PRINT September 2004

Material Witness: Santiago Sierra

WHEN SANTIAGO SIERRA WAS INVITED to inaugurate the new exhibition space of London’s venerable Lisson Gallery in 2002, he was fairly well behaved for someone who, in Mexico City five years earlier, had flambéed a gallery’s interior with gasoline and a blowtorch. The Madrid-born, Mexico City–based provocateur merely blocked access to the building for three weeks (using a beautifully constructed metal shutter), leaving would-be private-view attendees stranded on the pavement sans the expected perks of alcohol and canapés. Still, it was too challenging for many, including one big-time collector who swore never to shop at Lisson again. So when Sierra came back in July of this year to show in the original Lisson space, expectations were running high (or low, depending on your appetite). And this time the doors were open.

Comprising objects and a video, the exhibition was titled “POLYURETHANE SPRAYED ON THE BACKS OF 10 WORKERS, Lisson Gallery, London, U.K. July 2004,” a pretty direct clue to the provenance of the numerous hunched, pale yellow forms that stood like upended and misshapen shields among discarded polyurethane-foam canisters in the main galleries. These were the residua of a private performance—held five days before the opening and documented in the video—for which Sierra paid ten local Iraqi immigrants an undisclosed sum (“as little as possible,” he told me) to stand still, swathed in plastic sheeting, while the jets were turned on them.

All of which might seem par for Sierra’s course. He’s used the spray before, and the unflinching staging of capitalism’s routine exploitation of human bodies is his chosen territory. For example, in Lucca, Italy, in 2002, Sierra played up the material’s latent association with semen when, after paying off their pimps, he had eighteen local prostitutes (mainly of Eastern European descent) cover their underpants with black plastic before the stuff was spurted over them. The Lisson work, though, took a framework of bottom line–driven rapaciousness embodied by an example of badly paid labor—Sierra’s own hiring of strangers to perform a humiliating and seemingly unproductive task—and draped it with allusions (albeit not always obvious ones) to current and recent international offenses, political minefields, and environmental disasters.

“I used the foam,” said Sierra, “because I wanted to bring the guns used to apply it together with the system of protection from it—a dual way of administering power: with love and hate. Polyurethane protects aggressively,” he added, “because it releases toxic fumes. I also wanted to re-create certain memorable images—for instance, of the 2002 oil spill off the northwest coast of Spain [where cleanup crews wore protective suits identical to those used in handling polyurethane] and of Abu Ghraib. It’s an image of disaster, a painting of power trying to objectify the body.” The resultant work had a rhetorical insistence that sprang not only from its painful edginess but also from its economical confluence of forms and implicit narratives; from the way its materials did double and sometimes triple duty on metaphorical and literal registers.

Yet that’s not to say that this wasn’t a contradictory display. Sierra walks a fine line in consorting with the gallery system, whose soft capitalism naturally lined up, at top-end dealership Lisson, with the other kinds on display. In this case, the proprietors indicted themselves almost without trying, and hilariously so. (Sections of the video were unwatchable because the gallerist kept standing directly in front of the camera; meanwhile, in a classic once-bitten move, the gallery threw their summer party on the night of the opening, ensuring booze and food for their collectors, no matter what Sierra might do.) Certain formal decisions also snagged the artist in ways not easily recoupable within his practice. Here, instead of a public performance (which would have been truly nervy in a country highly sensitive about both immigration and its leadership’s decisions over the Iraq war), there was an object-based aftermath, effective on its own terms, and a video—a notably purchasable item but also one that detracted from the physical effect of the foam casts. Revealing the process of encrusting the Iraqis’ backs as slow, meticulous, and moderately gentle, it magnified one’s sense of the Iraqis’ time being wasted yet downplayed associations of physical violence.

Sierra isn’t a great believer in the political efficacy of art, describing it as “a narrow margin through which one can convey blame.” And so his work raises questions about why, if not to attract outside attention, the strain of recent art that wants to keep it real persists in edging nearer to the knuckle. Art’s purpose may be, as they say, not to find answers but to formulate better questions, but—I wondered, as attendees of this last Lisson show demonstrated no loss of appetite following their viewing of the work—surely it matters who is listening. What disturbs about Sierra’s productions is not so much the realization of what people will do for money, nor the sight of them doing it, but the contrast between his work’s raw, undeniable factuality and its uncertain value in the wider world: between the very real currency of human life that Sierra is spending and the frighteningly speculative nature of the returns.

Martin Herbert is a writer and critic based in Tunbridge Wells, Kent.