Spanish artist Santiago Sierra has a long history of creating controversial works that explore issues of capitalism and exploitation in various historical and social contexts. His art often combines installation and performance, and is usually documented by photography and video. Past projects include coating Iraqi immigrants in polyurethane foam and letting it harden, paying drug-addicted prostitutes from Brazil with drugs to get tattoos of lines across their backs, installing a gas chamber in a German synagogue and setting a gallery in Mexico City on fire on its inaugural night.

In this show, “Los Penetrados” [The Penetrated], a group of nine large-scale black-and-white photos (all works 2008), including one diptych, depict a cavernous space occupied by multiple couples (a mix of black and white, homosexual and heterosexual) in various stages of anal penetration. All are positioned on gray blankets on the floor. A V-shaped wall of mirrors reflects the anonymous pairs, their loss of individuality conveyed by their blurry edges and digitally obscured faces. Initially striking for their sexual content, the photographs’ rigid formalism and angular interiors, which contrast with the curves of the repetitiously copulating duos, ultimately negate any eroticism. In a second room, a black-and-white video displayed the same mechanical action: couples move together, heads and bodies bobbing and thrusting, as if on an assembly line. Neutrality of space and affect prevails.

Another series of 55 smaller photographs arrayed in two rows and spanning three walls lined a room upstairs. In the center of the room was a pile of gray blankets, looking both forlorn and ominous. A number of these photos show only the blankets, grim rectangles in a stark setting. Others portray the couples from various angles and distances.

Sierra is working here with a complex project whose division into eight “Acts” of various combinations of partners and positions, according to the press release, parallels the “current reality of Spain.” The racially and sexually diverse couples perhaps are meant to reflect the country’s fractured society, while the act of penetration, associated with sexual dominance and submission, would refer to the larger arena of human relations and social conditions. Usually Sierra pays immigrant workers to perform the burdensome tasks he assigns; here he employed actors to do his bidding, though he seems to treat them as similarly disposable. He has created another enactment of the master/slave relationship in a capitalist society. The question of the artist’s responsibility and the balance of power lingers: Sierra is treading a thin line between detached conceptual criticism and complicity with the very economic exploitation and human objectification he is critiquing.                 

Photo above: The Penetrated, performance at El Torax, Terrassa, Spain, Oct. 12, 2008; at Helga de Alvear.