What's the matter, is the bride too beautiful?
by Jerome du Bois (1500 words)
My recent post on Harold Bloom reminded me of this extended, interpretive review -- okay, it ends up as a secular sermon -- I wrote three years ago of his book Omens of Millennium. The opening is dated, so we'll skip it, but the main questions -- Just how real is the imagination? And why is the average person's imagination so impoverished? -- seem just as relevant as when I first put the words down. So let's pick it up . . . here:
It seems, as Bloom points out, that imagination may be, could be -- or used to be -- more than imaginary. Seekers such as shamans, Sufis, Kabbalists, and Zoroastrians often found access to an order of reality somewhere between mathematics and mystical ecstasy -- the realm of Hamlet and Vishnu, the original home of Einstein’s equations and Schrodinger’s Cat and the Aboriginal Dreamtime. Remember that these people lived before we divided the world into compartments. For them, says Bloom, “what we now call psychology and cosmology were one.”
In here, out there, or both? We can no longer tell. Maybe we all are both keys and keyholes, fixed in the door between everything we know and everything else. Quantum mechanics, our most rigorous science, firmly holds that door open with experiments that demonstrate signals sidestepping the speed of light. Bell’s Theorem rings its crazy truth every time they split a meson.
But wherever it manifests, this “angelic world” is a dangerous place, looming with metaphors strong enough to engulf us. From there the seekers summoned splendorous angels, astral bodies, sudden avatars, and prophetic dreams.
Bloom suggests that our world-weariness, a sense of belatedness, and our saturated infatuation with irony, allow only domesticated versions of these images to appear. But it wasn’t always so. The pastel bureaucrats that we call angels couldn’t hold a candle to Mohammed’s Gabriel, who swooped over the terrified prophet like a moving mountain of fire.
And suppose our space aliens are fictions. Have you asked yourself why we have imagined them as grey, dessicated ciphers, with heads like inverted teardrops and supersized RayBans for eyes? They strike me as naked ideas, brains on a stick, looking wasted because nothing’s wasted. (Artist Mike Kelley, a serious student of the subject, interprets them as apparitions of evil children.) Why these stark and forlorn images? They’re way too simple to compete with even the dated patrons of the cantina scene in the original Star Wars, much less Shiva, Vishnu, Kali, or Chango.
These figures -- angels to avatars, astral bodies to aliens -- have grown in popularity the last ten years partly because of the Millennial clock, now rewound, and because they each point to an even older image. This primal image is of a Primordial Person (male and female), which appears over and over down the ladder of time, like an angel “unfallen and qausi-divine,” from the shamans to the Sufis to right now. It flashes down the ages, outlined in holy fire and ringing Its changing names like bells: Anthropos, Adam Kadmon, Ahura Mazda, Garment of Light, Metatron, Resurrection Body, Hermes, Angel Christ, The Shekhinah. It ever blazes and burns like a mighty brand.
Now, look around the culture. Do you see this image anywhere? It occurs to me that we have a recent -- and domesticated -- annual incarnation of the Anthropos, already seventeen years old: Burning Man, the anarchic bacchanal which agglomerates every Labor Day weekend on a sun-blasted alkali desert in Nevada. A 40-foot wooden skeleton, the Burning Man, often tricked out in blue neon, looms over the teeming eccentricities he has drawn to his circle. On the last night he is ritually burned down to the ground.
What desire draws twenty thousand people out of our fat and happy land for four primitive days of heat, chaos, and abandon? One answer lies in the Burning Man’s genesis: In 1986 Larry Harvey burned a life-sized effigy of his ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend on a California beach, with a group of sympathizers to witness this ritual of riddance, this immolation of the evil worm of jealousy and brokenness. Significantly, enough people were scanning the culture for just this image to boost it over the threshold from obscurity into visibility, and now into ubiquity. The Burning Man grew over the years, in every way. People were drawn in droves, as Catholics to bleeding Christs, or others to the Weeping Elvis of Memphis.
But the backstory is just as important as the image itself. Larry Harvey and his world broke apart; he was torn away from love, from its feelings of wholeness and sense, its assurances of the future. He was fated, perhaps, to summon a burning man as a symbol of loss and anger.
