Artforum International


September 1997


Vol. 36, No. 1

Santiago Sierra


Jusidman, Yishai, Artforum International



In his native Spain, Santiago Sierra’s stylish production took the form of post-Minimalist intervention (e.g. digging the floor of a medieval-cloister-turned-contemporary-art-space, or covering a gallery with pristine aluminum billboard supports.) When he headed to Mexico a couple of years ago, however, Sierra gave up his institutional and historical safety net, since the artistic establishment in amigo-country is notoriously wary of formalist- or post-formal – pyrotechnics. Whether by design or accident, Sierra’s site-specific works Mexico City have ended up addressing the idiosyncracies of local attitudes toward public art.

Last November (after a requisite five-month-long, Kafka-esque adventure with the authorities responsible for granting permits) Sierra’s 15 Hexaedros de 250 cms de lado c/u(Fifteen 250 cm. cubes, 1996), built out of discarded material – cardboard, metal roofing sheets, plywood, drywall, etc. – was placed along a fittingly narrow and popular pedestrian alley in a downtown neighborhood. Comprised of rhythmically recomposed matter, the piece was perfectly attuned to the surrounding cityscape; Sierra’s palette was that of Mexico City’s abundant trash. The obtrusive 15 Hexaedros may have given the bewildered locals as much a taste of Richard Serra as they will ever get. And like Tilted Arc, Sierra’s artwork was summarily sentenced and removed (here, however, it took only two days, in a faithful image of domestic judicial practices).

His most recent installation, Fardo de 1000x4000x250 cm (4000x160x250 cm. bundle,1997) suffered a similar fate. The piece consisted of a shapeless cluster of cardboard packing, plastic bags, and tarp strapped to the facade of a nineteenth-century building that now houses a contemporary art gallery. Like the eclectic commercial street below, Fardo was unplanned, developing according to necessity. A jungle of ropes inside the gallery secured the bundle to the facade, running across rooms and fastened to every possible improvised mooring (knobs, columns, nails on the walls). Notwithstanding the careful embrace of edifice and artwork, Fardo gave the impression that the building was under repair, or that something was being moved in or out – that is, until neighbors realized otherwise and protests forced the piece to come down.

Strangely enough, the local regime has been largely tolerant of politically explicit public artworks and Happenings, perhaps under the supposition that art provides a harmless outlet for social frictions. Sierra’s work, however, proffered an unfamiliar face to the authorities: art in a foreign vocabulary that declared itself neither friend nor foe. (When indoubt, shoot….)

The language of artworks that require an institutionalized context in order to perform is not unlike the language of fashion: domestic codes dictate how the desired effect is achieved. Helmut Lang may guarantee your ticket to the hippest spots in London or New York, but the same garb in Bangkok or Cairo will, at the very least, land you in unsavory situations. While multiculturalism has supposedly fostered the avant-garde’s spread across borders, Sierra’s latest output demonstrates that the superstructure that supports avant-garde articulations remains to be exported. If provocation is seen as the first link in the causal chain towards reformation, Sierra has stumbled on an effective and subtlemeans of engagement that will surely bear more bitter fruit in the future.

- Yishai Jusidman