SANTIAGO SIERRA Santiago Sierra is the Che Guevara of contemporary art – an anti-capitalist radical and a leftwing revolutionary. No one has made more confrontational politicized works than Santiago Sierra. In one work in Germany in 2006, he filled a former synagogue with exhaust fumes from cars parked outside. Visitors could only enter wearing a gas mask and accompanied by a fireman.
This superimposition of the Holocaust onto global warming was a brilliantly angry installation which dramatized the dangers of climate change, at a time when little was being done in global environmentalism. It lasted only a couple of days, before outraged public opinion forced its abandonment.
Other works by Sierra have a more conventional appearance as Minimalist sculptures. In 2007, he exhibited huge rough slabs of dark matter, which evoked some of Richard Serra’s sculptures, but they were made not out of lead, but out of human faeces, and they were produced not by the artist and his technicians, but manufactured to order by a corporation of ‘un- touchable’ refuse-workers – popularly known as scavengers – in India.
In another work in an art gallery in Jerusalem, Sierra positioned the geo-metric concrete forms used as mobile defence works by the Israeli army (which, some say, are used for protection by army snipers) in a modulating grid in the style of Sol Le Witt. Sierra’s mimicry of the sleek basic vocabulary of Minimalism is a casual and sarcastic gesture, that gives his work the ‘appearance’ of an artwork, while, at the same time, mocking it. This simple geometry suggests how ‘easy’ it has become to produce art; the politicised subject matter calls into question the claim of earlier Minimalists to have produced work of purely formal character. Another set of more provocative works by Sierra use live human beings, and re-enact exploitation with them.
At the Venice Biennale 2003, Sierra built a huge breeze block wall across the entrance. Visitors could enter from the rear, but only those with Spanish passports. In another work, he paid African immigrants in Spain to dig a vast ‘land art’ installation of a grid of holes. On another occasion he paid junkies the price of a fix to line up in a row and then permit a continuous line to be tattooed across their backs.
This is a new kind of politically-engaged art. True, Sierra is part of the tradition of Conceptual artists going back to the sixties, who condemn art’s unavoidable involvement with capitalism, now taking the form of globalisation. Yet Sierra’s art, unlike that which has gone before, is ‘live’ cruelty. He is not on the outside looking in, like a photo-journalist or the appropriation artists of the eighties, like Richard Prince. Instead, like some other contemporary artists since the nine- ties, he joins the enemy. Just like Jeff Koons is the uber-craftsman of kitsch sculptures, Sierra himself becomes the slave-master.
Is it worth the pain? Sierra’s idea is that unless he creates Capitalist exploitation in the art gallery, he is hiding and denying the artist’s complicity in that exploitation. There’s a logic to that, but does it lead us anywhere new, or back to the same place in art, only with yet more exploitation and suffering? Whatever the answer to that, Sierra has another more accessible motivation for these works of art – he is a guerilla operating behind enemy lines. Each work is an attempt not to overthrow the system but to outwit it, to catch it out.