When I walked into Room 224 of the Wriston Art Center on Monday, April 11, for Nicholas Lampert’s lecture, for a second I thought that something strange had happened. The open street lay before me, a sidewalk where a man was looking at a giant photograph on the wall of what looked to be one of those battling remote-controlled robots one sees on testosterone-filled television shows, which was, even more disturbingly, seemingly spliced with a giant grasshopper or locust—not a cyborg, but a polymerization of something utterly wrong.
Then, I realized, it was just a projection of a picture, and the photograph was just an example of Nicholas Lampert’s work. Rather than a pure provocateur, Lampert is something closer to a surrealist with political designs who intentionally uses works that are not trying to obviously push buttons, but work in a subtler, more slippery method. An example of this sort of thing is putting a giant fake supermarket chicken in a supermarket’s parking lot, where he quoted a security guard who said “you fellas have made a big mistake bringing this chicken here,” which brought the house down.
Gray-headed and wild-haired like some sort of ‘80s movie mad scientist, Lambert is a charming speaker with a predisposition to ramble, who is nonetheless able to capture one’s attention simply because he has no pretensions. Everything he says is simply what he is thinking, with no attempt to add gravitas with jargon or to try to legitimize his activities. He is more Merry Prankster than Marcel Duchamp, and everything he does is simply interesting. None of his art is bound to the purely academic. Everything he does can be appreciated based on his own work.
At the same time, he engages legitimately in the work of an activist. From planting fake signs that warn of environmental concerns to painting words of protest on the ground in front of police officers—an act, he notes with a certain amount of resignation, that is something that you can still be arrested for, though you are less likely to be arrested for actual speech. Lampert is an activist, but his message and art are not incompatible and neither gets in the way of the other. One knows exactly what he is doing, so he will not lecture or sacrifice his artistic ambitions.
His work and the people he has collaborated with are also great examples of art in action. A protest involving a giant wind turbine that he did with a group at the Tate Modern art gallery over their relationship with British Petroleum (BP)—this was about the time of the Deepwater Horizon incident, during which scrutiny and the idea of investment began to take a new focus in the culture—resulted in the Tate divesting and divorcing itself from BP and the oil industry period, the importance of which cannot be understated.
This idea of art in action unites Lampert’s art and his mission. From making parks out of vacant lots to creating paintings that depict the Freedom Marches of the ‘60s, Lampert listens to his collaborators and works with communities to help them see what they want to see. He is not a gun for hire; rather, he is someone who works alongside communities from England to Chicago, teaching and figuring out solutions to help people, be it his clients or the community at large. Lampert contributes with his art to help better the world and thereby lives the artist’s mission with every project.
UPDATE: The initial publication of this article initially misidentified Nicholas Lampert as “Nicholas Lambert.” The Lawrentian regrets this error.