Two blocks from the blackened, hulking Palais de Justice in Brussels, Jan Mot’s new gallery space occupies the former offices and bookshop of a legal publishers. The front room retains features and fittings from this era: the shelves, ladders and brass fixtures of serious scholarship. Suitably, the gallery’s inaugural exhibition placed two of David Lamelas’s hallmark 16mm ‘Reading Films’ from the 1970s in what was the bookshop, screening them on monitors surrounded by empty wooden shelves. A new work, Mon Amour (2014), was projected in the adjacent space.
By juxtaposing two key examples of Lamelas’s early 1970s practice with a new film, the exhibition ‘Mon Amour. Reading Films’ considered the contemporary relevance of traditional Conceptual concerns. Lamelas’s early Conceptual experiments – and their by-now familiar exploration of the way linguistic form produces meaning – gained new traction when set in relation to the ‘reading’ of the law in this exhibition, implicitly confronting the assumed objectivity of legal doctrine.
The ‘Reading Films’ deconstruct basic vehicles of communication – reading and speaking – to illustrate the gap between the modes of transmission of information and our cognition of it. In Reading film from ‘Knots’ by R.D. Laing (1970), Lamelas utilizes text by R.D. Laing, the subversive Scottish psychiatrist who was associated with the British New Left. Laing’s book, Knots (1970), was itself a Structuralist work – an attempt to break down dialogue drawn from his own work with patients in order to evaluate the impasses of communication or, perhaps, the impossibility of ‘pure’ conveyance. In his single-screen film, Lamelas uses looped footage to avoid any suggestion of a sequence or hierarchy between word and image: in one half of the film, text from the book appears on screen, allowing the viewer to read it in its entirety; and in the other, the same passages are read by a woman in pearl earrings, news anchor-like. By referencing Laing – an ‘anti-psychiatrist’ who was one of the first in his field to focus on the socially constructed elements of mental illness – Lamelas’s film suggests a dormant radicalism. Ultimately, though, the work hinges on the poetry of the text itself.
In the second ‘Reading Film’ on display, Reading of an Extract from ‘Labyrinths’ by J.L. Borges (1970), a female narrator addresses the camera urgently, almost militantly. Her words, however, are muted. Instead, the transcript scrolls across the bottom of the screen in text form, lagging slightly behind. Lamelas purposely displays the subtitles only briefly, leaving the viewer trapped in incomplete comprehension. It was clearly not lost on the artist that Jorge Luis Borges lost his ability to read after slowly going blind, having never learned Braille. Meaning here, as throughout Lamelas’s work, is depicted as contingent – wholly reliant on how a person receives information.
Both ‘Reading Films’ feature a single female speaker, suggesting a blind-spot in early Conceptual practice: in spite of their intention to give the lie to the fiction of a coherent self, Conceptual artists of the period frequently did not think to interrogate gender.
Lamelas’s latest work, Mon Amour, shown on a slide-projector screen, consists of a scrolling film script that has been blurred so that only the words ‘elle’ (her), ‘lui’ (him) and ‘amour’ (love) are clearly decipherable. The hazy outline of a dialogue unravels, but its content remains obscure. Atmospheric music and the faint echo of a woman’s voice play on a loop – referencing the ‘films of voices’ metaphor that has been used to describe the work of Marguerite Duras. Apparently an homage to Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), for which Duras wrote the screenplay and, more obviously, to her notion of cinematic ‘reading’, Mon Amour deconstructs the script in written form. With its narrative content visibly obscured, its identity as a structure comprising language and movement becomes fully apparent. This dual-era exhibition attested to an oeuvre dedicated to eluding singular meanings or messages.