Squinting through a clumsy poet’s eyes, I would say that the Burning Man, as the faint echo of our oldest image, tells us he knows we live in a broken world. He cannot save us, heal us, or teach us. We must save ourselves. He says we can. He merely bears witness that he has heard our ancestors whisper, “We are All in the One.”
Yet we know, especially post-9/11, that we are not One, nor All, not yet and far from it. We feel the hollows and shallows in our guts, but we have forgotten how to reach that far inside . . . We need to tear open a space where, as Sufi scholar Henry Corbin said, “the soul is not the witness of an external event but the medium in which the event takes place.”
Because a forty-foot statue is not a figure that fills the sky, and a runty pale alien is not Shiva in bejewelled glory, and our angels take the forms of ministers, not mountains. We have stunted our imaginations to tame our fears, and to get along. But reader, count the cost, and measure it by the depth within you. Harold Bloom is one of the last champions of the imagination ablaze (or, with Camille Paglia, one of the first of their return). He reminds us that we still have access to the angelic world, if we can only summon the will.
CODA: I have tried this, riding intermittent comets of passion, for over thirty years -- through prayers, meditations, ecstacies, vision quests; through the shanks of the night, life’s daily grind, and the flickerings of soul in all those faces -- I have tried to access the angelic world by launching my ideas, longings, tears and my very heart upward and forward to draw the lightning.
Now, after staring into Adam Kadmon, and brooding over and shuffling images in my small corner of our shared mindscape, I imagined only these poor sketches:
-- Perhaps our deepest yearning is to return to a gnosis: that is, a knowing deep in our bones, a galvanizing somatic satori -- that we’re tight with God/the Divine, the Divine with us, now, always, and forever. If it’s a Return, then the past has a broken heart. We ache now, and feel homesick, because we sometimes see some giant fissure that broke our identity with Infinity. We wonder what happened back then that cleft the Rock of Ages. And we have only torn and ragged snapshots of what to look for, so we gather around the Burning Man, the Weeping Virgin, the black hole mandala of physics, or the fascinating media Medusa.
--Maybe we were the Word, now at a loss for words. Images -- lurid, multiform, transforming before our eyes and seething with meaning upon meaning -- have replaced words as our touchstones.
-- Maybe we are Lucifer, God’s heart, who chose self-immolation to make us all real; he scattered his atoms widdershins for billenia, but now, through each of us, he seeks himself again; he longs to belong again, to be gathered back into one Body, so to return to God. (I owe the seed of this notion to William Peter Blatty.)
-- Maybe William Blake brought back yet another truth from one of his frequent ecstacies:
God appears and God is Light
To those poor Souls who dwell in Night;
But does a Human Form Display
To those who Dwell in Realms of Day.
So maybe the face of your beloved is one of the nine billion names of God.
--Or perhaps we were never broken. Maybe we humans got smart and visionary real early, in the morning of our selves, and we created a common dream. Bloom says, “Our dreams are less individual than we are.” So now, yes, I see it now, by the light of the Burning Man -- we shall form an Unfalling Angel from an uncanny incorporation, a constitution of souls, but without giving up our I-ness. And this Angel’s scintillating outline may be the fractally fertile Web/Net, the world’s infant Body Electric with its seething hive mind -- which, in the fullness of time, we shall awaken and use to clothe ourselves in glory as the nine billion blinding stars of the Garment of Light!
There's an excellent interview with Harold Bloom by Jennie Rothenberg in The Atlantic Online. At the end, he says something new, but very resonant, to me:
[Q:] You like to tell your students, "There is no method except yourself." What do you mean by that?
I believe that very passionately . . . What theory did the great critics have? Critics like Dr. Samuel Johnson or William Hazlitt? Those who adopt a theory are simply imitating someone else. I believe firmly that, in the end, all useful criticism is based upon experience. An experience of teaching, an experience of reading, one's experience of writing -- and most of all, one's experience of living. Just as wisdom, in the end, is purely personal. There can be no method except the Self.
To which I would only add two lines, the first from Mr. Bloom and the second from a shared hero, Oscar Wilde:
If you seek your Self outside yourself, then you will encounter disaster.
The highest criticism is the record of one's own Soul.
That last is what we aim for here. -- Jerome du Bois
(via Arts & Letters Daily)
Dean Esmay is undoubtedly right: Especially with Daniel Dennett behind him, he is definitely a Bright.
