When considering Gabriel Sierra’s (b. 1975, San Juan Nepomuceno, Colombia; based in Bogotá, Colombia) exhibition of new works at SculptureCenter, it is important to foreground the confines within which he was required to work. Beneath the entrance level gallery of the Long Island City space are the center’s “lower level galleries,” an underground basement comprised of a hallway, rotting cement walls and floors, a ceiling of exposed electrical wires, some storage closets, and a noticeable lack of natural lighting. The space was, after all, originally a trolley repair facility; and was purchased by SculptureCenter—and redesigned by Maya Lin—in 2001, opening in 2002 as the contemporary art museum’s new home . What the lower level lacks in White Box Protocol, it makes up for with a distinctly eerie charm and a refreshingly straightforward ‘make-it-work’ attitude.
Sierra’s intervention into this unique space consists of several large-scale, burlap-covered sculptural works, ‘Untitled (o(op(ope(open)pen)en)n)’, that—in varying ways and to varying degrees—alter the architectural details of the basement, an extension of Sierra’s practice as an artist with a background in Latin American Modernist architecture and industrial design. The ochre coloured pieces are constructed to fit into the arched doorways of the long corridor, dictating new passageways through which viewers must manoeuvre. Because of the sharp and angular geometric shapes of the sculptures, viewers find themselves zigzagging—when they once could have walked straight through, from one end of the basement to the other. This alters the social landscape of the space, forcing viewers to squeeze past one another, to negotiate who will zig while the other zags. Upon reaching the stairs that lead to the upper level, viewers encounter more of the burlap sculptures, however, these line from one wall to another, constructing a new wall that—at different points throughout the day—is partially opened to allow viewers to pass through. Altogether, these larger works reconfigure both the physical space of the museum and the social codes needed to view it.
If one is not paying careful enough attention, it is possible to miss the rest of Sierra’s project. ‘Untitled (pretext)’ is made of the building’s standard Exit sign, reconstructed by Sierra to be a motorised sculpture that moves along a track on the ceiling. Moving above most viewers’ standard lines of vision, the sign no longer acts as a directional tool, but as a displaced symbol, a lost index of recognisable safety systems. On the ceiling are three more works, each with their own set of symbols: ‘Untitled (keyboard)’ projects the letters of the alphabet—one at a time—onto a small, metal, square-shaped sculpture; whereas ‘Untitled (45 minutes)’ projects the numbers 1 through 9 and ‘Untitled (badly explained rainbow #2)’ projects squares, circles, and triangles—alternating through a CMYK palette—each onto their own squares. These projected works progress through their respective systems (be it letters, numbers, shapes, or colours) at their own pace; each time a viewer returns, they have moved onto the next symbol.
This subtle critique continues in one of the storage rooms. Inside, viewers find rubble, an emergency ladder, and a sign that reads, “Occupancy by more than one person is dangerous and unlawful”—which, it turns out, is a work by Sierra entitled ‘(Door Open at 47°)’. Just outside this closet is ‘Untitled (contratiempo)’, an orange and white, diagonally striped sign similar to those found at constructions sites. Each of these smaller works is integrated into the nooks and crannies (and ceilings) of the space, continuing the institutional critique of ‘Untitled (o(op(ope(open)pen)en)n)’. They take recognisable systems of practical information transmission and render them entirely impractical; they point to nowhere and lead to nothing, asking viewers to fill in the blanks themselves.
I left the exhibition feeling confused—Did I just see an exhibition or a construction site? Where did Sierra’s piece end and SculptureCenter’s space begin? Why do I feel the need to differentiate the two?—but also energised. Sierra’s intervention made SculptureCenter’s space feel more accessible, malleable in a way that most exhibitions are not; I could touch the walls, chase the signs, and move without interrupting others’ experiences. An interactive institutional critique, ’Numbers in a Room’ grants viewers permission to reconfigure the set language of a space as a form with which one can create, move, and play.