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More to the Picture
Chus Martinez on David Lamelas. First published in Afterall, 2005

The most surprising aspect of David Lamelas's work is not his considerable contribution to our understanding of the limits of the modern aesthetic: it is his eloquent awareness that the camera is a valid tool when it comes to constructing a social theory based on the analytical effort to establish the status of the relationship between reality and knowledge. The German philosopher Niklas Luhmann declared that because of the numerous roles we play and the countless arenas in which we perform our tasks, each of us is always 'partially displaced'. As a result of the plethora of voices and projects that are in competition with each other, and the multiplicity of imperatives urging us to make the most of them regardless of time or place, we have the constant feeling that we are 'partially excluded'. We perceive the here and now as an ephemeral state. Subjectivity is transitory, and the whole of our life could be seen as a repository of identities that have never been able to come to fruition. This thinking is the linking thread that connects works as disparate as Time as Activity: Düsseldorf, (1969), in which a fixed camera films three areas of the city in takes lasting four minutes each, with La invenciõn del Doctor Morel (1999), based on the well-known novel by Bioy Casares, a fantasy regarding the impossibility of ever knowing for certain which parts of ourselves and our relationships with others exist only in our imagination. In a photograph of David Lamelas taken - undoubtedly by a friend - in Buenos Aires in the 1960s, we see him sitting in an armchair, fully aware of the presence of the camera. In his gaze we see self-satisfaction, a swagger regarding possible future achievements. This is an archetypal image of the young artist who, feeling part of an ebullient scene, imagines the world spread out before him. At that time, Lamelas was an important member of a generation of Argentinian artists influenced by the leading critic of the time, Jorge Romero Brest. This was a generation of artists and critics, and the public between them, who shaped a panorama that defined Conceptual Art in Argentina, a project dedicated to transforming the languages and methods of art making in order to bring about a substantial change in the roles of art and the artist in contemporary society. By the late 1960s Lamelas had already produced a number of significant works that revealed his urge to analyse and explore the hybrid nature of the exhibition space, such as his famous 'corner pieces'. Dos Espacios Modificados, the piece Lamelas made for the 1967 Sao Paulo Biennial, is particularly eloquent in this respect. In it, he constructs two structures that repeat the architectural semantics of the exhibition space and transform it: two galleries, two ways of relating to the exhibition 'situation', and hence an invitation to the spectator to analyse and parse the circumstances that shape this situation. This is all the more evident if we consider the context, the customs warehouse designed by Oscar Niemeyer in Ibirapuera Park. The Biennial radically transformed the use of this building: each country was assigned an area of its own within the long space that characterises the building that Lamelas describes as belonging to him. Dos Espacios Modificados makes reference to the entire spectrum of expectations. The work is itself the national pavilion, since there is no other structure that serves this function. Therefore, the space around the piece not only marks its boundaries and enables it to be critically appreciated, but also encompasses the social and political presence of Argentina at the Biennial. The piece is extremely simple and consists of a number of metal structures that frame a virtual gallery space, which is where the work, properly speaking, ought to go. Nevertheless, what we are in fact asked to do is to observe and analyse the conditions surrounding the conception of a context in which works and spectators alike are presented. What is of interest is the group and its behavior: a measured behaviour since it takes place in a situation designed for a game of curiosity to take place.

The following year Lamelas represented Argentina at the Venice Biennale with The Office of Information about the Vietnam War at Three Levels: The Visual Image, Text and Audio (1968). At the height of the war, Lamelas decided to depict not the conflict but the communication of information about it. Similar to the work he exhibited in Brazil, his central interest is to explore the layering of individually different gazes that come together in a 'situation'. Access to some- thing, be it a work in an exhibition or a war, is determined by the conjunction of various systems of meaning - semantic planes - that make it possible to grasp the message, or which render it unintelligible. Few of us have ever experienced war first hand, and even if we have, this is no guarantee that we have at our disposal the information required to communicate a complete picture of what occurred. Lamelas's project was conceived as an abstract vision of the Vietnam War using three types of information media: the radio; a telex machine, which was constantly receiving news on the conflict; and the visual image the media provided of the conflict. All of this constituted a different picture of Vietnam. The work made it possible to connect sources of information that were otherwise separate, and also provided the opportunity to explore the various messages that formed the basis on which each of us, as spectators of the piece and the conflict, structured the sequence of possible events there.

