On ViewTeam Gallery
September 9 – October 23, 2010
Santiago Sierra, who was born in Madrid in 1966 and lives and works in Mexico City, has made a career out of stirring controversy and pissing people off. He grew up working class and once lived among the laborers, mendicants, and prostitutes he now hires to perform pieces illustrating the futility of alienated labor. To his credit, he has frequently unleashed full-bore ridicule on economic elitism—not the least of it on the very art world that affords him a comfortable living—but his works employing members of the underclass have triggered ethical concerns and often smack of insider prankishness. None of this, however, has hindered Sierra from garnering a string of professional honors, including his selection by curator Rosa Martinez to represent Spain in the 2003 Venice Biennale.
“Los Penetrados,” a 45-minute silent black-and-white film in eight sections or “acts,” was shot at El Torax, Terrassa, Spain, in 2008 on Oct. 12th—Columbus Day in the U.S. and the Day of the Race (Día de la Raza) in Spain—the date marking the commencement of the European colonization of the Americas. The artist’s approach to the consequences of that fateful day is best described by the exhibition’s press release:
“The film features a mirrored set with 10 geometrically arranged blankets…on which the various possible combinations of male and female and black and white, engage in anal penetration...Choosing to film on Día de la Raza, Sierra makes an allegorical connection between the conquest of the Americas by the Spanish and the penetration that occurs in his film. The subject matter of anal sex invites an examination of cultural psychologies of domination and submission as they relate to labor, race, gender, and class. Though conceived upon a mathematical formula, the film’s acts arrive at a succession of fluctuating outcomes, which yield an analysis of contemporary social structures in Spain. For instance, in Act III, seven of the ten blankets are left without performers, due to police pressure against females taking part in the labor. Or in Act V [sic: passive black males are featured in Acts IV and VI], where the number of passive black male subjects is diminished by cultural insecurities, perhaps born from experiences of racial inequality.”
I would submit, gentle reader, that anyone watching these couples (who were all hired for the occasion, their faces digitally blurred) dutifully screwing each other in the ass would be hard pressed to discern “an analysis of contemporary social structures in Spain.” And never mind that when the Spanish invaded the Americas they didn’t encounter black people. But how does the work’s high-contrast schema account for its overarching sequence, which begins with white males on white females, but ends with black males on white males? (If you are keeping score, the pairings consist of: I. male-female/white-white; II. male-male/white-white; III. male-female/white-black; IV. male-male/white-black; V. male-female/black-black; VI. male-male/black-black; VII. male-female/black-white; VIII. male-male/black-white.) Does this reversal of the prevailing socioeconomic order constitute a liberationist fantasy of the exploited triumphing over the exploiters? And if so, why weren’t the women permitted to strap on the appropriate gear, dominate the men, and carry on for another eight acts? As soon as you get past the outré trappings of the piece, its internal logic flies off the rails.
If anything, “Los Penetrados” tests the limits of irony. You want to believe that the artist is kidding (in which case, it would be a one-note joke), but you darkly suspect otherwise. The work’s disparity between intention (if you choose to accept the press release as legit) and execution confounds the viewer’s misgivings with a fog of flippancy and encases the artist in a self-protective cocoon. This is a long way from the brinkmanship of Hans Haacke’s dissection of New York real estate powerbroking or Mark Lombardi’s flowcharts of weapons and money.
It should be added that watching the film’s eight acts unfold—each shot in a single take from a fixed camera angle—is excruciatingly boring, except perhaps in the few instances where the couples seem to be having trouble. It is not a work that rewards sustained attention, and its overall effect is akin to moving wallpaper. I imagined it projected in a collector’s penthouse, where cocktail chatter and the occasional snicker would provide it with an ambient soundtrack, and where its heedless irony would feel entirely at home.