Santiago Sierra at Lisson Gallery. Review by Beverley Knowles
The key word at Lisson Gallery during the month of February is NO. Not NO to something specific, to some particularly irksome something or other. This NO is bigger than that. This is a NO to everything. An all-encompassing, universal, absolute NO.
Visually, this monumental negation by Spanish artist Santiago Sierra manifests itself in the form of a black painted wood sculpture shaped as the word NO, spelled out in an Arial typeface, weighing half a ton and measuring somewhere in the region of 6 by 14 feet.
Since 18 July 2009 when it left Lucca, Italy, the giant NO has been on a road trip. Now it stands proud - incidental graffiti picked up on its travels notwithstanding - in Lisson’s back gallery. In the interim it has visited Milan, Berlin, Rotterdam, Maastricht and Brussels, where it made an appearance in various venues including the NATO headquarters and the European Parliament. Other NOs have been built and simultaneously they’ve criss-crossed the globe like jet-setting movie stars.
Before we encounter the NO at 29 Bell Street we come across what is perhaps the ultimate manifestation of the sentiment in the form of Death Counter that in 2009 made the news for its year long residency outside Hiscox Headquarters, London, and now hangs above the entrance to Nicholas Logsdail’s longstanding palace to contemporaneity. The giant LED sign registers the annual number of human deaths worldwide, from any cause, over the course of one year starting from zero on New Year’s Eve. I imagine this is supposed to remind us of the transience and essential meaninglessness of existence, with, knowing Sierra, sub-narratives around themes of work, the commodification of human life and the structures of power that make life the disaster riddled horror it sometimes seems to be.
The exhibition is entitled ‘Dedicated to the Workers and Unemployed’. From the gallery’s entrance the viewer might be daunted by the sight of fifteen flat screen televisions showing black and white footage of what turns out to be various groups of unidentified workers engaged in niche forms of gainful employment.
In this way Sierra presents us with 8 People Paid to Remain Inside Cardboard Boxes; 68 People Paid to Block a Museum Entrance; 11 People Paid to Learn a Phrase; the almost rather droll in its surreality A Workers Arm Passing Through the Ceiling of an Art Space from a Dwelling and, doubtless the pièce-de-résistance played on a vast screen in the main gallery, 10 People Paid to Masturbate. This film is 55 minutes long. I confess I didn’t sit through the duration. I assume they were all men.
One could perceive here a whiff of self-righteous indignation on the part of the artist - not of the workers themselves of course, but of the structures of power that have reduced them to this indignity. But we are warned by the artist not to be fooled into an over simplistic reading. Sierra has said ‘it’s not the kind of art that says George Bush is a mother fucker.. people become uncomfortable because it’s a portrait of themselves.’