BY Ian White in Interviews | 07 JUN 06
Featured in
Issue 100

On the Road

An interview with David Lamelas about 30 years of work that explores ideas of time, text and travel; place, politics and friendship

BY Ian White in Interviews | 07 JUN 06

David Lamelas was born in Buenos Aires in 1946. In 1968 he left Argentina for London and then in 1976 moved to Los Angeles, establishing a relationship between his artistic practice and the social and cultural centres in which he lives. His work consists of eloquent displacements and representations of time, place, information and institutions through a wide variety of media. At the 1968 Venice Biennale he exhibited Office of Information about the Vietnam War on Three Levels: The Visual Image, Text and Audio, in which an ‘office’ received the latest news on the war from Italy’s largest agency; this was recorded and read aloud to visitors. The drawing series Los Angeles Friends (Larger than Life) (1976) and the 35mm film The Desert People (1974) are included in ‘Los Angeles, 1955–1985: Birth of an Art Capital’ at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris until 17 July. The Tate has recently acquired his work Time (1970), in which people in a queue tell their neighbour the time at one-minute intervals. Solo shows this year include MC Gallery, Los Angeles and Secession, Vienna. This conversation took place this April in Paris.

Ian White: I saw your work in ‘Los Angeles, 1955–1985: Birth of an Art Capital’ at the Pompidou Centre and thought it was extraordinary that the show forces a linear way of understanding LA, as told through a series of art movements. It struck me as ironic that you’ve often been defined by your displacement, yet you’re included in a show that is so geographically specific.

David Lamelas: I never experienced LA in a linear way because the city is not linear; it’s made up of different communities, social classes and art groups. But for me it is a very important show.

IW In what way?

DL Because I understood what was happening when I arrived there – it made me reconsider my time in Los Angeles and my move from London to LA. Strangely, the two pieces of mine in the show were created in London. The Desert People (1974) was created in my mind in London, and the second work, Los Angeles Friends (1976), was conceived a year earlier in London and realized as a piece called London Friends. I was living in London very happily in the early 1970s and was offered a show in LA, but it was cancelled and I was shattered. I called Jack Wendler and explained the situation, and he very nicely sent me some money. Then I was invited to stay at the house of two collectors, and little by little I got involved with all the people that were represented in my work Los Angeles Friends, and I produced the movie.

IW Did you work with a crew?

DL Yes. I re-invented myself as a film director and didn’t tell anybody I was an artist. In LA I realized it was the way to go, so I played the role of a film director with a budget, even though it was half-fictionalized, and because of that I managed to have a Hollywood crew.

IW The Desert People opens like a glamorous Hollywood movie or a TV series, and then it cuts into a more documentary format and has a spectacular ending.

DL In London I made a film called Film Script (Manipulation of Meaning) (1972), which is about the phenomenon of how narratives evolve in the viewer’s mind. The original idea of The Desert People was very conceptual; it was to have two films that were unrelated, but because of the editing the viewer will believe that a story is unfolding. I wanted it to be a sort of fake documentary about a group of people recounting their experiences of visiting a Native American reservation. In a way the spectacular ending is the denial of any narrative. On the one hand, you see people travelling somewhere; on the other, you have interviews with people explaining what happened when they spent five weeks with the Pappagos. But going there, they all die in a car crash. So their narrative was not possible because they were dead! At that time, apart from Hollywood movies I had seen as a child, I knew very little about American cinema. When I arrived in LA I watched television for three weeks – all the latest movies, as if I was in training to understand Hollywood syntax. I was playing with differences in the way the camera works within a fictional movie and in documentaries.

IW I see The Desert People as saying something about art history. Is critiquing art history important to you?

DL Well, it’s more about criticizing relationships between so-called popular culture and high culture. In London people didn’t quite know how to look at my work; they thought it was not art because I had made a film that looked like a commercial movie, even though the content was totally non-commercial. But also it was a criticism of how communication systems present fact and fiction.

IW And do you think that art is a part of that?

