06 February 2008

“the transubstantiation of the faecal matter into art.”

"It's shit."
"But it's also sort of art."
"No it's literally shit is literally what it is."
('The Suffering Channel' by DFW)

Martin Herbert's Santiago Sierra iv prises apart some of the ambivalences of an artist whose art is consistently in-your-face and at the same time points to its own inefficacy as politics.

The Lisson Gallery exhibited Sierra's '21 Anthropometric Modules Made of Human Faeces by the People of Sulabh International, India, 2005-06' a couple of months back and the piece did exactly what it didn't quite say on the tin. The 'modules' were blocks, 3 metres by one metre each, of cast, long-dry shit. Shit that had been carried by members of New Delhi's scavenger class (caste?), from latrines to dumping areas, in return for a wage. The blocks looked like old, oversized breezeblocks, grey and crumbling. There were fifteen or so of them and they were presented in a state of semi-unpack, half in, half out of their crates. The inbetween-ness of the bocks' presentation, not fully arrived but unquestionably for show, signalled the way in which shit changes, was being changed as gallery-goers walked around it, by its context in a commercial gallery.

Some critics say it's all very well being political, but what difference does it make to the lives of the people being exploited? Others draw back, have conceded art's inefficacy, and call this sort of work an exploration of the issues. Perhaps there's something Janus-ish about Sierra in that he points outwards from his work at something political, and at the same time inwards to his chosen medium and its limitations. If this is the case, Sierra's tropes do as much as any current practitioner working in the area where politics and art may and may not cross.

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