Thursday, December 6, 2007

Santiago Sierra, "ABSOLUTE EXCREMENT" by Adrian Searle


Santiago Sierra is the king of shock art. But
Adrian Searle wonders if his new show, featuring
slabs made of human faeces, really hits its target

Tuesday December 4, 2007

Santiago Sierra's new sculptures are cast from
human excrement. This dismal fact is enough to
get the Mexico-based Spanish artist's latest
exhibition at London's Lisson Gallery noticed.
Almost everything Sierra does has been designed
at some level to provoke, to upset and to attract
attention. His first London show, in 2002, closed
off the gallery entrance with corrugated iron;
the last time he was at the Lisson, in 2004, he
sprayed a number of Iraqi volunteers with
quick-setting polyurethane foam.

Writing about Sierra, one is wearily obliged to
remind readers of the well-publicised and often
troubling exploits that have given him a
lucrative career: paying drug-addicted
prostitutes the price of a shot of heroin to have
a line tattooed across their backs; employing
people to remain hidden in cardboard boxes in the
blistering heat of an unventilated warehouse.
Last year, he piped the exhaust fumes from a
number of cars into a former synagogue, now an
arts centre, in a small town in Germany; one
could only enter wearing breathing apparatus and
accompanied by a fireman. Predictably, this
action angered Jewish groups; the artist insisted
that he was protesting against "the banalisation
of the Holocaust".

Unsurprisingly, Sierra's work is itself sometimes
accused of banality and of being exploitative, of
careerism masquerading as a mission. His art has
also been seen as social critique, as Marxist
nihilism, as an attack on capitalism in general
and the art world in particular, as irritant, as
analysis. Like many artists now, he is a skilled
manipulator of people and situations as much as
of materials and ideas. Exactly where he stands -
morally, ethically - and what he stands for is
harder to define, but that is true, often
purposely so, of many artists and writers.

One of the chief defects of Sierra's art is a
humourlessness that is mistaken for gravity. A
plaque on the exterior of the gallery announces
that access to the building is prohibited to
anyone who falls into any one of a number of
categories, including "untidy or smelly people,
smokers, alcoholics, drug addicts, deaf, mute or
disabled people, pregnant women, women with
children, senior citizens, beggars,
asylum-seekers, people carrying sharp objects,
forgers, liars, jokers and cynics". There are
dozens of categories; it is difficult not to fall
into one, if not several. Oh Mr Sierra, you are a
one. The sign does, I suppose, conflate the
officious with the offensive, the politically
incorrect with the fascistic, but as satire or
agitprop it is mild stuff. I can imagine students
fixing a sign like this to a loo door.

Which brings us to the matter in hand. Or rather
the shit, which one can only recognise by being
told what it is, so innocuous is the smell, so
unrecognisable are the rectilinear slabs
manufactured from it. The title, 21
Anthropometric Modules Made of Human Faeces By
the People of Sulabh International, India, is a
bit of a mouthful; luckily, the press release
reassures us that this dried ordure, compressed
and mixed with plastic resin, is "harmless from a
sanitary point of view" - though not, one
supposes, from an artistic point of view.

They look like oversized garden-centre trays for
growing tomatoes. One might think of them as
wholesome examples of recycling in action,
although why anyone would want to manufacture all
these unwieldy blocks in the first place is more
the issue. They all stand on their longer sides,
in the opened wooden crates in which each was
shipped. One side of each slab is flat, the other
is a shallow lidless box, into which, as the
title suggests, a human being might fit. As with
much of Sierra's work, what counts is the story
as much as the objects themselves, which are an
unprepossessing sight. The rows of slabs standing
in their crates, the lids against the walls,
packing material and rubbish lying about on the
unswept floor - it all gives the air of
interrupted labour, of things in transit.

The excrement was collected in New Delhi and
Jaipur by the low-caste poor who, atoning for
their deeds in previous lives, scavenge human
faecal matter for a living. The ordure collectors
in this case work for Sulabh International, a
group dedicated to improving the appalling
sanitary conditions in India and bettering the
lives of those forced to earn a living by
manually collecting and disposing of human waste.

According to Pilar Villela Mascaró, writing in
the catalogue, Sierra "will be selling shit to
art collectors and explicitly stating that its
surplus value has been provided by labourers who
sponsored the piece by working for free". Mascaró
makes this argument only to dispose of it, as it
were, later. The point is that Sierra is doing as
much as he can to dramatise both how the work
came about and where it might end up. Works of
1960s minimalist art often looked as if they were
made by machines, or were so pure and immaculate
that they had surely been beamed down by superior
beings from outer space. Sierra's blocks, on the
other hand, are the result of deeply unpleasant,
though unseen toil, and can be bought by anyone
who hands over their filthy lucre.

But we are still left with the excrement, the
latest in a long and sometimes distinguished
trail of artworks made of or alluding to this
most base of materials. The precedents - Piero
Manzoni's tinned caca (which turned out to be
plaster, when one curious collector reached for
the can opener), Chris Ofili's balls of elephant
dung, paintings by Joan Miró or drawings by Mike
Kelley - have all in a sense turned poo into
gold. In any case, every farmer and gardener
knows the value of manure.

In the end, one cannot even paint a watercolour
without someone somewhere being exploited: the
collectors and refiners of exotic pigments, the
gatherers of the natural gums and ox gall used in
watercolour mediums, the rag-pickers who supply
cotton fibre for handmade artists' paper, or the
indentured infants whose dangerous task it is to
pluck the pubic hair from live badgers for the
manufacture of specialist brushes.

Which doesn't make Sierra's 21 Anthropometric
Modules any less problematic, but does perhaps
point up that his work, like any artist's, exists
in a complex web of mostly unacknowledged
relationships. This is what he constantly sets
out to reveal, generally via formal appeals to
the artistic manners of late 20th-century art:
minimalism and conceptual art, performance,
happenings, process art, installation and land
art. In this, Sierra is a highly orthodox and
even conservative artist.

The Lisson's second gallery contains several
other recent Sierra works. There's more rubbish
littering the floor. A slide show documents an
intervention in Caracas, Venezuela, earlier this
year. In a gallery stand shiny black cars with
their engines running; plastic hosepipes vent the
exhaust fumes into the atmosphere outside -
surely something to do with consumerism and
inequality, the Venezuelan petroleum industry and
global warming.

From another empty space in the gallery, names
are read out, over 72 hours, of the 1,547 people
who, by order of the state, were killed or
"disappeared" in Mexico between 1966 and 2007. It
is chilling to stand and listen, though the
voices are often drowned out by the blasts of
noise coming from a video recording of Concert
for a Diesel Electric Plant, which Sierra
recorded in Caracas last February. The amplified
generator judders and whines; sometimes it
modulates to a hollow, mournful moan. There are
unexpected harmonics, overtones and a sizzle like
a snare drum, as well as sickening waves of white
noise. At times, I thought I was listening to
Throbbing Gristle or Lou Reed's Metal Machine
Music. On the blurry black-and-white video,
people walk past, hands over their ears, or bang
the ground with sticks, searching for a beat.
Moths twirl in the light. There are screams from
the audience, but not perhaps of pleasure. It is
a complex assault, a self-portrait of the artist
as an angry man on a hot night.

Pics @ <> > Exhibitions > Current...Top of page

Santiago Sierra: New Works is at the Lisson
Gallery, London, until January 19. Details:
020-7724 2739.

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2007


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