DL Of course, yes. I cannot escape from art, because that’s all I know about. I have been interested in popular culture but always as a language, a form to analyse and observe. I realized when I moved to LA that movies are entertaining. But I’m not an entertainer, so how do I deal with the shadow of this powerful industry? The other thing I found difficult when I moved to LA was not being able to explain who I was as an artist. I felt in the middle of the desert. In London or Paris or Dusseldorf it was taken for granted who I was. In London my peer group was Barry Flanagan, Victor Burgin, John Stezaker and John Latham, but in LA I had no peer group. There were a few Conceptual artists in LA, but they were also in the desert. LA still is a very anti-intellectual culture. They don’t like Conceptual art. A few years ago there was a good show there called ‘Reconsidering the Object of Art’, but it was very criticized in LA by the artists and the media, to the point that I got insulted by a non-Conceptual artist in a coffee bar because I was in the show. But one of the things that really interested me about LA when I was in Argentina in the mid-1960s was that I was dealing with similar concerns to some LA artists without realizing it – about light and space, for example. But then I decided to go to London, because I felt the same way about British culture of the 1960s.

IW So there’s almost a sense of a schizophrenic self at play in your work, in terms of feeling very close to a number of disparate centres of activity?

DL Yes, exactly. You make your choices, but it’s also interesting that both London and LA have a rich popular culture. When I went to London, I went to St Martin’s, but I also wanted to go to the King’s Road to see the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and David Bowie. Somehow I fitted into so-called high culture, as opposed to popular culture, but it’s not because I didn’t try.

IW I relate a lot of your work back to an understanding of the institution of art and using it as a way of thinking about it either metaphorically or analytically.

DL Even as a child, I remember looking at newspapers or going to the movies and trying to understand the phenomenon of information.

IW Can we talk about art and text? How do you understand the role of art magazines in relation to art-making and as vehicles of information of about art?

DL In Argentina I went to a very conservative academy of fine art. On Monday you had drawing, and on Wednesday you had etching and so on; but the fun day was Friday, because we had a great art history teacher who always showed films about art. But he was the only one who provided me with international information; the other teachers were local artists dealing with traditional technical problems that were never interesting to me. Then I discovered libraries. The Museum of Fine Arts in Buenos Aires and the British Council had international magazines, as did the French Institute. I found it important to read about what was happening in the rest of the world. Don’t forget art magazines weren’t as glossy as they are today. I remember, for example, Studio International in the 1960s was full of small black and white pictures. Newspapers and magazines in Los Angeles were shocking to me. They were all entertainment, and there was very little information about art, so I became very isolated from the art world because I didn’t have a car. I’ve been a product of the media always, so I think they’ve been important to me in that sense – but they are less important now. Now I try to forget what I know.

IW Where did you first live in LA?

DL A few months before I arrived, Bas Jan Ader disappeared in his boat, and as I was a friend of a friend, his wife rented me his studio on Sunset and Gardiner. I moved in exactly as he left it. I’m sure his soul was still there; some of his clothing was there – boots and things. I was very happy because I was right on Sunset Boulevard, but I didn’t realize how isolated I was. Someone invited me to lecture at the UCLA and talk about my work. For no reason I felt a lot of aggression from the audience, mostly older artists – I was 26, 27. They were disgusted by what I was saying; one left shouting ‘this is all garbage’. I was talking about text and art and conception and all these things.

IW Could you say something about the texts you used in your film Reading Film from ‘Knots’ by R.D. Laing (1970) and Reading of an Extract from ‘Labyrinths’ by J.L. Borges (1970)?

DL I always thought of myself as a visual artist. The word, as an image, also has a sound – and if you put them together they have a meaning. I’ve always been interested in the way text looks on a page and how words have sounds.

IW Was Publication (1970) the first work that dealt specifically with text?

