, one in which books are the apparatus of learnt knowledge and received opinion – a so-called ’Mental Furniture Industry’ of which he was deeply critical. For him, books represented knowledge held fast in a congealed and unreflective form, stifling intuition. His sentiments were more in line with the writer Alexander Trocchi’s sigma project, ’The Invisible Insurrection of a Million Minds’. A sigma gathering at Braziers Park in Oxfordshire in 1964 attended by Trocchi, RD Laing, Nuttall, Bob Cobbing and others, was the occasion of the first Skoob Tower Ceremony. The exhibition includes newly discovered footage of this occasion.