Argentinian artist David Lamelas’s artwork Time, in which people standing in a line say the exact time out loud in sixty-second intervals, has been reenacted numerous times since he debuted the piece in the French Alps in 1970, but never during a pandemic lockdown—until now. This week, Art Basel’s virtual programming includes an online re-creation of Lamelas’s piece, in the viewing room of Brussels gallery Jan Mot, with caveats to address the “new normal.” Twenty people located around the world, and connected via Zoom, represent the physical queue. The first edition was performed virtually for the first time via Youtube and Mot’s booth on April 19, with a second performance on the 20th. A statement accompanying the artwork reads, “The hour may be different in Argentina, Europe, Africa or Australia but we all share the same space of time. Information, political ideas, country limits, economical interest, divides us. But we live in a singular time: the present.”
One of Time‘s central themes—the subjectivity of experience—is a through-line in Lamelas’s oeuvre, which spans installations, sculptures, and avant-garde films (some of which star the artist himself, though he once said, “I don’t think of myself as a performance artist at all.”) An early work by Lamelas, the multimedia installation Connection of Three Spaces, was spread across three locations in the Di Tella Institute in Buenos Aires, its elements meant to be experienced sequentially.
Last week, ARTnews spoke with Lamelas about Time, which is considered a pioneering work of Conceptual art, and is held in the collections of Tate Modern in London and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Space, time, and connection are especially relevant concepts during the quarantine era—a fact that hasn’t escaped Lamelas, who, like everyone, has whiled the hours away in relative solitude, in his case, at home in Buenos Aires.
This is the first time Time has been performed remotely. What was the preparation for Virtual Art Basel like?
Each time we rehearsed it was a different experience, which was really incredible. When you go in person to Basel there are people everywhere, but there is distance. Everyone looks perfect, they’re all wearing Givenchy. There is a facade. But seeing each other [virtually] you’re seeing them au naturel, in a T-shirt at home. People have let their hair grow. That’s the human connection that touches me. It’s been quite a fascinating time in that respect.
How has the virtual performance compared so far to past performances, which were experienced in person?
Though it’s a mosaic of about 20 people on the screen, when the minute arrives for each person, the speaker is on view. The viewer gets very close to the person because you look deep into the screen, deep into their eyes. You become conscious of the connection, which was the original idea. This performance has been especially intimate, which may be bizarre, because it’s all online. And the new technology has made it more, in a way, sculptural. It makes me think of more than a performance; it’s a sculpture of time and space. When I originally did the piece I thought of it as an extension of sculpture without objects. And how many years has it been since then?
About 50 years.
Can you believe that? I cannot. It really is amazing. That 50 years is one minute to me now.
You’ve been re-performing the work throughout that time. Over 50 years, how has the concept evolved?
The piece was created out of need. I was invited to participate in this seminar in the French Swiss Alps, which would include philosophers, writers, scientists, and one or two artists. So I flew from London to Geneva, from Geneva I took a car to the Swiss French alps, which is right along the border between Switzerland and France. That was important to me—that there was a limit of space, two countries divided by the mountains.
Instead of a lecture I decided to put everyone in the seminar in a line on the border and then I proposed they share the time. So that idea, that concept, keeps evolving with time. It has a life of its own. I’ve had a ten-point dogma since the ’60s and ’70s, and one of the ten points is that the artwork should have an identity outside of my intellectual limitations.
So why re-create Time now, amid a pandemic?
I was talking on the phone with [gallerist Jan Mot] two months ago, before the quarantine started, about performing Time. I was here in Buenos Aires and I was supposed to fly to L.A., but then just two days before the quarantine started I canceled my trip. So I was talking to Jan, and I wondering: what unites us all? The present moment. I realized this is the moment to be together through space and time. Whether you are in Hong Kong or New York, the present is all we have.
The performance forces its participants to be conscious of the passage of time, which is interesting in the context of quarantine. Over the past few months, I’ve felt the minutes of every hour in a way I never had before.
Absolutely. Normally, you wake up, get dressed, and enter the world. Now, there is often a block of 24 hours you spend in your house. So what becomes the difference between that block of time and one minute? It is a very thin line. The past 50 years fold back on itself; the time feels so long, but so short.
Fifty years ago I was thinking about art in one way. Your artistic ideas change, you keep on moving on. But this moment for some reason brings me back to the concepts I was working on in the late ’60s and ’70s, which were pretty advanced for the time. It’s very interesting to go back and ask myself “why do I do what I do?”
Do you have an answer?
[Laughs.] No, no. Well, yes, I do and I don’t. Why did I feel in 1966 that sculpture shouldn’t be physical, that it should be conceptual? Why did I think that when I was 18 years old? It has to have a meaning related to why I am who I am. When I was in Argentina in the ’60s I was a Conceptualist, then I arrived in England at the beginning of British Conceptualism. Later, I moved to L.A. at the birth of California Conceptualism. I was following the rebirth of Conceptualism through the years, which is having another moment now. This is not the moment for physical art. These museums and galleries show sculptures and paintings, but at this moment we can’t see them. This moment has opened a new consciousness of what art can be.