DL No. The first film I made was called the Study of Relationships between Inner and Outer Space (1969), and one of the things I like best about it is the voice-over. I always find it extraordinary how you put together some simple images and a voice-over and go to a deeper different layer of communication. Then in Reading of an Extract from ‘Labyrinths’ by J.L. Borges I thought I’d show a text that you don’t hear but which you read. I wanted to play with juxtapositions of time and understanding a text. In Labyrinths you’re looking at a woman read, but the film is silent, so you don’t hear what she’s saying but you can read it in the subtitles. You become conscious of the phenomenon of listening when you’re not listening.

IW How much does the desire to make a viewer aware of the act of listening or looking inform works such as the ‘Time is Activity’ series (1969)? It seems to be about a particular kind of awareness that, to me, is meditative.

DL Yes, what you say is interesting, because in Labyrinths you’re looking at this woman who tells you something and you don’t hear; what this produces is meditative but at the same time it’s not, because you hear what you read. And then I moved that into Film Script (Manipulation of Meaning) in 1972, which has the same structure but for different projections. And with The Desert People I put them all together. That’s why I think it’s the ultimate piece, because it has sound, text and image.

IW So do you see there to be a relationship between Desert People and Office of Information about the Vietnam War on Three Levels: The Visual Image, Text and Audio (1968)?

DL Oh yes, because the Vietnam piece was about three levels of information: written information, visual information and oral information. When I moved to LA, I wanted to expand on that.

IW When you made The Desert People, were you intending it to be shown in a cinema?

DL I wanted it to be projected on a proper screen. Jack Wendler offered me a show in his gallery in London, but I said we couldn’t show The Desert People in a small gallery space, so Lynda Morris came up with the idea of showing it in a cinema. We had a full house, and 90 per cent were art people; it was one of my all-time greatest experiences.

IW Inner and Outer Space relates to Desert People in the way in which you play with documentary. But it strikes me that the film is close to British social observation projects almost – for example, by Mary Kelly or Mass Observation.

DL When I was at St Martin’s, I wanted to do a film, and Camden Arts Centre funded it. I came up with the idea of making a film about the inside of my room in Camden Arts Centre, and then the functioning of the gallery as an institution, and the outer space of London. The idea was to interview people chosen at random about the most important news between 5pm and 7pm in London that day. And it happened to be the time of the moon landing. So that’s how I got to the interviews, and that created, in a way, the interviews of The Desert People.

IW Would the interviewer always have asked a question about race, regardless of what the news was?

DL An interviewer did the questions. I told him I wanted questions about social issues, and he created them. Moving to a cosmopolitan city like London, where you see immediately different races, it’s part of the structure to analyse. I thought dealing with the issues of class was interesting.

IW In what ways do you deal with class?

DL Well, you have these BBC voices of upper-class English, and then you have a middle-class gallery director, and then you have a lower-middle-class attendant and a lower-middle-class clerk. I have always been interested in how society works, in the system. I was not interested in working-class experience or upper-class experience themselves so much as in how they work together. In Argentina, coming from a lower-middle-class immigrant family, being an artist takes you out of your class. My father said, ‘All your friends are rich.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘Yes, they’re all rich, and they live in these fancy neighbourhoods.’ When I was a teenager, my father would ask, ‘Where are you going?’ and I would say, ‘To the museum’, and he would reply, ‘But that’s for the rich’.

IW Do you think the contemporary situation still conjures up the same set of prejudices as your father had?

DL I would say yes. Yes and no, but mainly yes! Yesterday I had a similar experience. I was in Vienna and wanted to have a haircut. So this nice guy cut my hair, and he asked me what I did, and I said, ‘I’m an artist, I’m going to have a show in the Viennese Secession’, which was only about half a block away. And he said, ‘I have never been to a museum in Vienna.’ And I was shocked. ‘What? Here you have the museum quarter with five museums, and you’ve never been to a museum?’ He said he found them boring. So I always say that yes and no, things change. It’s hard to understand myself in that system, because then I realize how isolated I was from this guy.

IW Do you see yourself, your position within the system, as perpetuating it?

DL Of course, I seek change.

IW And how do you seek change, and is change possible?

DL There has been a huge change in the amount of people who go to museums. But art is still a small part of society. It’s the same problem when you make a movie. Why can’t I make my movie and have it shown in Shaftesbury Avenue? Why do I have to go to the Tate?

