Wednesday, 9 January 2008

Santiago Sierra - Sophie Risner

Antagonism and the Divide.

Santiago Sierra

30.11.07 - 19.01.08.

Lisson Gallery

29 / 52 - 54 Bell Street

Santiago Sierra is not the easiest artist to deconstruct. Born in 1966 the Spanish artist lives and works in Mexico City. Previous work have included paying drug-addicted prostitutes the price of a shot of heroin to have a line tattooed across their backs as well as hiring Albanian refugees to move concrete blocks by hand across a gallery space in Switzerland. In New York in 2002 Sierras '9 Forms of 100 X 100 X 600 cm each, constructed to be supported perpendicular to a wall' had groups of three to four workers holding on their shoulders forms constructed from different elements - such as wood and concrete. The workers were paid $12 an hour and were sourced from local job centres. This is but a brief insight into the work of Sierra. His work which in itself rest on the shoulders of concepts that are politically motivated and complex beyond belief.

In 2002 Sierra's first show at the Lisson saw the closing of the gallery entrance with corrugated iron and the last time he was at the Lisson in 2004 Sierra was to be found spraying a number of Iraqi volunteers with quick setting Polyurethane. It is almost as if the tune of a Sierra piece is monumentally repeated, using the same idea just a different social minority or a different aesthetic form. The rhetoric of Sierra's show are painfully similar, with only his methods shifting in representational politics or representational aesthetic from show to show, gallery to gallery, country to country.

Here in 2007 Sierra commands both of the Lissons sites on Bell Street. 29 Bell Street pulls together the culmination of works recently realised in Venezuela and Mexico. On entering the space the first aesthetic shift choreographed by Sierra is the complete blacking out of the gallery windows with black paper and tape. This creates an uncomfortable environment as with any small gallery space that has a doorbell entrance you feel on-entering that you have been let into the show unintentionally early and that the Lisson is mid-set up. This concept is exemplified by the rubbish and packaging detritus that litters the floor. To the left is a projection of 'Four Black Vehicles with the Engine Running inside an Art Gallery' which was first shown in Sala Mendoza and typically was a comment on the cities and other large cities pollution crisis, using the fumes as an unquantifiable mass being pumped back into our atmosphere. Opposite in the right hand room Sierras 'Concert for a Diesel Electric Plant,' set in Chicago uses a blacked-out room to disperse the turbulent sounds of a diesel electric plant. Played loud enough in a small blacked out gallery just off Edgware Road and the experience is Sierra antagonism at its best. Downstairs details one of Sierra's largest works to date; 'Sumision' is a project that saw the word Sumision (Submission in English) almost tattooed onto the landscape of Anapra (the Mexican side of the Mexico / America boarder). This word not only navigates the social housing and geo-political crisis of a country forced to abandon a whole community due to lack of state funds, but highlights the tragedy of poverty that cuts Mexico and America apart.

'Santiago Sierra's most challenging sculptural projects to date,' is based at the Lissons second site on Bell Street. '21 Anthropometric Modules made of Human Faeces by the people of Sulabh International, India' is a 2005 - 06 project that decides to focus Sierras political subjectivity on the 'scavenging' crisis in Sulabh, India. Here, mainly woman are employed to clean public latrines and open sewers, being forced to walk sometimes up to four kilometers with the content balanced on their head. This, coupled with the poor living conditions and the rainy season - which often finds the contents oozing from the baskets and into the scavengers hair and face means that disease is rife, with TB being the most common. For us though, we get 21 very precisely moulded rectangles of brown earth-like substance, treated with Fevicol and left to degrade to become completely harmless. There is always an element of safety needed to display within a gallery space, especially a European or American one. This leaves Sierras message isolated from the product and devalues its content creating an uncomfortable void between subject and object. Santiago Sierra obviously has an accomplished understanding of world problematics, but the question is how does this transcend into the gallery?

Claire Bishop in her critique of Nicholas Bourriads 'Relational Aesthetics' looks at the claim that Sierra's systematic exposure of social division creates a base for less confrontational work to exist harmoniously. To compare the work of Sierra to Nicholas Bourriads 'Relational Aesthetics' is an interesting one; as we certainly do not have any kind of relationship with the objects crafted by Sierra. In fact it can almost be said that Sierra intentionally wants to impose a distance on us; between what he creates and how we experience it. This creation of antagonism between the 'us' and the 'them' so beautifully and expensively moulded by Sierra lacks a justifications of education that would be tantamount in underpinning any politically motivated work. Unfortunately it merely leans on the repetitive nature of a formation well rehearsed and tirelessly activated and paid for by galleries who enjoy a stunt as much as they enjoy a good piece of work. Saying this the system of reading Sierras work is bursting with arguments waiting to happen. He begs for the separation of the 'us' and the 'them' yet he charges his concepts with the discursive fire that could only help to educate this very separation, here he tricks us and unintentionally the work becomes just as much us trying to pick our way to the 'them' as it highlights the division so articulately. Like pawns we fall into Sierras conditioning too easily. Essentially there's almost no way out of a Sierra, try with all your might through discussion to pick your way out of his manipulation of guilt and divide, you will still end up right where he wants you. This manipulation does well to justify his method of critique and finds not so much a controversial note within the gallery space moreover an appropriate note. In an age flooded with 'Live Aid' and the justification of charity it's a challenge to react to crisis through object, a challenge it seems Sierra work tirelessly to maintain.

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