DECONSTRUCTING INSTALLATION ART © 2006 Graham Coulter-Smith CASIAD PUBLISHING ISBN 978-0-9548334-4-2

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We see for example a man and a woman shadow boxing the smaller woman hits the enlarged man and he falls back dramatically, the shadow play intensifying the gestures to entertaining effect for the people in the square. Then the man simulates convincing cartoon-like rapid rotational punching of his girlfriend. Another creative use of the apparatus occurs when a gigantic shadow-woman pushes a tiny shadow-man down to the ground and then stomps him with her enormous foot. This is followed by peals of laughter that ring across the square in stark contrast to the deathly silence accompanying the performances of the people who play the artist’s game. The creative interactions with Body Movies use two simple features of the apparatus: first, its capacity for scale differences and second, the fact that the shadow play like cartoons allows things to be done that could not be done in real life.

The shadow play described above may sound simple, and they certainly are a lot simpler than the technical complexity of the game devised by Lozano-Hemmer, but there are two features that are more significant than the artist’s game: first, greater interest and involvement of the others in the square; and, second, we are provided with a perfect instance of a spontaneous human creativity in the absence of control by an artist.

Perhaps the most significant feature of Body Movies is that the viewers not only ignore the rules of the game set down by the artist they change the rules. In this respect Body Movies reveals an art game strategy that goes beyond even Vectorial Elevation. One wonders whether Lozano-Hemmer possesses the proverbial gift of genius because even when he fails he produces something quite extraordinary.

In Vectorial Elevation Lozano-Hemmer ‘deterritorialised’ the dictatorial aspect of spectacle by turning it over to the public. In Body Movies, however, there was an, albeit unintentional, dictatorial aspect to the complex game that Lozano-Hemmer originally formulated. It appears to be a game created for the artist's own edification rather than for the viewer's benefit. If he had simply placed lights at a low level then his contribution to the aesthetic game would have been minimal. From the point of view of conceptualist aesthetics, however, this is not really a problem. We can cite Robert Barry’s exhibitions of radio waves, Art & Language’s exhibition of a gallery’s air conditioning, Ben Vautier’s Personne (where the gallery was closed for the duration of the exhibition),  Ian Burn’s use of mirrors as works of art, and more recently Martin Creed’s The Lights Going on and Off which won the prestigious Turner Prize in the same year as Body Movies was installed in Rotterdam.

The Lights Going On and Off, 2001, consisted exactly of the lights in a gallery in Tate Britain, London, being placed on a timer so that they were alternately turned on and then off. Otherwise, the gallery was empty. There was no audience participation apart from the allegedly extraordinary phenomenological experience of witnessing the lights going on and then off. This game was entirely and solipsistically the possession of the artist and it won the Turner Prize due to its referencing of the kinds of deconstructive art I mentioned above. Most of all this work exhibited the self-referential and self-congratulatory isolation that is the least productive achievement of deconstructive art since it became the dominant discourse.

If Lozano-Hemmer had decided to go down a similar minimalist-conceptualist route with Bodies Movies, and just have the low lying lights and the enormous blank screen then it would have been possible to make a direct comparison with The Lights Going On and Off. More than that one would have been able to argue that Body Movies was significantly superior to due to its combination of minimalist elegance with an apparatus that gives the person in the street a blank canvas onto which she or he can be playful and creative in a manner that brings art into life in a manner that transcends even the achievements of Rirkrit Tiravanija. One would have been able to contrast the peals of joyful and appreciative laughter of the general public in the Schouwburgplein square with the derision and scorn poured on The Lights Going On and Off in the British press. Which is to say one could argue, following Jürgen Habermas, that The Lights Going On and Off was a prime instance of a game created for a socially isolated aesthetic elite, quite literally art for the sake of the art institution. Body Movies on the other hand becomes, even with it flaws, a prime instance of a successful awakening of playfulness and creativity within an everyday context.

Cynical Social Sculpture: Santiago Sierra

I have been critical of Thomas Hirschhorn but I have also stressed that such criticism should not be directed at him so much as at the discursive system that informs him. The same can be said for Santiago Sierra, who like Hirschhorn is another contemporary art star who appears to be lauded in part due to the socio-political ramifications of his work. But Sierra can also be criticised for promulgating what might be called a politics of cynicism. His work is clearly just as concerned with attacking the complacency of the art institution as it is any social injustice outside the museum, but like Maurizio Cattelan he appreciates that as a fine artist his social critiques are deeply compromised: which is something that Hirschhorn seems to ignore.

If one were following the journalistic register of art writing of the 1990s and early 2000s one might call the work of Hirschhorn and Sierra ‘social sculpture’. The term ‘social sculpture’ was coined by Joseph Beuys and it carries within it Beuys’ counter-rational, post-Duchampian romanticism. The phrase implies that art can do something for society when the real question is what can society do for art. Which is to say artists need to explore the world outside the doors of the museum in order to escape the self-reflexive absorption of l’art pour l’art that plagues much contemporary deconstructive art.

Sierra seems to succeed in being transgressive in a period when transgression appears overwhelmed by the covert return to traditional values. Part of his apparent credibility lies in the fact that he has no illusions about the fact that he is an art star whose work is treated as precious objects. One can also note that Sierra does not deploy the grunge tactic (à la Hirschhorn) which has been reduced to the condition of stylishness by its pervasiveness in the context of contemporary installation sculpture. 

