25 September–24 October 2010

An exhibition about John Latham's Skoob Tower Ceremonies (1964-68 & 1996-1998), with A Place to Sit, A Place to Read, A Place to Sit and Read by Gareth Long

Included in the exhibition are the Skoob Tower (Economist), 1967; unseen material from the John Latham Archive; Pip Benveniste's film Eventual, 1968; newly discovered footage of 1964 sigma gathering; video footage of new discussions and interviews with contemporaries and collaborators.

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 and 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 had symbolised; Truffaut'sFarenheit 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.

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.

* The title comes from a document in the John Latham Archive which appears to be an early plan for a series of happenings which took place at Better Books during 1967, eventually collectively titled Book Plumbing. Skoob is books spelt backwards.