A fundamental feature of these and other works by Lamelas is their emotional distance. The artist carefully designs each of the situations, creating his particular labyrinth of references and meanings, but without any evident militancy. He is different to some of his contemporaries in that his more openly political works do not contain any moralising traits, nor do they raise a critical voice. David Lamelas does not reveal reality. His task centres, above all, on creating the right conditions for analysis. However, the events that can occur once we all know what is really going on are another kettle of fish altogether: at this point, we are at a different level of information and action.

It is almost impossible to produce a single, all-encompassing portrait of Lamelas's works. This is due to the fact that his projects tend to be ongoing. He does not have any notion of his earlier work being a kind of heritage or estate that he owns, but rather he sees it as material available for constant reworking and reconsideration. There is an unmistakable sense of kinship between his earliest pieces and the series begun later in Europe, such as Time as an Activity (1969 and 1998) and People and Time (1969), works produced over a long period that explore in detail the crossroads and inter-zones so meticulously defined in other works of his youth. The film that perhaps best 'explains' his interests - the one that reveals what he really understands by space, time and fiction - is his first one, A Study of the Relationships between Inner and Outer Space (1969). This film is divided into three parts: the visual analysis of the exhibition space, Camden Arts Centre; the city of London, where the gallery is located; and a third section that deals with the imminent arrival of man on the moon. In this final part, a man who seems to be a journalist approaches passers-by on a street near the gallery and asks them about the impact of this event on their lives, and whether they would be surprised if the first man on the moon were black. One man replies that of course he would be astounded, given that no black people whatsoever are employed at NASA. The investigator continues his inquiries, asking women, children and the elderly whether they found mankind's first step on the moon exciting. Time as Activity: D&252#sseldorf/Time as Activity: Berlin and People and Time are not the titles of works but formulations for two projects that Lamelas has been working on over several decades. They have in fact influenced works that would seem to bear no direct relation with them, such as Film Script (1972) or The Violent Tapes (1975), which are more closely connected to the artist's urge to discover how the thread of a plot is spun. There is no plot development as such in Time as Activity and People and Time. Both of these works allude to the possibility of a universality beyond time or place, co-existing alongside a particularity determined by the artist's action. The camera locates a space, a city or a character but does not depict the situation at all. The space becomes a sedimentation of impermanence. In Lamelas's works, the geography is meaningless even though the place and time when the footage was shot are recorded in the image. The space loses its 'materiality', that is to say, its ability to slow down, halt or restrict movement in the image. It is the camera and not the place that determines the speed. This must be clearly distinguished from the notion of 'temporality': time and event bear no relation to each other. In this process, the sense of locality is lost, and hence the place and the territory lose any power of cohesion they may have had. They lose all meaning as a venue.

This is the more political and perhaps the most autobiographical dimension of Lamelas's work. In advanced societies that are heir to the modern Western project and the traditional concept of what a state is, notions of power and knowledge depend on the determination of a space, the territory, and are limited by the time established by channels of information. In Lamelas's work, there is a sense of resistance to this, a refusal to engage in any national project or to make a commitment to any place or time other than the instant recorded by the camera. Afterall, when the situation in Argentina became politically intolerable, Lamelas went first to London, where he studied, and then on to Antwerp, where he remained until the early 1970s With some brief absences he subsequently made Los Angeles his home until the late 1990s. when he began spending longer periods of time in Europe once again. Thus he is the model of the cosmopolitan artist, a citizen of the modern world rather than of any particular nation or other sentimentally identified location.

Lamelas's works employ and are dependent on the language of modernity, pervaded as they are by a sense of utopia and an analytic urge imbued with humanism. His pieces are not a criticism of the state of affairs, and do not seek to change the role that artists and their work ought to play in politics; instead they draw their force from their strange refusal to accept the status quo or the difficulty of bringing his entire output together under the umbrella of a single ideal. His recent video pieces, such as Dr. Morel and The Light at the Edge of a Nightmare might be seen as late work in comparison with his earlier pieces, were it not for the fact that he continues to work with two languages at the same time. Time as Activity, Berlin is parallel to The Light at the-Edge of a Nightmare (2002-04), seven episodes in different cities that chart a melodramatic, late-night course through places and settings where Lamelas himself has lived. It is precisely his refusal to compromise with orthodoxy that gives his works their power, as they reveal a rare courage and sense of imagination. Whereas utopia is always predetermined by the past, total freedom in inventing narrative and formal devices generates newness.

Chus Martinez
Dos Espacios Modificados (The Modified Space), Aluminium, dimensions variable (Insallation view IX Bienial de Sao Paulo) 1967)
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