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Diego Lama: The Eye of the Beholder
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Diego Lama: The Eye of the Beholder

Picture of Federico Rosa
Updated: 13 December 2016
Peruvian artist Diego Lama creates satirical works that question the viewer’s preconceptions about art. As Federico Rosa suggests, his work is based on our subjective judgments and behavior towards art, and its inherent link to identity, social agendas and power relations.

Diego Lama makes social critique in the guise of aesthetic formalism, and visual strategies that often result in absurd scenarios. Lama forms part of a new generation of artists in Latin America that have moved away from more traditional mediums such as painting and sculpture, towards film, photography and video. Lama also echoes a sense of irreverence towards the institutionalized politeness between audience and work of art.

However, Lama’s work goes beyond misguided iconoclasm. ‘Nude Descending a Staircase’, for instance, a video of an undressed woman in a department store descending an electric escalator, comprises several ironies and paradoxes. Lama is freely referencing Marcel Duchamp’s iconic painting ‘Nude Descending a Staircase’ (below left), a landmark of European Modernism. Duchamp’s painting depicts, very abstractly, the motion of a figure descending a staircase, and is cubist in essence: we see the figure from different perspectives, by means of spatial displacement and changing points of view.

Duchamp’s image is a stunning attempt to represent movement in an otherwise static medium. Lama’s video, however, does in fact the opposite: in a motion-based medium, the nude never actually descends. She is almost in stasis because of her movement downward in an escalator moving in the opposite direction. This contradiction gives the video a satirical élan in which the pretense of art as a profoundly serious endeavor is seen as somewhat superfluous and bourgeois. Form, or that which might be seen as visually stunning in Duchamp, seems lackadaisical and makeshift in Lama’s video.

On the other hand, this is also a comedic performance. There is undoubtedly a tongue-in-cheek humor in relation to high modernist painting, which Lama undermines by replicating the situation, but in a completely different context. By placing a naked model within a department store, what in Duchamp’s painting is an exclusive, extraordinary event, in Lama’s video becomes a public, commonplace, do-it-yourself documentation of a zany occurrence. Passersby look on, sometimes discreetly, sometimes eagerly at this naked woman with a curiously Sisyphean task of climbing down an ascending escalator. The unique brand of politeness with which we would regard a work of art is thereby effaced.

While it is not unknown for commercial campaigns to employ bizarre publicity methods, it would be farfetched to assume this event would be seen, or interpreted by a passerby as art. Lama reveals the exclusivity of what we would regard as ‘High Art’. What we perceive to be High Art is often extremely relative and based on a contextual bias. The work is thus critical of both the medium as well as the message. Arguably, Duchamp conveyed a similar idea to Lama’s, when a century before, he presented a urinal as sculpture. Therefore, in a broader sense, this video is as much homage as it is critique.

Chimaera’ (below) on the other hand, consists of a more elaborate production and addresses different issues based on Greek myths. In this video, the satyr Pan is portrayed as a stereotype of male sexuality, dancing shirtless and lustful to his own lively flamenco music. Psyche, on the other hand, is depicted as an elegant swimmer, ever so gracefully traversing the classical architecture of the theater to a soothing musical score. Lama’s insistence on what he perceives as the stereotypes of sexuality, the satyr and the nymph, addresses pertinent gender issues in a largely patriarchal Latin American society. His depiction of Psyche as a naked female seems to criticize the gender-biased notion of the female nude as the ultimate expression of beauty. In the final sequence of the clip, Psyche smashes the sleeping satyr’s sex with a hammer. The relationship between Pan and Psyche achieves a balance, Lama argues, through Thanatos, the Greek spirit of death.

Watch this video dance piece tilted “Chimaera”

Lama furthers his social critique with ‘Biblioteca Municipal’ (below), a photograph of a municipal library in Peru, seen from the vantage of privileged access, and depicted as an empty space, except for a man perusing the shelves wearing nothing but a pair of tennis shoes. This blunt juxtaposition does not immediately recall the fantastic, but rather points toward instability and deadpan humor. The elegant pictorial composition and the large format (it measures 3 meters in length), is catastrophically thrown off balance by the presence of a naked man, who, arms on his hips, comfortably browses over the exquisitely lavish bookshelves. This poses questions of our acquired social norms, and how institutions that serve the general public are much more restrictive than they are permissive. The person seems to be completely out of place, and here Lama reiterates the importance of context and subjectivity when viewing an image. We do not expect a naked person in this space and thus, the resulting image is puzzling, curious. Art, it seems, is not as stable a relationship between audience and work as we often think it is.

Lama is interested in observing how our fixed social behaviors can be easily strained to make the ordinary a symbolically charged, and often confusing event. Fine Art superlatives such as Beauty seem to Lama to be superfluous and anachronistic. More importantly, these are artificial terms, referencing socially acquired tastes that are more exclusive than democratic. Lama’s work, in this sense, is accepting that beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder. In these terms, choice is what an artist can ultimately offer. If culture is also a phenomenon of power, balance may be restored only if we address its flaws.