Santiago Sierra

Santiago Sierra’s art often involves a group of people whose actions in the context of the work have—or should have—moral consequences. Economic necessity is almost always the reason that people agree to perform tasks that, to varying degrees, humiliate them: They consent to be locked in a ship’s hold, to be tattooed, to shine the shoes of the visitors to an exhibition, and so on. The underlying concern in these projects is the ethics that viewers and artists bring to bear on art, a field with moral standards that appear to be different from those of other fields. What in another sphere would be abhorrent is, in art, not only accepted but even valued for its supposed self-reflexiveness. Indeed, back in 2003, at the opening of Sierra’s first show at Galería Helga de Alvear, the public was invited to try to find where the illegal immigrants hired for the occasion were hiding; this was the work 100 personas escondidas 2003 (100 Hidden People 2003).

Los penetrados 2008 (The Penetrated 2008), the piece recently shown, also involves paying people, in this case to perform sex (here, anal sex, which, in Spanish, is called “giving up the ass,” and which colloquially means “to bother”), a practice that is generally viewed with scorn. Sierra formulates eight acts, allowing for all of the binary combinations possible with the types of people he employs: copulation between a white man and a black man, between a black man and a white woman, between a white man and a black woman, and so on. The faces have been blurred to emphasize the purely modular nature of the performers; if there are not always ten couples, as Sierra would have liked, it is due to the difficulty of finding actors to perform these acts.

In this work, Sierra continues to explore the implications of paying participants. But this piece does not depend on the audience’s direct participation, and the result is less complex than many of his other projects. That is certainly why the gallery’s press release emphasizes the formal aspects of the work. As in earlier pieces like 111 construcciones hechas con 10 módulos, Zurich 2004 (111 Constructions Made with 10 Modules, Zurich 2004) and Ordenación de 12 parapetos prefabricados, Israel 2004 (Arrangement of 12 Prefabricated Barricades, Israel 2004), in Los penetrados a group of geometrical shapes are combined by the artist in a number of ways. On the one hand, there is the layout of the static, ordered, symmetrical space in which the couples form pictorial elements. On the other, there are the numeric values upon which the work is built: eight acts resulting from the permutations of sex and race. The value of the human element is thus rendered visual and abstract. We must bear in mind that Sierra’s origins lie in post-Minimalism, the main source of inspiration during the years before his decadelong sojourn in Mexico (1996–2007). It was during the first years he spent in Mexico that he honed his means of referring to reality by working with cubical blocks. Los penetrados seems to be a perverse return to that moment.

Pablo Llorca

Translated from Spanish by Jane Brodie.