The current show at the Lisson Gallery, London, features large rectangular blocks of aged and compressed human excrement, that have their origin in India and a practice of waste collection apparently enforced by religion and a caste system. The gallery web site is typically unhelpful but clearly the artist again courts controversy with the introduction of such materials. For some, Sierra’s entire career is dedicated to just pranks and scandal, since sculptural properties are surely mocked by such material and process, while as reference to the obscure and unhappy practice at hand, the objects seem obtuse or ineffective. Objections to Sierra’s work fall into two categories, rejecting his means and his ends; the politics that generate his projects, and the politics generated by his projects. This post looks at the development of these means.
Sierra’s work has its origins in Minimalism and the primary forms and construction that quickly turn to industrial standards; look to modules or unitary components in simple alignment and stacking. Works make competent – but by the 90s – unremarkable contributions to the project pioneered by Donald Judd and Carl Andre, advanced by Tony Cragg and others. However Sierra also attends to related industrial practices, in works such as 20 Pieces of Road, Madrid (1992) in which a road surface is removed in given squares, as an example of road maintenance as well as its literal displacement, its redefinition as squares of bitumen. The work does not disrupt an actual road (although later Sierra does this as well) but extends a routine process to obtain unitary materials, still in step with Minimalism. Less tidy objects, similarly targeting waste, bundle or coat waste material into less regular (and to some extent, less successful) modules.
The growing co-operation with civic bodies and commissioning of labour signals a subtle shift of emphasis. Sierra is increasingly concerned with duration for works, as an index to the labour involved. A work such as 24 Blocks of Concrete Constantly Moved for a Day by Paid Workers (1999) simply manoeuvres blocks of concrete within the exhibition space according to basic tools and cheap labour. The work is less a record of the actual movement of the blocks than the trail of damage and debris accumulated. It samples or displays these additional properties to the blocks, gives a somewhat grim social dimension to their Minimalist austerity.
As Sierra’s attention turns to hired labour as a material, the pretext of a Minimalist object, a nondescript module, shifts to the terms of the exhibition site itself, to architectural features or standard functioning for a building. Sierra can then simply fill a site with a prescribed (and often, proscribed) labour sample, as in 450 Paid People in the Museo Rufino Tamayo (1999) or Congregation of Illegal Workers at the International Fair of Contemporary Art, Paris (1999) or allot them nominal modules as in People Paid to Remain inside Cardboard Boxes, Guatemala (1999). A more radical departure is to simply tag and identify a labour source by tattoo or later dyeing, where conditions are desperate enough to allow such measures. These works, understandably, exist mainly as documentation rather than performance. There was even a work where workers masturbated at a given address.
The point is not simply that anything is for sale when and where the chips are down far enough, but that art is now drawn inexorably to these ‘market forces’ as surely as it is to life or nature (see also Posts 8, 25 and 49). Sierra starts from the Minimalism of primary units but steadily discovers their wider use entails delegation and subordination, that the work is animated by its interaction with conflicting demands and conditions, with an increasingly globalised and ruthless economy. Obviously Sierra is not the only artist drawn to these means or issues; Vanessa Beecroft and others adopt similar strategies.
245 M3 (2006) and Submission (2007) draw attention to crucial features of their respective locations through temporary adaptation and modification, involve less performance. Both works proved highly controversial and were prematurely halted. Here the respective issues – Jewish persecution and illegal immigration – were so sensitive that even the most imaginative or experimental treatments were not permitted to interfere with orthodox message or prevailing identity for the sites. Even where the artist patiently negotiates all regulations and proprieties, these may yet prove so various and unreliable that the work no more than records the politics encountered. So, are the means then too political? Does the work thereby cease to be art? The answer will depend upon how lively one allows art, how cultivated one prefers politics.
Tuesday, 1 January 2008
Posted by CAP at 19:50