BY Kirsty Bell in Reviews | 09 SEP 02
Featured in
Issue 69

Santiago Sierra

carlier | gebauer, Berlin, Germany

BY Kirsty Bell in Reviews | 09 SEP 02

Thanks to the media attention received by his last exhibition in Berlin at Kunst-Werke two years ago, Santiago Sierra's second solo show in Berlin was eagerly anticipated. His previous show, for which the artist had asked a group of asylum seekers to sit inside cardboard boxes in an otherwise empty gallery - German law dictated that the asylum seekers went unpaid - was hailed by some as politically revelatory and savaged by others as exploitative. With the immigration question currently at the forefront of European politics such highlighting of the disenfranchised is more topical than ever. An audience looking for political provocation, however, was disappointed this time by a decidedly cool, object-based installation, without an exploited individual in sight.

The show inaugurated the gallery's new exhibition space, in two railway arches overlooking a canal in a drab district full of concrete garages and former East German tower blocks. As is usual with Sierra's works, the title is a succinct description of the content: Construction and Installation of 12 Beams, Dimensions 75 Ý 75 Ý 800 cm, Covered with Tar, Arranged in 2 Rooms (2002). What this prosaic statement fails to convey, however, is the violence with which the 12 enormous beams had been forced into the galleries and the magnitude of the resultant destruction. Steel window bars were ripped out and lay in a heap in the corner as the beams, arranged in pairs, pushed through the six gaping windows of each space, surrounded by fragments of concrete and broken glass. In the places where the windows had been bricked up, the beams penetrated the brickwork.

One space remained, a simple open archway, which allowed the six beams to be taken in at a glance. The other space, which accommodates the gallery's office, was divided into sections. These were all but obstructed by the structures which tore through the new plasterboard walls and left dirty black tar streaks on their fresh white paint. Sierra stripped the surface of the newly converted gallery space back to its industrial origins, and with cold spring air blasting through the open windows the discomfort experienced by the visitors, not to mention the gallery staff, seemed as physical as it was political. The sticky tar, suggestive of the filth and sweat of the shipyard or of road-works, provided an antithesis to the white backdrop of the gallery's tertiary industry dealings, and the manual labour involved in setting up the work is specifically noted in the title, which points out that 'construction and installation' are themselves part of the piece. While this reference to a remunerated workforce was more oblique than in previous works, where, for instance, Sierra had paid labourers to move blocks of concrete continuously around a gallery space, its inclusion reinforced the spectator's awareness of the back-breaking and messy work involved.

Sierra played with the semantics of early Minimalism and Conceptualism: the regular-shaped structures were equally spaced and leaned evenly through the window openings. They broke through the boundaries of the 'white cube' to expose their industrial surroundings in a style reminiscent of Gordon Matta Clark, while their material qualities recalled 1970s language art. But the critical concerns with the integrity of the object, truth to materials and the conventions of art's visuality or exhibition context so crucial to those generations were balanced here by the acknowledgement of the process of production and installation. Rather than self-contained 'specific objects', these were props representing the aesthetics of Minimalism. Their smashed and crumbling corners revealed not only their material qualities as hollow plasterboard constructs coated with tar, but also their unwieldiness in a performance that was not publicly witnessed, disrupting any detached aesthetic appreciation that might draw an invisible line between us and Sierra's anonymous team of installers.

Construction and Installation recalled a piece Sierra made in 1997 for the reopening of a gallery in Mexico City. Gallery Burned with Gasoline was just that: the walls, ceiling, doors and windows of an empty gallery were charred to a crisp, using petrol and blowtorches. While this more recent exhibition was mild by comparison, it similarly aimed to undermine the neutrality of the gallery and to obstruct its function within the contemporary art market. The fact that individual beams and a series of photographs of the installation are available for purchase, however, confuses Sierra's position, making the work as puzzling and thought-provoking as his previous more overtly political works. The artist straddles both sides of the problems he highlights; he refuses to declare his position and offers no solutions, deftly confounding accusations of both didacticism and exploitation.

Kirsty Bell is a freelance writer based in Berlin, Germany.