Santiago Sierra: Commercial Transactions - Art Collector

Issue 50, October - December 2009

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Santiago sierra has been called callous and monstrous. Regularly operating in the rarely acknowledged realm of consensual exploitation, it’s no wonder he receives such a visceral response writes Edward Colless.

Few artists today can sport the title of agent provocateur with as much authority and as much irony as the Spanish-born, Mexico City resident but global artist-at-large Santiago Sierra. Sierra is notorious for his allegedly callous use of the homeless, unemployed, prostitutes, destitute beggars and addicts in performances that shockingly exploit their degradation. He may be best known for spraying with toxic polyurethane the bodies, huddled and pressed against a wall and cowering under black plastic, of 10 Iraqis whom he hired off a London street in a gesture that alarming enacted – not just represented – prison punishment and torture in order to create a post-minimalist sculptural form. Even more pointedly cruel in its aesthetic manipulation was his use of anonymous female junkies (employed for the price of heroin fix) to sit topless in a row facing the wall and have a single continuous line tattooed across their backs.

He’s paid people – usually identifiably from some ethnic or social category of underclass, and always remunerated at the barest minimum – to sit in cramped cardboard boxes for the duration of an exhibition; to uselessly hold up a portion of a demolished wall for hours; to live behind a wall with only a food slot as access for 360 hours; and to shift concrete blocks pointlessly from one part of a gallery to another. He’s paid Cuban hustlers to masturbate repeatedly on camera. He’s paid black illegal immigrant street hawkers in Venice to have their hair dyed blonde, to mark them out as distinctive targets. They were all willing subjects, Sierra explained, to a commercial transaction that was transparent. They all were employed to produce his art. We’re used to hearing, in the past decade, relational artists speak guiltlessly of how they use people as their materials to induce micro-communities and convivial exchanges. Sierra’s work is an obscene undercurrent to that idiom. One Irish beggar was required to wear a sign stating: “My participation in this piece could generate a profit of 72,000 dollars. I am being paid 5 pounds.” What appals us, Sierra might argue, is the exposure of that exchange in its brutal literalism, not as a symbol but as a consensual rather than coercive act of exploitation.

Sierra’s rocketing career path since the mid 1990s is a problematic vector of this conceptual ingenuity skewed by chicanery, and of political imposture confused with critical acuity. Of course, there’s no such thing as bad publicity, and Sierra’s reputation has boomed with both the applause and denunciations. Where his work hasn’t been defended as political satire or dismissed as facile scandal, it’s often generated hostility and contempt. When he piped car exhaust fumes into a disused synagogue on the outskirts of Cologne, which was casually dubbed a DIY gas chamber (visitors could enter only wearing gas masks after signing a disclaimer), the city authority bent to public pressure that the work banalised the Holocaust, and closed the exhibition. But what is scandalous about the best of this work – and the best would have to be marked by its more sadistic aspects – is its undeniable aesthetic allure. With a suggestively sinister theatricality, 10 homeless women (offered a night in a hostel) stood silently in a line facing a wall as if waiting execution, among the milling crowds arriving in the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern. For all its monstrosity, work like this is also lucid and macabrely clever, and it’s often grotesquely, nastily, appallingly comic.

At its most facile, Sierra’s work can be reduced to an unchallenging intervention in – and almost customary allegation about – the privileged, self-legitimising value accorded to art in a capitalist economy. Filling an emptied gallery space with tonnes of mud; closing up a fashionable London gallery with corrugated iron across its street frontage to leave its VIP guests homeless and unfed for the evening; bricking up the entrance to Spain’s pavilion at the Venice Biennale; or converting a Caracas gallery into a car showroom, with four idling luxury cars pumping their exhaust into the street just outside. These admittedly slick satirical gestures have the wry mockery of a sophomoric prank, at the expense of a market that can easily and happily pay for it. But the same London gallery that uncomplainingly let itself be boarded up on its opening night recently housed 21 monolithic blocks of human excrement, collected from the open sewers of New Delhi and Jaipur by the untouchable caste (who scrape a bare living from this unimaginably sordid work). Crated and dispatched like vengefully poisoned archaeological cargo from the third world, these solidified minimalist geometric sarcophagi of shit are simultaneously outrageous jokes and the most unfunny testimony of social inequality.

There’s too much cynicism in Sierra’s work to treat it as political invective let alone incitement. But that may well be its artistry: a grim sort of comedy thinly masking despair, its provocations are intolerably responseless.

Nicholas Logsdail
Director, Lisson Gallery

“It was a warmish, sunny evening and in response to our cryptic invitation people began to congregate, perplexed, standing around outside in the street,” recalls Nicholas Logsdail, director of London’s Lisson Gallery, which had been boarded up with corrugated iron by Santiago Sierra. “The work referred to what had been happening when the Argentine economy collapsed and people starting physically attacking the banks out of sheer frustration and anger,” says Logsdail. “The banks responded by blocking their street frontages up with corrugated iron. The political connection, however, wasn’t explicit. There was only a label on one of the columns outside the gallery giving the title of the work, but no explanation. Santiago doesn’t want to provide explanations himself; he wants people to think about the experience.”
For the audience that night, it would have been a contradictory experience of cultural privilege and being locked out exactly at the same time. This strategy of confusing advantage with exclusion seems a principle for much of Sierra’s work. “Yes,” agrees Logsdail, “using art ironically, he wants to provoke people to ask: why would someone do this to me? Why is it done to others?”
And Logsdail adds emphatically “this is not simply to shock. Sierra is not a prankster but a sombre, indeed melancholic, poetic person who is deeply passionate about his beliefs. He is an artist who wishes to draw our attention to unjust social situations in a challenging artistic way, and in that respect I’d say he is the type of artist who makes history.”
Edward Colless

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