Often in Santiago Sierra’s work the identities of the hired participants are key to the viewer’s understanding of the piece––drug addicts paid the price of one shot of heroin to have a line tattooed across their backs, illegal residents “remunerated” to remain inside cardboard boxes. In Sierra’s recent exhibition at Team Gallery, Los Penetrados, the identities of the participants are obscured. Even their faces have been pixelated away, with only specific physical qualities highlighted: skin tone and sex. Though claimed to be an allegory for the conquest of the Americas by the Spanish (it was filmed on Dia de la Raza, the Spanish holiday commemorating Columbus’s discovery of the Americas), the nationalities, heritage, class, and cultural backgrounds of the participants are indecipherable. We are only able to distinguish skin tone, which among black and white participants evens out to a domino-esque contrast by the black and white film, and sex. Close up photos of the backs of certain participants allow a glimpse at individual particularities, such as moles, freckles, fat rolls, and bra-marks, but the backs, faceless and limbless, could belong to anyone. Sierra emphasizes the two privileged physiological distinctions by constructing the framework for the eight separate acts of Los Penetrados around the different permutations of black and white, male and female, engaging in anal sex on mats arranged on the floor. It is unclear in this instance whether the participants were paid, or whether the viewer is supposed to take this aspect for granted as a given evidenced by Sierra’s oeuvre.
One is tempted to criticize the piece’s proclaimed allegorical content of the raping of the Americas by the Spanish in that there is no violence apparent in the relations presented in the film and photographs. As for the issue of domination and submission, we do well to remember not to put the cart before the horse––both are constructed concepts not necessarily intrinsic to the act of anal penetration between consenting adults. If sex can avoid the hierarchy of the dominant and the submissive, then the relations presented in Sierra’s films certainly do that. Crowded, methodical, and rhythmic, the group sex takes on the air of a beginning yoga class.
A prime component of this work is the social and political conditions to which it is subject and which subsequently shape its final manifestation. For example, “in Act III, seven of the ten blankets are left without performers, due to police pressure against females taking part in the labor. Or in Act V, where the number of passive black male subjects is diminished by cultural insecurities, perhaps born from experiences of racial inequality.” Here contemporary social and political conditions are those under which chance aesthetic phenomena arise, like Sophie Tauber’s woven patterns modeled after scattered paper cutouts, John Cage and the I Ching, or a cigarette in a Pollock painting. The notion of turning the denigrating pitfalls of contemporary lived experience into a system under which an artistic process is modeled is evidence of the escalating desire for salient meaning in art and for the desire to be moved by it. This desire has taken shape in the form of content that deals withsocial relations in an increasingly explicit way.
In her keystone essay “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics”, art critic and historian Claire Bishop lauds the art of Santiago Sierra against Nicholas Bourriaud’s concept of relational aesthetics, and in light of the gramscian concept of antagonism as laid out by Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics. Here Bishop critiques the works recognized by Bourriaud as pioneering a new “relational” aesthetics for lacking the salient democratic politics they claim to promote. Democracy, Bishop argues, drawing on Mouffe and Laclau, is born of an irresolvable social friction inherent to any social or political relations. Antagonism is a necessary product of this friction, and consequently, it remains paramount to any significant discussion of social relations. According to Bishop, Sierra’s work better represents an art that successfully challenges social relations, is a more complex and engaging form of an aesthetics that engages social relations than other works which merely vaguely place viewers/participants in a constructed physical space in which to mingle freely like gasious particles in space. She says of Sierra’s work:
“Sierra seems to argue that the phenomenological body of Minimalism is politicized precisely through the quality of its relationship—or lack of relationship— to other people. Our response to witnessing the participants in Sierra’s actions—be they facing the wall, sitting under boxes, or tattooed with a line—is quite different from the “togetherness” of relational aesthetics. The work does not offer an experience of transcendent human empathy that smooths over the awkward situation before us, but a pointed racial and economic nonidentification: ‘this is not me.’ The persistence of this friction, its awkwardness and discomfort, alerts us to the relational antagonism of Sierra’s work.”
