What does it mean to inhabit another artist’s work? In the case of Stuart Whipps, the first artist- in-residence at John Latham’s Flat Time House in Peckham, such inhabitation is both literal and one of almost parasitic intimacy. Whipps’s work, an investigation of Latham’s archive of his own placement with the Scottish Office Development Agency (SDA) from 1975 to 1976, is displayed in the rooms – each one named for a part of the body (‘The Face’, ‘The Brain’, ‘The Hand’) – of the late artist’s home/studio. Yet Whipps’s project, which eschews archival taxonomy in favour of a dispersed and fragmentary mode of display, is itself critical of an archive’s pretentions to completion. Falling short is where the pleasure lies.
Emblematic of Whipps’s work in the house is a floor-mounted video, a two-second looped film cut from a documentary about Scottish engineer and chemist James ‘Paraffin’ Young, entitled Extract from PARAFFIN YOUNG: Pioneer of Oil, 1937 depicting the replica of Victoria Falls built by Young at his home just outside of Livingstone, Scotland (2013). The pedantic exegesis of Whipps’s titles is a deadpan setup for a project of irresolvable complexity. Young built the replica of the waterfall on his profits from his refinement of mineral oil from shale, with which he also helped finance David Livingstone’s expeditions to Zambia, where Latham was born; Latham, meanwhile, investigated and photographed the West Lothian shale bings (huge cone-shaped mounds of oxidised waste) as part of his placement with the SDA, organised through the Artist Placement Group (APG). The five bings, retitled by Latham Niddrie Woman, are represented in a photograph by Whipps (Five Sisters. A view of the shale bings in West Calder. In 1976 Latham developed a feasibility study for his Scottish Office placement where he reconceived of the shale bings as process-sculptures, 2012). The interconnecting threads between protagonists – Young, Livingstone, Latham, Whipps – are themselves looping, delaying resolution. The photograph A postcard of Victoria Falls leaning against a geological sample from John Latham’s Mantelpiece (2012) does what it says on the label, but in Whipps’s conceptual ranginess, the links implied by archival display are capricious, even lyrical, like Latham’s naming of the bings.
As a nod to Latham’s 1971 film Encyclopedia Britannica, a stop-motion film of every page of the encyclopaedia’s 32 volumes, Whipps has set up a tabletop animation studio, with books from the house’s collection laid open at pages with passages highlighted by Latham. These passages – pink trails of an active mind, long absent, which hint at an organising system – form the soundtrack for a sequence of projected photographs of objects from Latham’s archive: books, rocks, bricks. The passages, read out of context, form a cut-up narrative of their own, and thus provide a metaphor that binds the varied strands of Whipps’s investigation: that of the archive’s thwarted grab for closure.
This article was first published in the April 2013 issue.