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David Lamelas

interview transcript

Date of Interview: Oct 26, 2006
Location: Argentina
Topic: Circular Periphery. David Lamelas Returns.
Interviewer: Javier Villa

LatinArt:  Why did you leave Argentina?

David Lamelas:  I left because I was representing Argentina at the Venice Biennial, where I presented Oficina de Información sobre la Guerra de Vietnam [Information Office on the Vietnam War], and that same year I won a scholarship for postgraduate study in London. That’s why I left. Although the lack of freedom was already evident and I could see that things were taking a very bad turn for the worse politically, it was a coincidence.

David Lamelas left Argentina in 1968: what became known as the artistic vanguard ended up rapidly settling in the field of politics. The Torcuato Di Tella Institute – a center of experimentation and internationalist promoter of that generation – was gradually extinguished. Lamelas was 21 years old. Now, at the age of 60, he is beginning to show in Buenos Aires what he worked on during his 40-year absence.

LatinArt:  Were you bored by the periphery?

David Lamelas:  Not at the time. Buenos Aires was marvellous during the time of Di Tella. There was a very active movement that left you no time to be bored. In a single year you could take part in the Ver y Estimar [Seeing and Valuing] Award, the Braque Award and the Di Tella Award.

LatinArt:  Did you plan not to return?

David Lamelas:  No. The plan was to go to work; to study and learn. It’s true that I never wanted to be a local artist, but the issue at that time was to evolve. I went to England with a scholarship just like anyone who has a scholarship to study. I learnt English in addition to being at the Art School, and I became an English artist while I was there. I never felt like a foreigner. I was never as much at home as when I was in London.

LatinArt:   David Lamelas went to Venice in 1968: the Academy building was taken over by student groups for 100 days to protest against the bourgeois, fascist nature of the Biennial. Lamelas was 21 when he did Oficina de Información sobre la Guerra de Vietnam en tres niveles: imagen visual, texto y audio [Information Office on the Vietnam War on three levels: visual image, text and audio]. In a space closed off by glass, a telex connected to the Ansa news agency in Rome constantly received cables on Vietnam. Behind the glass, a secretary read them out in public and in different languages, using headphones. That same year he took part in several collective exhibitions. One of them was at the Wide White Space Gallery, where he exhibited together with Beuys, Broodthaers, Christo and Panamarenko, among others.

What place did Oficina de Información hold as a means of entering Europe?

David Lamelas:  What happened with that piece of work was very interesting. In a context such as that of the Venice Biennial, where there are 100.000 works, the impact that a small work like mine could have on the public was minimal. It wasn’t seen by large crowds, but a group of people was very interested, among them, luckily, Marcel Broodthaers. He introduced me to the Belgian gallery owner Anny de Decker, of the Wide White Gallery. She immediately invited me to hold an exhibition at the Kunsthalle in Dusseldorf. That was the only outcome. Luckily I had immediate contact with European conceptual art and my stint at Di Tella had prepared me --I didn’t bring the feathers that the Europeans expected. But the piece was ignored by the Biennial itself.

LatinArt:  Why?

David Lamelas:  It wasn’t perceived as a work of art, but as an office. At that time, if you can imagine, my fellow exhibitor in the room was Rómulo Maccio, a very good painter and a true artist in traditional terms. After going through his paintings, viewers reached an office and most people left the room. The Biennial was the most important international event in contemporary art, and at that time the focus was on painting and sculpture. It was also the first politicized biennial due to the student siege, but I was accustomed to that because the Di Tella School was becoming politicized. I started working on similar themes there, and I arrived in Europe in May 1968. For me it was a continuation. It was a worldwide phenomenon.

LatinArt:   A year later Lamelas created Time as Activity, a work that takes objectivity to an extreme with a view to capturing the experience of the real and of time, while introducing a tool that was to be fundamental in the development of his work: cinema. Using a still camera he shot four minutes of three not very extraordinary places in the city of Dusseldorf. Each of them was divided by a separator indicating the exact time and place.

