Argentine-born David Lamelas, experimenter in film and form, has been exhibiting since the early 1960s, but his profile has remained such that a spate of recent shows – his first French retrospective at FRAC Lorraine in the summer of this year, for example – sheds light on unfamiliar aspects of his five decades of work. The Kunsthalle Basel can boast that this is not their first collaboration with the artist, as he had a solo exhibition there in 2000, and perhaps in that confident spirit this second show is a spare one. All but one of six works and a couple of work-cum-documentations presented in the bookshop revisit concepts from between 1965 and 1970.
The first sculpture, in grey painted wood, has a serif at its base from which it turns 90 degrees to create an upright Y, or V, as echoed in the exhibition title. The work’s title is Study of Relationships Between Volume, Space and Gravity (1965/2008); as well as the physical relationships referred to, the vaguely handlike V held aloft like a gesture and its dominant position at the top of the Kunsthalle stairs also suggest a social and political context. This determination to look beyond what is before us bookends the exhibition. Inside, in the largest, sky-lit gallery, Time (1970/2014) is a white diagonal bisecting the space. In 1970 Lamelas was concerned with dematerialising art, and instructions are given for the activation of the performance that the white tape is the guideline for, involving people standing shoulder to shoulder along the line, one stating the time, ‘keeping it’ for 60 seconds and passing it on to his or her neighbour. Unfortunately Time did not happen for this solitary visitor on a Tuesday afternoon, and the feeling of a missed event persisted for the new work in this exhibition, 1416m3 (2014), a composition for string quartet and tenor performed in situ on the first day of the exhibition. The title – and lyrics, which repeat the title in German – states the volume of the gallery, and after the opening, one person huddled into one corner can listen to the recording on headphones, effectively constrained from exploring that volume.
Indeed Lamelas’s works are frequently inherently contradictory, as becomes plain in Film 18 Paris IV.70 (1970), a 16mm film of three of the artist’s friends, each recorded for three minutes, from their announcement of the time of day to their stating of the time again three minutes later. By marking the time, pacing and looking at their watches, they are also missing it. While Lamelas was killing time in Paris, Alighiero Boetti was frustrating audiences in Italy: his Lampada Annuale (Annual Lamp, 1966) contained a lightbulb programmed to illuminate for just 11 seconds a year. It’s likely few people waited for long enough to see that happen, and Lamelas too seems to toy with driving his audience from the gallery.
The final work shown is one of the artist’s earliest films, created for an exhibition at Camden Arts Centre in London, A Study of Relationships Between Inner and Outer Space (1969). It begins by limning the architecture of the gallery where the film was first to be presented, then extends its investigation to activities in the space and staff members, before surveying London in terms of transport, population, climate and methods of communication. To finish, people on the street are asked how they feel about a moon landing (the Apollo 10 mission was then ongoing). The most vital territory is beyond the white cube, the film suggests, or the gallery is only completely understood within its broadest context. Long before aesthetics were made relational, Lamelas was making art that had to be related to its situation to be fully grasped.
This article was first published in the December 2014 issue.