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Distress Over Parliament

an action

distress over parliament to mark the occasion of its assent to acts of official censorship, conversion and contempt of truth, the bearing of false witness and assassination by stealth under cover of Royal Charter…

will take place during Sunday, 1st May, 1983

Distress Over Parliament curated by Gareth Bell-Jones – Director, Flat Time House, London takes its title from John Latham's rarely acknowledged 1983 happening of the same name. Photographic documentation of Latham's performance, never previously exhibited, provides the centrepiece of the show. Presented alongside are artworks by Athanasios Argianas, John Baldessari, Julius Heinemann, and Rachel Reupke, each resonating and existing in intuitive dialogue with Latham's work.

John Latham (1921-2006) is one of the few genuine radicals of post-war British art. His artwork extended the boundaries of nearly every artistic genre conspicuous in Western art, and from the 1960s his work became increasingly driven by theoretical questionings. He believed the non-linguistic media of art were the keys to resolving society's conflicted relationships with objects, money and possessions. He proposed a shift towards a time-based cosmology to compensate for our sensory, spatially dominated view of the world. Latham passionately believed that this would free the mind, language and pedagogy from dangerous specialisations and inevitable divisions. He developed a theory of time – Flat Time – relating the notions of time-base, passing the time and the atemporal.

The work distress over parliament is an action, which characteristically proves hard to pin down. In a publicised event on Mayday 1983, John shot two maritime flares over the top of the Houses of Parliament. The event was produced in response to the Arts Council of Great Britain's refusal to take his time-based ideas seriously and coincided with the aftermath of the UK's involvement in the Falklands War, particularly Margaret Thatcher's defence of the controversial sinking of the Argentine cruiser the Belgrano to significant loss of life. This deliberately controversial action, intended to bring attention to the issue, was barely noticed. As his one-time partner, Barbara Steveni has stated: 'Sometimes when John was attempting to be controversial no-one noticed, and at times when he thought he was making something innocuous, people were outraged'. The small photographic prints documenting this act, never previously exhibited, provide the backdrop to the exhibition.

The action can be understood as a political act of protest but should also be understood within the broader context of Latham's practice. Presented at lítost alongside the piece are artworks by artists that resonate and exist in intuitive dialogue with Latham's work. Although Latham and John Baldessari followed different trajectories in conceptual art, in work Throwing Three Balls in the Air (Best of 36 Attempts) Baldessari reaches a similar aesthetic end to Latham from an entirely different thought process: Baldessari's red balls in the sky and Latham's red flares in the Air, poetic thought experiments, transient events captured on film.

Latham is well known for his work in spray paint, and it is logical to consider the flares of distress over parliament as an event-based painting in four dimensions. A full gallery mural installation by Julius Heinemann responds to this understanding. Heinemann considers his mural interventions as echoes of events in time, recording the different layers and shifting experience of our surroundings.

A new sound-based work by Athanasios Argianas provides an overtly durational aspect to the exhibition. Argianas has an interdisciplinary practice, which concerns itself with translations between media and the production of effect and hybridity. Finally, Rachel Reupke's artwork often operates within the interplay of the still frame and moving imagery. In the video work Infrastructure, fleeting moments of human drama punctuate fixed shots of major infrastructural hubs. These almost imperceptible gestures or acts are framed by and situated within a broader indifferent and unceasing context.

In 1983 John Latham's distress over parliament was an ultimately futile gesture of activism, heavily reliant on an esoteric and conceptual understanding on the nature of time. This radical act of protest against the British Government would be impossible to recreate in the current climate, and all that remains are the invitation and small snapshots with which Latham recorded the event. While the present-day disorder within the UK parliament persists, the unknowing and uncaring reception of this action continues to resonate.

This exhibition is conceived in a cooperation with Flat Time House, London. It has been kindly supported by the Prague City Hall’s Cultural and Arts Grant and Key Promotion, and the opening weekend takes place in conjunction with a gallery sharing initiative Friend of a Friend Prague 2019.