Sierra’s tactics are relatively unique. His most effective method to date has been to find unemployed casual labourers who are prepared to do virtually anything for minimum wage. Once hired they are assigned by Sierra to especially meaningless and demeaning activities. What follows is a list of such activities:

In an interview with Stuart Jeffries Sierra was asked why his employees never rebelled against their exploitation and he responded  ‘It amazes me that people don't attack me or, very often, the works. I do get annoyed when we speak of these people as “them”. Artists are no better. Joseph Beuys once claimed that there was clean money and dirty money. We should only take the former. I don't believe that: there's only dirty money. And as an artist I take dirty money. I'm paid to create luxury goods for art collectors.’ (Jeffries 2002).

As has been noted the art system will transform any mode of production into precious objects. In the case of Sierra’s work such objects would include limited edition photographs of his actions. A specific instance of such an object is a photograph of his action where an eight foot line (2.44 metre) was tattooed on the backs of eight remunerated people. The photograph becomes the precious object and the person who exhibits it—like the person who buys Benetton—buys something more than an art photograph, they buy a chic species of ethical credibility. They also buy a conversation piece. In contrast, the people who took part in the work however remain marked for life by their subjugation to High Art.

Asked by Jeffries why he allowed his actions to be transformed into precious objects Sierra responded: ‘I’ve got to make a living … That's the truth that lots of people, including conceptual artists of the ‘60s and ‘70s, did not really recognise. We all have dirty hands’ (Jeffries 2002). We have to admire Sierra’s honesty. And, of course artists need to make a living like everyone else.

Exploiting people within a gallery environment is one of Sierra’s principal strategies, and it is a brilliant deconstruction of the alleged separation of art from life. Sierra’s actions effectively highlight the fact that the art world is ineluctably entwined in the capitalist system.

Another tactic used by Sierra is barring people from entering exhibitions. In South Korea, he paid sixty-eight people twice that nation’s minimum wage to block the main entrance to the inauguration of Pusan's International Contemporary Art Festival. On the occasion of the 2003 Venice Biennale he built a wall blocking off the entrance to the Spanish Pavilion. Visitors needed a Spanish passport to gain entry to the building, through the back door. But even then the visitor was confronted with an empty gallery.

And on the occasion of an exhibition by Sierra to mark the opening of a £500,000 extension to the Lisson Gallery, London, he barred the entrance to the gallery with a sheet of corrugated steel. Sierra comments on the considerable frustration of the invited London glitterati who turned up for the opening: ‘It was as though they were saying: “Just get me inside and give me a drink. That’s what I've come for”’ (in Jeffries 2002).

Like many other works of the installationist genre this piece has a narrative dimension which is a necessary part of its appreciation. During the economic crisis in Argentina (1999–2002) the banks closed and protected their facades with corrugated steel. People demonstrated using a form of protest known as cacerolazo which consisted of banging pots and pans against the corrugated metal. In 2002 Sierra taped these sounds and sent CDs of the recording out to galleries in London, New York, Vienna, Frankfurt and Geneva (Jeffries 2002). The CD sleeve instructed the owner to put speakers in the window and turn the stereo up full volume during certain specified local times.

One can understand this particular action as a species of game. In other words Sierra transposes a political event into the realm of play. It is an aggressive game, but it is a game in the same way that his barring of people from the Lisson was a game. Another aspect of the Lisson action is the  narrative dimension—the corrugated steel barring the entrance was a reference to the steel barriers closing off the banks in Argentina. But as in most instances of installationism this narrative dimension is effectively hidden from the viewer in the same way that prices are left off very expensive goods. You don’t need to know anything about the work because you are so educated and sensitive that you just don’t need to know. Such artistic pretentiousness is the antithesis of participation. We thought that we had passed beyond the aristocratic pretensions of connoisseurship towards the notion of reading works of art. But as deconstructive art becomes more susceptible to the forces of tradition, viewer interaction becomes difficult, and even superfluous, even at the level of interpretation.[33]

If the people invited to the Lisson opening had been told the background to this piece then they would have been less frustrated. And if they had been given pots and pans then the game could have been much more interactive. Despite his transgressive stance, therefore, Sierra actually fits quite nicely into the traditional mould of the artist creator as an especially privileged individual who can do what he or she likes in the cause of individual freedom of expression.

 

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Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Body Movies, 2001

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Body Movies, 2001. Participants take over the game via creative engagement, ignoring the rules set up by the artist.

TO VIEW VIDEO CLIP CLICK HERE

click here to see entire video on Lozano-Hemmer's website

 

160 cm Line Tattooed on 4 People El Gallo Arte Contemporáneo. Salamanca, Spain. December 2000.

160 cm Line Tattooed on 4 People El Gallo Arte Contemporáneo. Salamanca, Spain. December 2000.

Santiago Sierra: Person Remunerated for a Period of 360 Consecutive Hours. 17 September – November 2000. P.S.1, New York.

Santiago Sierra: Person Remunerated for a Period of 360 Consecutive Hours. 17 September – November 2000. P.S.1, New York.

Santiago Sierra, 700 cm of displacement for three blocks of 100 cm per side. Six people are hired to push one cubic metre blocks 700 cm. Courtesy Galerie Peter Kilchmann, Zürich.



Martin Creed, Work No. 227: The Lights Going On and Off, 2001, Tate Britain, London.