And thanks to him for calling attention to GODISMS and especially to the Sierra piece (below).
We will be sure to pay it forward.
GODISMS by Jerome du Bois (1995/2003), inkjet on parchment.
by Jerome du Bois
[Capsule Review: Get down to @Central Gallery at the Burton Barr Library before July 29th to be transfixed and fascinated by the eight masterful, charming, slyly psychological portraits painted by David Dauncey.]
In another piece, Life Always Trumps Art, I quoted the painter Ross Bleckner: If reality strikes us as a cultural and not a psychological dynamic, then our representations of it are as docile as the forms by which we receive it (as itself). We are placated by merchandising techniques that validate these forms. . . Whereas the problem of artistic creation is the problem of madness and death.
I found a perfect example of this dichotomy at the @Central Gallery today. On one wall, David Dauncey's devotional, close-up faces -- in acrylic on paper, each 22 x 22 -- of people the artist respects and loves, painted in mostly thumb-sized daubs over (my hero) Chuck Close-type grids (with inscribed circles: Sweet.). I'll return to Dauncey later, though.
On the opposite wall, like Bleckner's division become laboratory experiment, we behold James Angel's admittedly Martin Mull-influenced acrylic on canvas pieces (and some acrylic on paper ones as well), entirely painted collages from paint-by-numbers art, magazine illustration, vegetable-crate labels, advertising characters, mail-order catalogues, and the other mutating effluvia that drift around commercial culture like persistent, incurable memes.
To make a first, crude comparison between Mr. Angel and Mr. Dauncey (and yes, I know they know each other, 3carpileup et cetera): the faces. Mr. Angel, though he paints plenty of people's faces, seems afraid of them; Mr. Dauncey, in his artist's statement, began with fear; I mean to say that he embarked, as on a raft, into and toward his fear of failing to honor his subjects.
But look at the faces in Mr. Angel's works. There's a kid with eyes like raisins in a doughball, a slit for a mouth. Two adults in profile look as stiff and stern as stained-glass tightasses. A lady beating batter is realistically-detailed but completely emotionally vapid, so why bother?
I don't know if Mr. Angel is a native, or hard-won draftsperson, or if he works from an opaque projector, or both, but he avoids psychological depiction of the human face -- though he can show the shadows on a man's suit as slick as anybody.
It is irrelevant, anyway, because Mr. Angel is Martin Mull-lite, so sorry. Mr. Mull always seems to have a slippery edge somewhere on his canvases, where he teeters in the helplessness Jasper Johns rhapsodizes about, beyond the suburban housewives and uncanny birds.
But Mr. Angel can lay out anything he wants in an arbitrary way. Since nothing really matters -- here's JFK in gray, the lady beating batter, a boy sucking soda, two floating fly-agaric mushrooms -- since the canvas/paper is simply a neutral field accepting the results of a cut-and-paste party -- one can reasonably ask: why am I examining these nicely-modeled pears, which I have seen ten thousand times? (Jeebus, I sound like David Byrne. You see how pop culture can infect you?)
So let us turn around and survey Mr. Dauncey's much more focused and psychologically serious work.
Doug, with his pink-punk hair and his velocity, was my favorite: a swarthy imp, incipient devil, and a jester with a twist, he can't be bothered to look at the viewer, he's too intent on something at his lower left -- a bauble or a victim, the gleam in his eye won't reveal. This glance, and a suave smile Mephistopheles would envy, Dauncey creates with strong, facile curves, and the modeling is effortless -- remember, he is building on a grid with distinct, though often runny, strokes, painstakingly overlaid by even smaller, virtual grids.
He carries this technique throughout the eight portraits, though the size of the grids/circles varies. Each is triumph upon triumph. My other favorites inclue Glen of the badass orange glasses, who is probably even a cooler person than Bono, based on this dude's frontal, quietly confident attitude anyway; and the Self-Portrait, with that wonderful nose and furrowed, abstracted expression: you just know he's working out how to get these ears down!
These two artists seem to be on two different journeys. Dauncey: "The starting point of this series was, essentially, fear." It was the "driving factor . . . to assess whether I had made successful portraits." [Here's two votes: YES.] And he concludes that the "next stage of my work will . . . involve painting that is true to myself."
