“Please wait for the others to come out. Only two people a time. Safety reasons” says the man standing in front of the stairs leading to the new Santiago Sierra installation. Next in line, I peek at the room and I what I observe is a rampart made of military razor wire. A multitude of lines separate us from the end wall of the gallery, creating a room filled with perfectly aligned rows of harmful wires.
I finally step down and while I experience rejection, many other questions come to mind. What is on the other side? Why the razors? What does this mean? I also sense the urge to step closer and touch the wire even though it has been stipulated clearly and orally that it is forbidden. A sign on the wall would have sufficed, but in this case, the Mexican based artist perhaps wanted a verbal connection between the person representing the gallery authority and the random viewer. This is a contingency knowing Sierra and his artistic background.
He considers himself a political artist, demonstrating his claims by orchestrating crude yet powerful installations and performances. He previously installed a gas chamber in a synagogue in Hamburg and built a brick wall in the Spanish pavilion of the Venice Biennale allowing the entrance to Spaniards only. His is mostly renowned for paying minimal wage to labourers, prostitutes, drug addicts, unemployed, exploited or homeless to participate to his unusual art works. His work seems to be effective as it triggers violent reactions from his viewers, mainly from the art world, through frustration, anger and boredom. Sierra attacks the system he sees as the puppet of capitalism but his methodology is quite paradoxical as he mirrors the victim’s fate by manipulating their living conditions to his benefit – which is to create a piece of art to make a living.
In his recent installation at Lisson, no one is employed to prove anything. The material used though, is symbolic of the current social and political ambiance in which many countries and therefore population face daily.
As my feet approach the delimitation pointed out by the “guard”, I get more revolted. I crave to break the rules because I don’t understand them. What kind of an idiot would throw himself at a razor wall? The rows, one after the other partake into the emergence of claustrophobia and frustration. There is not one but an infinite row of razor wire which separate me from a wall which I should be able to reach. Here, the analogy with the political decisions made around frontiers is explicit. The fear of countries and their political system being invaded engenders the creation of more barriers, the rejection of immigration and the regrouping of population by community – religion, money, ethnicity etc.
As I am trying to dig deeper into the manifestation of Sierra with the creation of this piece I wonder if the non-evolutionary process of closing countries which originally is meant to protect could lead to the surge of dogmatism. While we are verbally told what to do, fences grow higher and stronger, creating blurry perspectives, and unknown consequences. Sierra, as annoying or passionate as he is perceived, is the question bearer, the shaker of perceptions and the artist who does his job pretty damned well.
Santiago Sierra at Lisson Gallery (14 July – 26 August 2017)