The exhibition David Lamelas. Lo súper-real. Obras 1969-1984 [David Lamelas: the Super-Real. Works 1969-1984], currently in Malba – Constantini Collection, took another approach. That year Lamelas began creating what the curator Inés Katzenstein defined as documentary fictions: a set of photos, films and videos that document the artist’s social and political context (ranging from his friends to the news in daily newspapers) by appropriating different languages from the world of show business. The aim was to show the way the present is perceived and constructed.

In Time as Activity you reached a pretty radical and stripped-down conceptualism that sought to attain a certain objectivity. How does objectivity figure in your work?

David Lamelas:  Initially I wanted to achieve maximum objectivity. I sought to kill the search for aesthetics and personal taste, which is why I did such cold things. In Buenos Aires I had already done works lacking in aesthetics, with a certain minimalist influence. I was at war with the notion of aesthetics in the Argentinean academy and was involved in the debate. Nevertheless, I gradually realized that that production was my personal taste, that non-fiction was just another fiction. Non-aesthetics was the new aesthetic. There’s always fiction in everything you produce.

LatinArt:  In what sense?

David Lamelas:  The root of culture is fiction. Also at that time I was interested in reality and the stereotypes created by the media. And I found visual limitations in that work towards of a lack of aesthetics.

LatinArt:  How did the autobiographical variable, in which you fictionalize your friends and the artistic context, arise?

David Lamelas:  When you move to another city you lose some friends and make others. You face a new culture and a new group of people. Friendships become important. In Amberes-Bruselas [Antwerp-Brussels] I was interested not only in portraying my friends in their habitat within a cinematographic aesthetic, but also at the exact moment in which the photo is taken; encapsulating an instant in millions of years of civilization. But on moving from one city to another, the idea started changing. In London at the outset of the seventies the real world was being glamorized. For London Friends I hired a photographer from Vogue magazine who portrayed my friends against a white background as if they were celebrities, I wanted to turn them into celebrities. One of the questions is the role that fiction plays in our lives. If we take a look at ourselves we are pure fiction, our clothes, our gestures. It’s real but forms part of a fiction. It’s part of our identity. All cultures have their fictions. When I arrived in Los Angeles I didn’t drive and was a little lonely. The people in LA were very distant, they weren’t accustomed to contact and I wanted to talk to them face to face. I got some acquaintances to come over to draw them and bring out human contact. Also everything was very technological and had an excess of visual information, so I resorted to the most primitive technique: a hand-drawn portrait. I photographed and projected works, since if you were projected in cinema you were considered to be larger than life. They became stars just by going through the projection process.

LatinArt:  By the seventies you were clearly working with appropriation, like in Rock Star or The Violent Tapes of 1975. What kind of response did you get in a circuit that was still impregnated with conceptualism?

David Lamelas:  Those works came before my work with fiction, which appeared in the eighties. In London conceptualism was beginning to boom and I was gradually abandoning that current. I started making the art of the eighties in the seventies. In Rock Star I became a rock star, a very important icon in London culture at that time. The Violent Tapes is a film that doesn’t exist, but it exists as a concept. I was interested in how we perceive the concept of cinematography, its syntax and our preconceptions of that. I made a movie in ten photographic shots based on the thriller genre. In the future where violence is unheard of, they find some tapes made in 1975 and become fascinated with the violence of that period. The government finds out and in order to defend society from the threat it generates more violence, a circle. I really didn’t get much response, people didn’t see it, they ignored it. That was the story of my life. There were times when I had to hang in there, 10 or 15 years during which I wasn’t given a chance. In the mid-nineties they began taking me into account again.

LatinArt:  Retrospectively.

David Lamelas:  Yes, retrospectively. They’re interested in it now as a historical phenomenon.

LatinArt:  From London you moved to Los Angeles, a very different city.