IW Is there anything that can be done about this?

DL I’ve been working for 40 years, and I still don’t have the answer. Maybe there isn’t an answer.

IW Could you expand on what you’ve said in previous interviews about wanting to activate the viewer?

DL When I go to see a movie or a painting, I am an active spectator, and I would like to produce that in the people who look at the work. We are conditioned to consume without criticism, but I don’t have the means to contravene the system because that’s impossible. More and more I think we’re living in a very dramatic moment, but we’ve always lived in dramatic moments. When I made, for example, The Hand (1976), which is a video about a rock star who’s making a comeback nine years after being accused of being a terrorist, I first made that video for a show at Long Beach Museum in California, and it was shown to a large audience on public television. It was quite successful; that was when we had access to public television, PBS. I was very happy that finally it reached the audience; people could watch and see. They didn’t have to go to Long Beach Museum and see it. I thought it was the way of the future. But today it wouldn’t be shown.

IW Does The Hand relate to your early paintings? I’ve seen an early painting of a tango dancer in your catalogue (Carlos Gardel, 1964).

DL Carlos Gardel. The Valentino of tango.

IW And also Rock Star (1974). It has struck me that one of the other things that people don’t talk about often in your work is the way in which masculinity and sexuality might be one of its sub-texts.

DL I’m sure it is. I am just beginning to see that it is very present, but it’s something that I never thought about directly. It’s also present in my new film, The Light at the Edge of a Nightmare (2002–5). There’s a strong connection between The Hand and Rock Star, but it’s something I’ve never analysed.

IW So your choice of subject is intuitive?

DL Yes.

IW But Vietnam or Marguerite Duras or Borges or R.D. Laing are actually massive defining moments and hugely important thinkers…

DL I can explain each one very simply. Let’s begin with Rock Star. I was living in London and wanted to be a rock star and thought I needed a photograph; it’s all about the image. And then I thought photography is a great medium to represent fiction, because people, when they see a photograph, think it’s real. So I photographed myself as a rock star! That phenomenon was interesting because it was really expanded by British artists of the 1980s and ’90s, the idea of artist to rock star. I thought I could be the beginning of that.

IW I think you were the beginning of many things.

DL But these young British artists, they feel like rock stars because they had access to glamour; we didn’t. Why not? All it takes is a photograph. A lot of artists were going to David Bowie concerts. I had this boyfriend who was a pop star and was the most glamorous creature you’ve ever seen. In fact, I’m one of his fans. So it was a way of representing that London glamour. Also, IRA terrorism was very active when I was there. I wanted to film Brian Eno, but he didn’t reply to my letters. So then I went back to LA and did an American version as a television news talk show. So the idea comes from that: a terrorist pop star. What was the other one?

IW Vietnam in Information about the Vietnam War on Three Levels: The Visual Image, Text and Audio.

DL I made this piece because I was outraged at the Vietnam War, and at the same time it was something that united the world. I was living in Argentina, not the US, but it equally affected me.

IW Did you understand the work itself as political?

DL Yes, but not political anti-Vietnam, because who am I to make anything about Vietnam, because what do I know? But it was against the system that produces that.

IW Do you have the sense of there being a resonance with the contemporary situation, not just in terms of the war in Iraq but in terms of a cultural situation?

DL Yeah. You know, when I was very young, these ideas came out of nowhere; they were dormant for many years, and now they’ve woken up again. That’s the way I see it. So the world, in a way, kind of mirrors that fantasy or that reality like the parallel you see between the Vietnam War and the Iraq War. I don’t know why. It’s just because of that outrage, I think. 

Ian White is Adjunct Film Curator for Whitechapel Gallery, London, and an independent curator, writer and artist.

Ian White is an artist, writer and Adjunct Film Curator at Whitechapel Gallery, London. Mary Kelly has guest-selected a programme of work for his project Kinomuseum, which he curated for the Internationale Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen, which takes place from 3-8 May.