David Lamelas’s September 1970 exhibition at London gallery Nigel Greenwood Inc Ltd consisted of a table with a 48-page book on it. The eponymous Publication, just reprinted by not-for-profit publishers Primary Information, consists of 13 written responses to the statements: ‘1) Use of oral and written language as an Artform; 2) Language can be considered as an Artform; 3) Language cannot be considered as an Artform.’ Most the replies are on the same bland register. ‘I think artists will be using language to make their art for a long time,’ Robert Barry states flatly. Yep.
Something about filling pages with text at that time seemed to provide an artistic stance that could, at least originally, be thought of as multiple againsts: antiaesthetic, anticommodification; a way, some artists thought, of dealing with reality directly through the means of reality itself. Lamelas’s exhibition took place just at a point when conceptual practices were becoming, if not publicly accepted, then at least more widely known in the UK: June of that year had seen Idea Structures, one of the first conceptual art group shows in London, set over two locations; while the July/August issue of Studio International was presented as a printed exhibition, with Seth Siegelaub inviting six critics to in turn invite artists to use pages as they saw fit. Most, unsurprisingly, did text works, while Daniel Buren filled eight pages with broad, yellow downwards stripes. It was that autumn as well that Italian critic Germano Celant published his first list of ‘Books as Artworks’, which would go on to become another exhibition at Greenwood’s space in 1972 and a book in itself (mostly correspondence, and a massive list). Lamelas’s Publication is a handy, concise expression of this scene, with most of the same suspects (including a verbose miniessay from Victor Burgin, Lawrence Weiner pulling out one of his favourite statements on how ‘the piece need not be built’, and some blank pages from conversationalist Ian Wilson). As such, Publication is just as useful as the SI issue or Celant’s tome in capturing the flavour of the time: dry and literal, showing up the small group of conceptual practitioners as logicians more than anything else: if art is A, then it most certainly can be B, too. OK, then what?
The most accurate and entertaining response in the book is from art historian Barbara Reise: ‘Oral and written language can be used as an Artform. (Whoopee, Eureka, So What?) So can tins of soup, cold-rolled steel, shit, muzak, marble, marketing procedure, parking lots, and just about anything else.’ Lamelas’s table in the exhibition was meant to be a setting for discussion, but I wonder how many people were inspired to sit down and chat by his Mr Spock sense of humour. It feels instead like passing the buck, attempting to chair a talk about talking, or the equivalent of me writing: I hereby declare this review an artwork. Discuss.
First published in ArtReview, Vol. 68, no. 8, October 2016.