Feeling stuffed? Got a hangover? At this time of year many of us will not only be reaching for the Alka Selza but possibly also be feeling a little ethically challenged as we muddle through the season’s festivities assuaging our guilty indulgence, perhaps, by popping a cheque in the post to a favourite charity. For this is the age of the moral fudge. We know what we should be doing in terms of global warming, world poverty and pollution but mostly we don’t act, for on the whole it’s all we can do to keep afloat as we’re swept along on the tide of late modernity.
"Progress and doom", wrote the philosopher Hannah Ardent, “are two sides of the same coin” and it is this coin that the Spanish artist Santiago Sierra, who in recent years has gained international recognition with shows in Berlin, New York and Mexico and as Spain’s representative in the 50th Venice Bienniale, picks up and examines. His is not protest art that makes claims for utopian alternatives to advanced capitalism of which both he and we are part; rather it is art that holds up a mirror to the world and reflects it back to us as it is.
The gallery at 52-54 Bell Street is dedicated to just one work. What look like classic minimal rectangles, à la Carl Andre, are displayed on the gallery floor in open packing cases. Propped on their protective blankets they conjure the 70s felt installations of Joseph Beuys. In fact the work is shit. The 21 modules, which each measure 215 x 75 x 20cm have, quite literally, been made from human faeces. The faecal matter was collected in New Delhi and Jaipur. After having rested for three years so that it composted to the equivalent of earth it was then mixed with Fevicol, an agglutinative plastic, and dried in wooden moulds. Workers of the sanitary movement Sulabh International of India, who were responsible for its collection, are mostly scavengers who, by virtue of birth, have to undertake the physically and psychologically painful task of collecting human faecal matter as part of the karmic cycle in which they repay moral debts accrued in a previous life. But Santiago Sierra’s piece does not simply reflect their degradation. For workers of the Sulabh International, an organisation that aims to improve their lot, worked for free to make these ‘anthropometric modules’ now being sold in a chic London gallery for a small fortune. Not only were they not paid but there is no documentation or photographic record of their labours. They have quite simply been erased and rendered invisible. The installation is uncomfortable for it provides neither high minded moral comment nor humanistic catharsis but simply exposes the capitalist system and the art market for what it is.
Among the five projects presented at 29 Bell Street is Economical Study of the Skin of Caracans, 2006, which consists of 35 black and white photographs. Whilst these vulnerable and rather beautiful images of naked backs that recall Matisse’s famous sculptures were taken with the agreement of the individuals photographed all the participants remain anonymous. Their economic circumstances have been ‘calculated’ according to ‘political monochromes’, different gradation of greys ranging from black to white based on skin colour, which articulate issues of power and social division into disquieting formal equations.
Submission is a work of monumental scale realised in Anapra, a semi-desert area on the Mexican side of the border with the United States, which pays homage to land artists such as Robert Smithson. Created on a piece of land where the US government is planning to build a huge wall along the border it encountered numerous difficulties with the authorities as it attempted to reflect something of the socio and economic displacement of migrants who cross the border to seek better life chances. Extending the boundaries of sculptural and artistic language Santiago Sierra debates the possible moral and ethical roles for art within late modernism, whilst acknowledging that we are all ensnared within the system on which it currently depends.
Santiago Sierra New Works at the Lisson Gallery, London until 19 January 2008