I recently stumbled into the pioneering Argentinian conceptual artist David Lamelas on his way to a rendezvous with a friend. He was running late, but the exchange was typically intense. I’d been rereading Jorge Luis Borges, so I probed David about fiction.
“I’ve always liked it,” he offered in an offhand way. “I’ve loved movies since I was a child, and they’re obviously a form of fiction. But I also like documentaries, which are not fiction, at least not in the conventional sense.” “Was fiction important for your early artistic practice,” I asked. “No, not really,” he replied, “my early art was quite separate from fiction. In some ways it was fiction’s opposite.” “Fiction’s opposite?” I followed up, “What’s that?” “Reality,” David answered with an assuredness that surprised me. “Real life.”
“So … ,” I stuttered, “real life is a concept that you’re comfortable with.” David’s response came at me rapid fire: “Yes, totally. Aren’t you? What else is there? Real life. We live in it. Of course, by ‘real life’ I mean factual life, matters of fact, in the pragmatic sense.” Somewhat out of frustration, and probably because I wasn’t hearing what I had anticipated, I got right to the point: “How important was Borges for you?” There was a slight pause, an exhale, a sparkle of the eye; Lamelas began to reminisce. “Well, when I was a young artist, many of my friends were devotees of Borges. In Argentina, one hears about Borges from the moment one’s born”—which, for Lamelas, took place in Buenos Aires, in 1946—“so Borges is always there. He’s an existential presence. However, and I’m almost embarrassed to say this, the reality is that I first really read Borges in English. I became engrossed in his writings in translation, when I was in London in 1970.”
“Some would argue,” I interjected, “that for Borges there is no reality, only fictions of fictions.” “Yes, I agree,” David responded. “I used an extract from Labyrinths to represent my ideas about language in one of my conceptual films. I liked Borges’s writing the way I liked the writing of Marguerite Duras: both used language as text. They seemed to have an affinity to the conceptual artists with whom I had become affiliated, who marshaled language in a very interesting way. But I really have to keep going,” the artist said. “I’m running very late.”