In the 1950s, the influential American art critic Harold Rosenberg formed the idea of the ‘anxious object’. Referring to the condition in which an art audience, when confronted with some contemporary art objects, is unsure whether it is art or not, Rosenberg claimed: “The status of art has become uncertain. At least, it is ambiguous. No one can say with assurance what a work of art is – or, more important, what is not a work of art. Where an art object is still present it is what I have called an anxious object: It does not know whether it is a masterpiece or junk.”
Rosenberg’s ideas about the ‘anxious object’ function as the conceptual backdrop of the exhibition Ants and Grasshoppers: reflections on the anxious object at Flat Time House (FTHo) in Peckham, the former studio and home of one of the most significant and influential British Post-War conceptual artists John Latham (1921 – 2006).
The exhibition brings together works by conceptual and concrete art pioneers John Latham and John Cage with contemporary artists Sarah Lucas, Pavel Büchler and Eva Kotátková, in whose work the notion of anxiety plays a role in different ways. The exhibition queries if today the art object itself still has the potential to create anxiety, or if any anxiety that we could experience when seeing a work of art is rather an indication of the artist’s own psychological state.
When approaching Flat Time House, one is greeted by Latham’s newly restored and enormous book sculpture called ‘The Face’ Flat Time I-Io, which transects the glass façade of the building and was understood by Latham as ‘The Face’ of his house.
A design for Latham’s ambitious initial plan for Flat Time House – for which he unfortunately did not get the council’s planning permission – is on display in the form of a painting in the first room, which Latham understood as ‘The Mind’ of the building. Other works by Latham, for example N-U Niddrie Heart (1991), are also presented here and the question arises if Flat Time House, which Latham declared as a ‘living sculpture’ in 2003, can be an example of what Rosenberg described as an ‘anxious object’ – being a domestic space and a work of art at the same time.
Moving more further into the building, we enter the kitchen that Latham described as ‘The Body Event’. Today, the kitchen is still used by members of staff, artists and researchers. On the kitchen floor we can see Eva Kotátková’s blue fabric Fish costume, which seems to spill out everyday objects such as tablets, scissors and knives from its gut. Perhaps the remains from the daily life of an anxious person? A documentation of the performance In the Body of a Fish Out of Water (2018) shows a woman lying on the floor, wearing the fish costume. The performance evokes the image of a helpless person who, like a fish out of water, is trying to navigate an unpredictable, perhaps life-threating environment.
Kotátková’s work consistently deals with these notions. She co-founded the platform ‘Institute of Anxiety’ that sees this common psychological condition as a result of social, political, economic and ecological forces, arguing for example that the act of sharing can bring potential for change towards a less anxious society.
In the corridor, Kotátková’s colourful wall sculptures that resemble amputated limbs are displayed alongside Pavel Büchler’s work on paper The Score (2008), for which the artist typed out every second of American avantgarde composer John Cage’s seminal performance 4.33 (1952) with an old-fashioned typewriter. Büchler’s work gives materiality to Cage’s musical performance that only ever exists in the abstract, as Cage instructed performers not to play their instruments during the entire duration of the performance, meaning that all the audience could hear for 4 minutes and 33 seconds were the environmental sounds resonating in the concert hall.
A sound composition by John Cage called Roaratario, an Irish Circus on Finnegans Wake (1979) is played on loop to accompany these works. It was developed by Cage as a means of translating James Joyce’s book Finnegans Wake into a performance without actors. The book was a long-time favourite of Cage and also had a strong impact on John Latham.
Finnegans Wake underpins the exhibition in its title, which refers to a statement of the Joyce expert Finn Fordham, who wrote in 2007 that the book “can be approached like a grasshopper, jumping through it, alighting on random places to produce one’s own ‘musically phrased series’ or like an ant, progressing sequentially ‘from beginning to middle to end, to finish (again) where you began.’”
A second work by Büchler, titled Beckett’s Cage (2019), refers to Samuel Beckett’s use of pauses. It is shown alongside Tit-Cat Eames Chair (2015) by Sarah Lucas in a room called ‘The Hand’, which is where Latham spent his time drawing, working and receiving people. Tit-Cat Eames Chair is a concrete cast copy of an Eames chair and footstool, upon which a grotesque cat-like figure made of bronze is sitting. Together with Latham’s book collection on shelves nearby, Lucas’s installation seems to evoke a domestic and homely atmosphere. However, when looking more closely, the chair has an eerie concrete presence and the uncanny cat-like figure that seems poised to attack, triggering feelings of anxiety in the viewer.
Although artists of different generations have acknowledged John Latham’s important influence in the field of conceptual art, and many writers and thinkers have offered various explanations of Latham’s theories, the complexity and openness of his work still leaves many people mystified.
This exhibition poses the question of whether any anxiety that we experience when seeing a work of art today is an indication of an artist’s psychological state, one’s own emotional landscape. Similar to Latham’s work, which seems difficult to grasp, Ants and Grasshoppers: reflections on the anxious object is ambiguous and open to manifold interpretations. As the title of the show evokes, we are invited to navigate through Latham’s former home ‘like an ant or a grasshopper’. The fact that the exhibition does not have a linear narrative with a fixed beginning or end causes uncertainty in itself.
Ants and Grasshoppers: reflections on the anxious object can also be seen as both a homage to the pioneers of conceptual and concrete art and as a Gesamtkunstwerk, which provides a space for open-ended associations and unforeseen thoughts.
Flat Time House, 210 Bellenden Road, London SE15 4BW. Open Thursday-Saturday 12.00-18.00. Exhibition continues until 27 June 2021. www.flattimeho.org.uk