PRINT November 2009


FOR GABRIEL SIERRA, function follows form: In an inversion of the old modernist dictum, his objects seem as if they are useful, but just what for is often ambiguous. Indeed, the artist studied industrial design in Bogotá, Colombia, and this technical background has been progressively twisted, cloaked, and extended in his work. In Hang It All, 2006, a wall-mounted metal structure produced in three sizes supports an array of lemons, pears, apples, and the like, each piece of fruit stuck onto a prong. The reference is immediate—Charles and Ray Eames’s famous 1953 “Hang It All” coatrack, a modernist icon whose metallic armature bears colored balls at its tips. If the Eames piece is cheerfully redolent of mid-century scientism (atomic models come to mind), abstraction, and progress, Sierra brings raw nature back into the schema of industrial design. Replacing the polished spheres with fruits, he conjures figurative elements in what was originally an abstract motif—and hints that the older object’s geometric contours could have had an apple or an orange as an organic source. The project fittingly belongs to a larger series, “Madrastranaturaleza” (Stepmothernature), 2006–2008, whose title itself is a winking call to nature—not as mother, but as legal kin.

Untitled (Soporte para lección de matemáticas) (Support for a Mathematics Lesson), 2007, carries this curious marriage further. The work is similarly made to hold fruit and exists in two versions, each based on a number of rulers (some plastic, others wood) interlocked to form a grid resembling the pound sign (the American number sign, not the British currency symbol). This “mathematics lesson” (in Spanish, “mathematics” is often singular—matemática—but the artist pluralizes it in his title, perhaps suggesting that there is more than one possible mathematical science) gestures toward the subject’s most basic teaching technique: adding quantities like apples or oranges. Here, too, abstraction, geometry, and science are intertwined with nature, figuration, and the organic, alluding to the paradoxes of the still life, that classical genre of painting in which both transient and quotidian things, the real and the symbolic, commingle within the pictorial field.

The problem of the still life was most forcefully explored in an earlier exhibition of Sierra’s, “Día de Frutas y Nubes Negras” (Day of Fruits and Black Clouds), 2006, from the same “Madrastranaturaleza” series. The show was held over the course of one day at El Bodegón, a now-defunct artist-run space located halfway between downtown Bogotá and an area of slums. The name of the exhibition space itself provided the impetus: In Spanish, bodegón has several meanings—it denotes a tavern, a storage space, and a crate, as well as a still life, and Sierra intertwined all these elements. Outside El Bodegón, one found nothing to identify the exhibition space except a simple plywood crate hanging from the wall, a conceptual play on construction, signage, and representation itself that hinted at what we would find inside. Within the gallery, there was another type of construction, this time at an architectural scale, with planks of plywood crossing horizontally and vertically through the space. In contrast to the exterior crate, one found fruits hanging from the scaffolding inside—bananas, pineapples, papayas, grapes, watermelons. It was as if the small crate had entered the space and branched out, exploding and multiplying, in order to become a gridded framework for natural matter. In addition, blenders were made available to liquefy the fruits, transforming them into juices that could be drunk by spectators-cum-participants—the crate thereby functioning as a tavern, los bodegones. Liquefaction and ingestion were thus recognized as sculptural processes; the still life was brought into real life. Much as with Felix Gonzales-Torres’s candy, spectators could consume part of the artwork, literally incorporating it within themselves. Here, however, the act was not one of memory or empathy but a transubstantiation of nature morte.

A repertoire that so seamlessly fuses geometric abstraction with organic matter and participatory processes unequivocally calls to mind, of course, another modernist history, a heterodox strain located farther south—that of Brazilian Neoconcretism. Many artists of Sierra’s generation (Carlos Garaicoa, Renata Lucas, Rivane Neuenschwander, Damián Ortega, Pedro Reyes, and Armando Andrade Tudela, for example), have rediscovered such key figures as Lygia Clark—whose influence Sierra has openly acknowledged—Hélio Oiticica, Lygia Pape, and Franz Weissmann. Consider the parallels between “Madrastranaturaleza,” Untitled (Soporte para lección de matemáticas), and Clark’s Bichos (Beasts), 1960–66, whose abstract, geometric aluminum forms can be manipulated by the viewer, short-circuiting the traditional distinctions between spectator and author, completion and process, figural and animal.

Clark serves as direct inspiration for Sierra in works such as the three called Untitled (Estante Interrumpido) (Interrupted Shelf), 2009. Each of these consists of a pair of identical shelves that are constructed with horizontal and vertical pieces of gray-painted wood articulated by fabric hinges—much like the Bichos. The viewer can adjust the Estantes Interrumpidos as he or she pleases: leaving all the wooden elements flat against the wall, in which case the work becomes functionless, purely abstract geometry; or arranging the slats perpendicular to the wall, thus erecting proper, useful shelves. Yet if Clark’s participatory pieces ultimately remain within the territory of art, Sierra’s objects flirt with the standardization of do-it-yourself design.

The play with function, nonfunction, and parafunction—and their seemingly hazy borders—has been heightened in Sierra’s recent large-scale architectural projects. Over the past three years, the artist has developed furniture and architectural elements for various exhibitions in Latin America—the Encuentro Internacional Medellín in Colombia in 2007, the São Paulo Bienal in 2008, and the Trienal Poli/Gráfica de San Juan in Puerto Rico earlier this year—including a library in Medellín and a reading room in San Juan. (He has launched another architectural intervention at the Bienal do Mercosul in Porto Alegre, Brazil, on view until the end of November.) For the San Juan exhibition (where I was the artistic director), Sierra designed a room that displayed the posters, magazines, and artists’ books produced by the triennial. He constructed every piece of furniture in wood and at the same height, of some five feet. The visual effect verged on the theatrical and even the slapstick, as visitors were either blocked from the head down by the horizon produced by Sierra’s designs or else cocooned by them as they sat and inspected the publications. Though the room had no taller dividers, at times it was impossible to tell how many people were in it. The show’s reading room became a game of hide-and-seek.

Adriano Pedrosa is a curator and writer based in São Paulo.