This excerpt points out the main components of interaction developed in Sierra’s work: the artist (orchestrator), the participants, and the witness. It is true that Sierra’s work is usually presented in a manner that eludes an immediate reaction of empathy toward his hired participants. However, the overarching social and political conditions toward which Sierra’s works steer the viewer may not function in the same complex way as the immediate scenarios presented in the work. The meaning of the aesthetic conditions presented through the act of paying an individual to remain inside a box for hours in a warehouse or gallery eventually dissolves into a piece “about” labor and immigration––key political issues regurgitated to a point of easy remove from politics become ethical issues. Perhaps the issue at hand is the quality of the empathic reactions evoked, and whether they offer the blatantly remedying transcendence Bishop critiques. She states optimistically of the poignant friction she finds in Sierra’s work: “…the kernel of impossible resolution on which antagonism depends is mirrored in the tension between art and society conceived of as mutually exclusive spheres—a self- reflexive tension that the work of Sierra…fully acknowledges.”
Does Sierra’s work meaningfully express the “boundaries of both the social and the aesthetic after a century of attempts to fuse them?” Or has his work become at this point yet another attempt to conjure an aesthetics out of explicit, documented human interaction––a series of orchestrated social events? Perhaps ‘attempt’ isn’t the right word here, as regardless of his intentions the possibility exists that his work could be assimilated into an art that takes the aforementioned friction for granted. When social tension, so often expressed in contemporary art in the form of ethical dilemma, becomes naturalized, it becomes yet another component of the aesthetic totality of the work. It says nothing meaningful to democracy, politics, or human relations. The most potent social affect of such content becomes its ‘shock value.’ further questioning arises in relation to the form and content of relational aesthetic art. The naturalization of relational aesthetics and other such works into the overarching field of “social practice” has invited a new way of assessing work in terms of the successes and/or failures of its ethical content.
In a lecture by MIchael Fried on the work of Anri Sala, he described art’s historical phenomenon of “acts of empathic projection” sparked by works with social tension or provocative ethical content. Fried discussed this explicitly in relation to the work of Anri Sala. Sala’s video, Time After Time, depicts an emaciated horse standing alone on a highway at night, periodically lit by the headlights of passing vehicles that determine the rhythm of the image. Sala manually manipulates the image by blurring the focus until a vehicle is approaching, at which point he turns the camera to autofocus. The horse comes into sharpest view in the lights of the passing vehicle. Fried highlighted for the audience a clip, barely noticeable, which depicts a close-up of the horse’s eye. This Fried identified as an orchestrated connection between the horse in peril, and the viewer in, presumably, the gallery. The question that arises from both Sierra’s Los Penetrados and Sala’s Time After Time is this: Why does it take the documentation or imagining of real-life ethical conundrums for “the sake of art,” like exploitation, dehumanization, and borderline abuse, to move the viewer in a meaningful way (or to evoke an empathic reaction in the viewer)? Is this what has become of the notion of emotive content in art? Furthermore, does the proliferation of the “ethical dilemma” lead us astray from more worthy aesthetic dimensions? It is perhaps the emphasis on ethical friction in works that deal with the social and political that have removed the question of truly socially constructive potential from contemporary art. Art, instead of symbolizing an expression of human freedom (or the potential for it, the struggle for it), has become muddled in frustrated expressions of our impossible situation.
Los Penetrados begs the question of whether Sierra’s work can escape the confines of the flatlining ethical conundrum, and whether his use of political subject matter, and political subjects, continues to provoke the art/life distinction in a gripping and salient way. It is easy to reduce the work to its immediate reality: lots of people, potentially strangers, paid to fuck each other so we can watch. This gesture, which upon reflection is sure to leave a bad taste in one’s mouth, has the potential to elicit the productive antagonistic friction Bishop supports. At it’s worst, however, the piece is only yet another addition to Sierra’s familiar body of “shocking” work. The complexities within the piece: race, sex, gender, labor, exploitation, nationality, etc., are at risk of dissolution into opaque cultural keywords, easily assimilable into the viewer’s reserve of ineffectual artistic considerations.
1. Press release, Los Penetrados, Team Gallery, September 2010.
2. Verso, London. 1985.
3. Claire Bishop, “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics,” October issue 110, Fall 2004, 79
4. ibid., 78
5. Michale Fried, “Modernism Again––Some Videos by Anri Sala,” The Art Institute of Chicago, April 29, 2010.