For someone who is committed to the psychological exploration of life and art, these words are sweet water in this parched Valley of the Dead. Which brings me to Mr. Angel: "This current body of work explores the painted collage. Inspired by , more specifically and directly, Martin Mull." And he then begins a drone about "non-narrative narrative," a simplistic synonym for incoherence, or, at best, surrealism. But surrealism is just a part of everyday reality; it's nothing special anymore.
Angel also says, "Style is a consequence of intent. The intent is to celebrate art and artists by creating a pure aesthetic using popular culture as a paintbrush."
I decided against analyzing this argument when I remembered what Chuck Close said about style and art: " . . . that art used to belong to the part of the brain that thinks. Now it seems to have shifted over in the public's mind to that part of the brain that chooses what covering you'll put on the seat of your car. When did art move over to the world of style?" [emphasis added] (in John Guare's book, 1995.)
Around 1965, with Big Andy, but that's irrelevant now, because -- here -- turn around, 180 degrees -- it's shifting back -- and look at Mr. Dauncey's work again. And linger, because it's about Life with weight.
Thanks to Rick Visser at artrift.com for the heads up to his readers on the Sierra essay below. Two great pictures over there on the piece, too.
Also, Winds of Change picked up the Sierra essay, as well as many other good reads in this week's Carnival of the Vanities #42. Go there and enjoy.
by Jerome du Bois
(I apologize for promising this essay weeks ago and not delivering on time. It won't happen again. I won't apologize, though, for its 4,000+ word length.)
Twenty-eight years ago Robert Horvitz wrote an elegant and definitive cover story about Chris Burden for Artforum magazine, five years into the artist’s professional career. In this piece, one of the best art articles ever written, he made a point of exploring the “moral and esthetic implications of terming [Burden’s] work ‘good.’”
The emphasis on morality seems almost quaint these rebarbarous, incurious days, but I’m going to dust off this article, and its emphasis, and follow along with Horvitz so that I may expose the cruel motivations and evolving sadism behind another, more recently “controversial” artist --
Most everyone who has studied contemporary art knows that Chris Burden had himself shot in the arm (Shoot, 1971), crucified to a Volkswagen (Transfixed, 1974), and bolted to a concrete floor with buckets of water and live wires around him -- that last one he enacted twice (110 and 220, both 1972). He stayed in bed in a gallery for 22 days (Bed Piece, 1972). He hid on a ceiling-high platform in a gallery for three weeks (White Light/White Heat, 1975.) He tried to breathe water (Velvet Water, 1974.) He crawled through fifty feet of broken glass with his hands bound behind him (Through the Night Softly, 1973.) He spent a day in a surgical-tape chrysalis on a museum wall (Oh, Dracula! 1973) -- just some of the “dozens of performance events that are notable for their space-filling energy, their stark simplicity, and their perplexing, audacious amorality.”
Some of these performance events were what Horvitz called “control situations,” where “contemplative distance” was not eliminated, exactly, but “freed for use as a thematic variable.” In Velvet Water, for example, Burden crouched over a sink behind a bank of lockers (with cameras rolling) and repeatedly tried to breathe water. The audience was on the other side of the lockers, watching his actions on monitors but able to hear every gut-wrenching cough. Photos taken at the time show some people glancing toward the lockers, but most kept watching the monitors until he collapsed, exhausted, on the floor.
After surveying Burden’s work, Horvitz speculated that the artist was motivated to preempt fate and take control of his own life, but “in manageable chunks,” a little at a time. Then he returned to the moral theme: “But there is one very sticky point that we can no longer avoid confronting: these control situations that Burden creates typically include other people.” And he described one in detail, which I am going to quote at length, not just because it perfectly illustrates some of the points I’m going to make eventually, but because it is beautifully written, and I want to pay tribute to Robert Horvitz. Here he is:
But consider a piece like The Visitation, which was presented at Hamilton College (Clinton,NY) on November 9, 1974. I would like to describe it in some detail, not just because it is a perfect illustration of the issues at stake here, but because it is one of his shrewdest and most superbly realized works.
