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David Lamelas

By Jacqueline Holt


In 1998, almost a decade after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, David Lamelas completed a 29min silent film, Time As Activity: Berlin.

The film comprises of footage shot from a helicopter as it makes three sweeps across the city from West to East. The view point is poised directly over the city, the viewer does not see the horizon but a map of buildings forming streets, intersecting with rail and road infrastructure. The evolution of the roads, trains, canal and river are deeply embedded in the scene and all conducive to a sense of homeostasis. As the camera traverses the city the viewer sees beneath them the length of Strasse 17 June with the Tiergarten Park either side. As the camera continues the viewer sees the traffic moving along the road towards a roundabout, the centrepiece of which is the Berlin Victory Column: a monument to the Prussian victories over Denmark, Austria and France. Then further along the Brandenburg Gate, Potsdamer Platz, and the dome of the Reichstag. These historic landmarks stand out, their iconic profiles still recognisable from the unusual perspective and their individual locations creating a space by which they are framed. As the camera continues its journey the viewer is witness to the large scale rebuilding. The previous sense of harmony is unsettled as the canopy of roofs and treetops fall away. Escarpements appear where the land has been cleared for development, cranes, scaffolding and building materials infilling the gaps. The colour palette shifts to the earth tones of the building site.

As the viewer follows the camera's survey, the film prompts a meditative reverie on the passage of time and how history is formed evoking Berlin's own history at the heart of historical and idealogical change in Europe. Interwoven within that, the personal, individual histories of betrayal, loss and families torn apart to the more recent formation of a new Germany bringing its own set of problems. History, the lessons of history and the actual physical act of demolition and rebuilding leading us to question who decides what remains.

On screen, each section of the film is prefaced and punctuated by a title page that gives the start time and end time of the following sequence. The date is not noted and we only know which year the film is made in the credits at the end. The effect of this is to imbue the following sequence with the import of pin-point accuracy. The time is given in hours, minutes, seconds within the 12hr clock, making it quite hard to calculate the duration unless you are familiar with reading video time code. From these title pages, one would be led to believe that it is the very second of inception and truncation, and the duration of the sequence of the film that is of prime importance, portraying a document of the passage of a specific quantity of time. Yet in one of these title sequences, there is a mistake. The duration is notated to be 2mins and in fact turns out to be 10-15 seconds. This rift in the time notation has been left in, it acts as a disruption within the film and consequently leading the viewer to question the significance of the notated time.


David Lamelas was born in Argentina in 1946. His parents were immigrants from Galicia in the far north west of Spain and had made the journey to Buenos Aries in the 1930's to start a new life and escape the surveillance and persecution of the Franco regime. The motif of fascism underscores the history of the family as various military dictatorships held sway in Argentina alongside Peronist rule and brief periods of democracy. One senses that at an early age Lamelas would have been aware of the importance of assimilation, and the expanded horizons that travel could offer.

Lamelas studied sculpture at the Academy of Fine Arts in Buenos Aries, and exhibited whilst still a student. His work evolving rapidly from freestanding sculpture into more architectural interventions that had spatial and time elements integral to the work. In 1966, at the age of 20 he was invited for the National Prize 66, which was organised by the Centre for Visual Arts in Buenos Aries. The piece Conexion de tres espacios (Connection of three spaces) linked three galleries at the Intituto Di Tella together with an architectural sculptural intervention which could not be experienced in the round but necessitated a continuity of perception in the viewer whilst walking through the interlinking spaces. His work had become a demanding, dynamic, fresh interaction with the object relations of the gallery space that housed it.

The following year he was chosen to represent Argentina at the 1967 Sao Paola Biennale and in 1968 at the Venice Biennale, where he showed Office of Information about the Vietnam War at three Levels: the Visual Image, Text and Audio. The piece marks his inclusion of non-traditional media and durational elements within his work. The Office is essentially an installation consisting of a desk, chair and telex machine. The Office received constant updates via telex, on the war in Vietnam from the Italian news agency ANSA. These updates were read aloud to the public in six languages and simultaneously taped. After which, the recordings could then be accessed by the public via headphones. The constant flow of information about the Vietnam war highlighted the inadequacy of the facts to fully convey the brutal reality of war. It is significant that Lamelas's filmmaking developed out of his engagement as an artist, who used sculpture and mixed media within a gallery context. Many of the concerns of his earlier work emerge in his films as editing and framing structures which become templates that are repeated throughout his work. The templates are the armature on which meaning is organised and constructed.


