The conceptual art pioneer David Lamelas has used sculpture, photography, film and live performance to explore space and time since the 1960s. He attracted widespread attention in 1968 when, aged just 21, he represented Argentina at the Venice Biennale, making the work Office of Information About the Vietnam War at Three Levels, which used a desk, a chair and a telex that received constant updates on the Vietnam war, relayed live by a news reader. He then studied at St Martin’s School of Art in London in Anthony Caro’s sculpture department, where he made his first film. He showed in the Documenta 5 exhibition in 1972 and is back for Documenta 14 this year in Kassel and Athens, with a version of his ongoing project Time as Activity. Next, he has two shows opening in Los Angeles in September, including a career survey as part of the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time (PST) LA/LA.
The Art Newspaper: Pacific Standard Time focuses on Latin American and Latino art in dialogue with Los Angeles, yet national identity seems a fluid concept for you.
David Lamelas: Nationality is not that important to me. When I moved from Argentina to London in the late 1960s I became this British artist, and then when I moved from London to Los Angeles in the mid-1970s I had to rebuild an identity; I had no idea what the United States was about and they had no idea about who I was or my previous work. Opening myself up to a new culture was very exciting, and little by little I became an Angeleno and left my London base behind. But it has always stayed in my heart. I never really leave any of the places I live. Now, having this show is forcing me to think about my work and all these comings and goings between Argentina, Los Angeles, London and Europe. In a way, the past becomes the present and, as you know, I am very interested in memory and the dimension of time.
Your Pacific Standard Time show includes work from the 1960s up to recently made pieces. How did you decide what to select?
When I was in London I wrote ten points to follow in my work; one was that it has to have its own identity and evolve naturally. Like when a child evolves into a grown-up and then into an older person, I wanted my work to have its own consciousness and a life of its own, separate from mine. Some of the works in the retrospective have evolved into grown-ups but there are also some that are still children; I love them, too, because they are my young works. And I’m still a child.
What was the thinking behind your piece at the Venice Biennale in 1968?
I always liked reading newspapers and following world politics. The most important political issue at that moment was the Vietnam War. So I decided to make a display that exposed how the information about the Vietnam War gets disseminated throughout the world. The work was about systems of information rather than a comment about the war itself. But one thing leads into another. I wanted to show what was going on in the real world, and changing that into art was what really fascinated me.
How were you drawn to the complex notions of time, space, dematerialisation and memory that run through your work?
At art school in Buenos Aires it was a very traditional training, but I was always interested in social issues and expanding the idea of an artist’s work. I have always connected my work with all the things that interested me—politics, architecture, cinema, music—and felt that I should expand my thoughts around other areas to question what art is. When I was a teenager I used to go to the British Council library where I was familiar with Studio International magazine and so knew what was going on in England. I also went to the Lincoln Library where they had American newspapers and magazines. I was also lucky that it was a more progressive time in Argentina. Just for a small number of years there were one or two presidents who were democratically elected; it was a brief moment of hope and freedom when the young and their ideas were well received. It was at this time that a few curators started to pay attention to my work.
After the Biennale you studied sculpture at St Martin’s. How important was that time?
Talking about it now, my skin shivers with emotion. I arrived at just the right moment when there was the move from the British sculpture of the 1950s and 1960s to a new conceptualism. I had the seeds of this within me, and it was like a tree that just grew and grew. One of the things I loved about that time was that there was no competition; we were all one and the idea was to move ahead with a new perception of art. To this day, I feel thankful for what happened to me in London.
So why did you leave for Los Angeles?
Claire Copley Gallery asked me to show in LA and I thought it was the right moment. Although I was very happy in London, by then I felt conceptual art had gone into a cul-de-sac. I’d started working in film as soon as I first arrived in London and thought that moving to the US and opening myself to a new culture would expand my work—and myself. I made The Desert People there but went back to London for the post-production.
How was the Los Angeles scene in comparison to London?
I didn’t understand that, in Hollywood, film is entertainment. I wanted to make my conceptual films, but I came up in front of a wall. So I decided to make my own independent, small films rather than going around town having lunches and trying to get money. I’ve nothing against entertainment, but my departure point is different. In fact, I’m just about to go back to LA to make a new film, which I’m very excited about.
• David Lamelas: a Life of Their Own, University Art Museum at California State University Long Beach, 17 September-10 December; David Lamelas, Sprüth Magers, Los Angeles, 5 September-4 November