David Lamelas:  Yes, it was a stark contrast, I suffered a lot. But I needed to carry out a certain kind of work and I couldn’t go back to London without having filmed something important. I went there to do Desert People, which was a great experience and still continues to be important for me. Actually I didn’t make it, it made itself and those are the works I like: those that evolve on their own. Desert People is a false documentary; the only thing it documents is fiction. But it has a high degree of truthfulness. Everything we say before a camera is taken to be a reality. Upon going through the media process the real becomes super real.

LatinArt:  In Desert People there is a strong tension between fiction and truth, while your subsequent videos were made along the lines of a parody. Did humor become a new instrument for reflecting on the media, for reaching the super real?

David Lamelas:  The humor came out naturally, I didn’t look for it. There is a tension with the sad truth that lies behind this comedy, which is the political reality. I was very influenced by U.S. culture. I was interested in television and by the way the U.S. mass media viewed international politics. Starting from there, I began copying U.S. talk shows. I was going to be interviewed, but I needed an actress to play the role of Barbara López, and Hildegarde Duane was an L.A. artist in whom I saw possibilities for television, so I invited her to play the part. A great collaboration began there. The videos we made are parodies enacted during moments of international crisis, such as the oil crisis at the end of 1970. It was the only way of addressing the topic. I think in the final analysis parody was already part and parcel of U.S. television, although they didn’t realize it. For instance, El Dictador [The Dictator] and El Dictador Retorna [The Dictator Returns] show the typical U.S. way of viewing these people who are protected by the U.S. government. There’s a clash between the two cultures when the Latin American dictator or the Arab sheik meets the liberal journalist --it’s a metaphor of the clash of cultures. As a foreigner I immediately saw the falseness of that information and it made me laugh; the only thing I did was to reproduce what they said. It seemed humorous because the sad truth is that if dead people weren’t involved it would be laughable. But it’s a tragedy, particularly today. That’s the truth, the super real.

LatinArt:   In 1968 Lamelas left Argentina. He moved to London, then to Los Angeles, New York, Brussels and Berlin. Since 1999 he’s been living between Paris, Los Angeles and Buenos Aires. Although the Torcuato di Tella Institute sought to internationalize local production, Lamelas was the artist who fulfilled the desire to transcend one’s own culture.

Your work formed part of the major retrospectives of European conceptual art or Californian art. Just in the past few years it became known in Latin America through a retrospective at the Rufino Tamayo Museum (Mexico City, 2005) and the exhibition in Malba – Constantini Collection (Buenos Aires, 2006). Why do you think your work wasn’t previously shown in Latin America?

David Lamelas:  The truth is I left and didn’t bother to promote it. I don’t blame anyone. Let’s not forget that Argentina went through some very cruel periods when plastic arts and culture in general took a back seat. The most important things were civil and social liberties. All the evolution I was able to experience in Europe and the United States had no comparison here, I had neither a public nor colleagues.

LatinArt:  Do you feel people are beginning to take more interest?

David Lamelas:  A little. I still feel there’s a big wall.

LatinArt:  A wall? In understanding your work or in the fact that you’re not included in a local historical narrative?

David Lamelas:  It’s all very relative. But it happens here and anywhere. If you go from London to Los Angeles there’s also a big wall. It’s not just a Buenos Aires phenomenon. When you come to Buenos Aires there’s a local culture, when you go to Los Angeles there’s a local culture, and when you go through London there’s a local culture.

LatinArt:  Why did you come back?

David Lamelas:  Because Argentina is going through a very interesting time culturally. I’m living in Buenos Aires five months a year. I’m regaining my previous identity. Being here makes me see, discover and redo everything that I have done. They have forgotten, but I had forgotten too.

LatinArt:  And time was always there.

David Lamelas:  Time was always there. I was always aware of time in my work, as an abstraction. I don’t think of time throughout our lives as a beginning and an end. I view time as a spatial volume.

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