BY Stuart Morgan in Reviews | 10 SEP 97
Featured in
Issue 36

David Lamelas

BY Stuart Morgan in Reviews | 10 SEP 97

In a darkened room, 17 television monitors stand side by side. Although they are switched on, there is nothing to see but a pattern of mobile dots. Perversely self-defeating as either a statement or an artwork,Situation of Time (1967) was a lowest common denominator in terms of information, but one that had been oddly elevated or over-dramatised. In 1969 Marcel Broodthaers tried to describe this effect: 'Lamelas... is driven by a kind of super-realism', he wrote. 'What he makes resembles television, but with the commonplace aspect exacerbated. By this very strange means, through a show of zeal in technique if you will, he manages to explode this notion of information and to place this directly at the centre of his concerns and at the centre of the viewer's concerns as well'.

Demonstrations of stardom interest Lamelas. Consider Rock Star (Character Appropriation), a suite of self-portraits taken in 1974 of himself as an archetypal rock star, his long hair flying as he dances like a demi-god, besotted with the atmosphere, the music, the event, most of all the fact of being there. If the purpose of the photographs was to explore an element of fantasy, they were a triumph. Although his rock star was a cliché, he was totally convincing. The terms he used to describe the project had nothing to do with acting; instead, he called it 'character appropriation'. This air of the fictive and its role in modern life has haunted Lamelas' work. In 1973, with a group of works called London Friends, he hired a professional fashion photographer to shoot portraits of people he knew, a touch that made them seem semi-fictitious in the short term, nothing less than comic in the long run. Moving to the West Coast of America he made portraits of his neighbours ­ simply, he has said, to get to know them better.

Lamelas' art must be considered as that of a permanent outsider because he falls between structures, movements and nationality. Considered in this light, his early career may fall into place. In 1970, for example, he released a small book called Publication, in which artists answered three questions devised by Lamelas himself, about language and its place in art. The tone of their responses was diverse. Victor Burgin's contribution was meant to be a work of art in its own right, while Barbara Rose replied in her role as a critic. Gilbert & George explained their point of view firstly through irony and second by entertaining the reader with a prose poem on the subject of inspiration. Rather than trying to open a debate with yes/no answers, Lamelas was in a position to solicit and anthologise a number of standpoints ­ so many, indeed, that the reader was startled by their variety. Equally important, however, was the timing. At a moment of confusion, Lamelas had pointed out that any medium was as useful as any other in making art.

The Hand (1976) shows some of these tactics. In the video we are watching the (fictional) Newsmakers show ­ part newscast, part talk show ­ fronted by the (fictional) Barbara Lopez, with guests Ghila Benesty, a real Israeli journalist, and fictional rock star Kevin Gold, who is trying to make a comeback. After a song from Kevin and some harmless banter about the gap in his career, the conversation comes around to the island that he owns and the suspicion that he has been smuggling arms. Though he denies the rumours, as Ghila and Barbara press the point he becomes increasingly disconcerted, and starts to lie about his interest in collecting guns as a hobby. His body language gives him away; he has been mistaken in thinking that the matter would not be probed. The two women gang up on him and he loses his easy-going demeanour. Suddenly, the image of the studio is lost and viewers see a control panel and a hand grasping a knife, which glints suspiciously. After a break, Barbara announces that there has been a terrible accident and that Kevin Gold has been assassinated. For the viewer of the video, the strangeness of the situation lies in the mixture of actors and non-actors, and the roles they are required to play in a normal television interview. Simply by being herself, Ghila casts doubt on every other character, and what each of them is doing. Oddly, every other aspect of the video works. Even the hackneyed image of the hand holding a knife is totally believable given the previous conversation. Yet the entire performance is successful because of the lack of acting, and everything that means.

Another way of approaching Lamelas' work would be to point to its apparent humour. For his one minute long film Analysis of the Elements By Which the Massive Consumption of Information takes Place (1968) he appropriated a BBC broadcast, with news and music, to which he added images of newspapers and a wretched, weirdly coloured advertisement for milk. In Time (1970) a line of 15 people standing in a row were photographed telling each other the time at one-minute intervals. Dumbness has its limits. Yet behind Lamelas' dumbness is the chance of a new start based on simplicity of forms and relationships, a Minimalist obviousness or, to put it another way, honesty.

It is both difficult and mistaken to try to draw conclusions about Lamelas, whose career is neither logical nor easily packaged. His working methods seem perverse, his theories either remote and difficult or so apparently simple that they are almost childlike. He continues to abide by alienation or 'making strange', that feature which Broodthaers was most drawn. In Lamelas' work joking and seriousness mingle to such an extent that the key may be feelings or tones of voice rather than theories. And if description sometimes makes his work sound like that of a classic avant-gardiste marooned on a desert island, there is comfort in that, and above all independence.