Burden had been invited to participate in a group show of California artists at the college’s art gallery, and an announcement that he would be making his contribution at the opening attracted a large crowd. Initially, only one person, the organizer of the show, knew what the arrangements were, and when anyone at the opening asked about what was to happen, he led them down to the basement, where they were met by Burden’s wife, who stood next to a locked door. The door led into a dirt-floored boiler-room that was quite hot and pitch dark -- except for a single ray of light that extended from a crack between the top of the door and the doorframe, down the length of a wall. Only one person was allowed beyond the door at a time. As they entered the room, the door was shut and locked behind them. The beam of light ended at an alcove between two massive pillars supporting the fireplace upstairs. Burden was seated there, surrounded and faintly illuminated by glowing embers. When he was discovered, he introduced himself and talked casually with each visitor for as long as he or she wished.
About 15 people actually saw Burden. Their experience was probably one of disorientation and trepidation as the door closed and locked behind them, followed by relief that the encounter proved to be so painless and intimate. But the effect on those left outside was overwhelming. Word of Burden’s presence downstairs had spread quickly and scores of people jammed the space in front of the boiler-room door. Without any instructions to do so, the few who did get to see him refused to say anything about what had happened to them, thus fueling the crowd’s fantasies. Windows in other parts of the basement were broken by people clamoring to get in. The opening was totally consumed by the piece. Capitalizing on the drawing power of his reputation, the tension between the crowd’s expectations and the strict limitations he placed on their access to him gave the piece its spatial charge. The fabulous spectacle that the crowd had come to expect from Burden, based on what they knew about his past work, was indeed provided, but they turned out to be it.
In presenting this piece, Burden had the active cooperation of the museum director and the sponsoring institution. He had the unwitting, but completely voluntary cooperation of the students. [emphasis added] He did nothing violent, self-destructive, or illegal. No one was injured. He actually used much less force than the average rock-sculptor uses in carving a statue. And yet the manipulative, autocratic aspects of the work are obvious. We might ask ourselves a number of questions:
1.] To what extent are we justified in suspending our moral judgment when the material being worked is human?
2.] To what extent, if any, and under what conditions, does morality have a higher claim on our actions and reactions than esthetics?
3.] To what extent can the “right” to exploit oneself be prevented from generalizing into the right to exploit one’s relationships with other people?
4.] To what extent is the relationship between artist and audience qualitatively altered by the removal of the mediating object?
5.] To what extent is the special nature of this relationship lost in the shift from symbolic to literal expression?
These are basic questions, but I honestly don’t know the answers.
(End of Horvitz excerpt; I supplied the numerals.)
In 2003, these questions matter more than ever, and I will take them up at the conclusion, but for now let’s answer these questions the way many in the present art world (and I will name some names) would answer them, based on who they have supported, defended, and promoted. And there is just one answer:
When esthetics equals money, morality has no claims. And there is always something to sell.
I wish I was being sarcastic here; I wish I was exaggerating. But the steady, nauseating progress of Santiago Sierra’s career, five years long and rolling, contemptuously tramples those important questions under its ugly black boots. And the fact that his pseudo-economic inanities about “the remunerated system” and his ignorant capitalism-bashing -- “persons are objects of the State and Capital” -- get taken seriously by credulous, slack-jawed cognoscenti -- well, the pain, cramps, blood and bruises of the people who have suffered for this man’s noxious passage cry out for some correction!
Most everyone who reads art magazines knows by now that Sierra, a working-class Spaniard who has lived like a little tin god in Mexico for many years, hires poor people -- “the underclass” -- to perform absurd or pointless tasks, such as pushing heavy concrete blocks around, or holding up walls for hours on end, or holding up heavy beams for hours on end. (“They must always face the wall, and they must be Mexican or Central American.” -- artist’s instructions to the artless Jeffrey Deitch, who has no standards whatsoever, esthetic or moral.)
He paid a Latino security guard at PS1 (curated by a
pimp Senior Curator named Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev) to live behind a wall there, with a little food slot, for 360 consecutive hours. He filled a Mexico City gallery with 465 poor people so the art crowd couldn’t get in. He has put people into cardboard boxes in galleries, several times. (Walter Robinson of artnet.com refused to believe one of them: “One can only hope this ‘art’ is a hoax.”) For the Venice Biennalle 2001, Sierra paid 133 non-Europeans to dye their hair blond. He put someone in the trunk of a car. He tied somebody to a wooden block. He paid an Irish beggar in Birmingham to wear a sign that said, “My participation in this piece could generate a profit of 72,000 dollars. I am being paid five pounds.”