He moved to London on a scholarship to study an MA at St Martins School of Art. Part of the attraction of this move to London were the artists working in a similar way to him, some of whom had studied at St Martins: Gilbert & George, Victor Burgin, Jan Dibbets and Barry Flanagan. Whilst at the Venice Biennale he had befriended Marcel Broodthaers who introduced him to Anne De Dekker and Bernd Lohaus, the gallerists of the Wide White Space in Antwerp; who would support his work in Europe. Whilst at St Martins, Lamelas' concerns continued to develop beyond the object-based work favoured by the school. In fact Anthony Caro had insisted he drop his idea of making a film for his MA in favour of making a piece of sculpture or he would not obtain his degree. Lamelas' response to his demands was to re-create a piece he had made in Argentina. Increasingly, his desire was to 'produce sculptural forms without any physical volume.' Lamelas talks of his move to England as 'very fruitful', and that learning a new language.'helped me to think of my work as a 'deconstruction,' and then a 'construction', like a language'. It is the limits, of language to express the truth of experience, and of film to capture reality, that is at the core of his work.

In, A Study of Relationships: Between Inner and Outer Space (1969), his starting point is the description of the interior dimensions of the gallery at Camden Arts Centre. He expands upon his examination of the space to include the day-to-day activities that are necessary for the functioning of the gallery, interviewing the people that fulfil these tasks, from the caretaker to the curator. The film then places the gallery in the context of London and then London in terms of its physical and social geography, ending with another series of interviews, this time asking people on the street for their thoughts on the recent Apollo moon landing. The film's voice-over has the tone of a public information broadcast, as each piece of information is contained and held up for us to assimilate. However this work has a deceptive charm to it. As the facts are expounded they articulate a rhythm, which only serves to highlight their inadequacy as vehicles of truth. The awkwardness, vitality and flawed humanity of the different interviewees bounces out of the screen, disarming the barrage of fact and figures.

Lamelas uses this documentary style to great effect in his ethnographic documentary/road movie Desert People (1977) which also marked his move from the UK to the Los Angeles. The film is a collision of documentary and narrative fiction styles. It's construction is based on quite simplistic, straight to camera testament, which relates the individual experiences of a group of young white Americans who have 'experienced' living with Indian families on the Papago Indian reservation, and that of Manny who was born there. The result is a reflection on cultural difference and imperialism. It is Manny who seems lost, disconnected from his own people and yet on the outside of the American mainstream. Whereas one feels for the other characters the experience will become no more than an anecdote. Desert People reveals the inherent fiction that is at the heart of the documentary process in much the same way that the earlier pieces, A Study of Relationshipsand Office highlighted the inadequacies of information to convey experiential truth. The difference with Desert People being that it is a fictional documentary.


It is this inability to capture experiential truth that draws Lamelas to experiment with narrative and the construction of narrative. This is also apparent in To Pour Milk into a Glass (1972) in which each time the act of pouring milk is repeated, the shot is constructed differently. He says of the piece, '…I wanted to find a symbol for the container and its content to represent how the camera frames and what is shown on the screen.' In Film Script (Manipulation of Meaning) 1972, he created slides of the different camera shots of a simple script and had them projected in three different sequences alongside the film. This experimental approach with formal considerations is repeated throughout his work.

It is an approach which is also apparent in the first of the Time As Activity pieces, Time As Activity: Düsseldorf 1969. Again the construction is minimal. Lamelas takes three, locked off camera shots of different views of Düsseldorf. The shots themselves are pedestrian, bland, like cutaways for a documentary. The first is the morning view across a car park towards the block like construction of the Kunsthalle; the second an afternoon view of a fountain and the third a traffic intersection in the rush hour . Each shot is preceded by a title page announcing the location and length of the take The vacuity of the images and the duration of each shot forces the viewer to reflect on their own experience of watching the film and what is it they are looking at. As a document of the events passing before the camera for the duration of the time stated, Time As Activity throws up questions about the limits of the frame; what is contained within and outside of the frame, how the decision process is informed and the historical and political implications that are raised by this. Speaking of the piece in the context of its gallery exhibition, Lamelas said, 'My idea was to show both the film and the projector. It worked like a time projector, projecting another time than the real time.'

It is this exegetic desire to attempt to capture and draw out the meaning of time, to touch its very essence that pervades his work, transforming the film image into an existential meditation as the viewer is made aware of the passage of time. In the Time As Activity series, the way in which the films are constructed allows this loose formulation to be transposed across time and space, creating different resonation's with each new location. The timing of the Berlin piece, with its aerial perspective, becomes a profound reflection on the passing of time, that transcends individual experience and incorporates the great swathes of historical change, alongside the continuity and persistence of the human presence.

Lamelas now lives in Paris. He has just completed a new piece in the Time as Activity series in Warsaw to coincide with his exhibition at the Foksal Gallery. He has moved his home many times across Europe and the Americas. His own experience of assimilation of new cultures informing his work. These shifts of location and resettlement seem to create a momentum that creates a lightness of touch in his work; like a stone skipping across the water, defying its own gravity.

Jacqueline Holt

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