He paid ten Cuban male prostitutes to masturbate and videotaped it. (Then, he claims, he wept: “Nobody said no and for me that was very painful. . . When I made this piece, I would go to bed crying.”) He paid six members of his “underclass” to face the wall at the Lisson Gallery in London -- oh, and you, face the corner. He’s the guy who did the tattooed lines on people’s backs as well, several times. (“The tattoo is not the problem. The problem is the existence of social conditions that allow me to make this work. You could make this tattooed line a kilometer long, using thousands and thousands of willing people.”)
On September 11, 2002, he revealed Space Closed by Corrugated Metal at the Lisson Gallery. I would like to describe this piece, and the discussion around it, in some detail, not just because it perfectly illustrates the counterfeit subversiveness of Sierra -- and his admirers -- but because it is a pathetic, hollow echo of Chris Burden’s much subtler piece about using one’s reputation as material to address “privileged access.”
The Lisson Gallery had just undergone a remodeling; invitations were sent out announcing a grand reopening with a special installation by Sierra; the night arrived, and so did the people. I quote from the account by Stuart Jeffries of the Guardian, who is a journalist not taken in by Sierra:
The 36-year-old artist, who was born in Madrid, has already wound up the movers and shakers of Britart. Last month, a steady stream of them turned up to the opening of the £500,000 extension to the Lisson Gallery in London, expecting canapes and cocktails. Imagine their frustration at being confronted by a sheet of corrugated iron across the entrance. [Sierra:] “It was as though they were saying: Just get me inside and give me a drink. That’s what I’ve come for.” So the invitees weren’t so much frustrated at being deprived of an aesthetic experience, but angry because they couldn’t get inside for champagne and nibbles? “Obviously,” says Sierra. “I mean, there were 10 other openings in town that night. And the aesthetic experience was right in front of them. The corrugated sheet was beautifully made. They just weren’t ready to look at it.”
But these are all lies (though not by Jeffries), from beginning to end. The movers and shakers knew Sierra’s three-year reputation, and they showed up that night to see people suffer. Or if we can’t have live humans showing us what some vulnerable (and probably nonwhite) people have to do to eat the next day, then at least large photos or videos documenting such humiliation, pain, and the desperate scrabbling grab to live. There but for the grace of my trust fund go I. ($10,000, edition of six.) The art crowd didn’t give a damn about champagne and nibbles, they wanted confirmation of their superiority, and further approval of their casual sadism.
Sierra himself is lying about the aesthetic experience being right in front of them. (He is correct that the corrugated sheet is beautifully made. In the photo I saw its vertical shimmer
Before we leave Space Closed, remember that nobody got in and there was, in effect, nothing behind the metal wall. Before anyone arrived, there was nothing; during their time in front of the gallery, there was nothing; after everyone left, there was nothing but the diminishing vibrations of anger and taxicab doors slamming.(The second part of the piece, recordings of angry Argentinians banging on pots, took place elsewhere and elsewhen and so is irrelevant here.)
But in Chris Burden’s Visitation there was access; all you had to do was ask the logical person. And there was something behind the wall -- indeed, a live human being -- and more: an end in himself, nobody’s dog, and implicitly asking gently insistent questions:
Why are you here?
What makes me so special?
What was it you wanted?
What is it about you that needs me?
Why should I be anybody to you?
Twenty-eight years later, morality has evaporated and such questions could not be further from Sierra’s agenda. He says that his “project is to export to the West the political turmoil produced in the South by economic globalization.” Neat lie. There is no turmoil in his art. His people must have no minds, no mouths, no eyes; people are just breathing muscle bags. This is what he thinks and feels about his “remunerated ones:”
They are“objects that you can dispose of, paint, use, organize in different ways.”
“Persons are objects of the State and of Capital and are employed as such. This is precisely what I try to show.”
Jeffries asked him, Why treat people as objects? “This is basically something I’m taking from reality. People are used to achieve certain ends. They’re willing victims employed apparently in order to get rich. That’s absurd.”
This last is worse than a lie. It is an insult. His “willing victims” (no guilt for you, eh, Sandy?) have no illusions; they know damn well they are not going to get rich, not doing his work anyway. And though they might not know that he will get rich, he knows he has a much better chance than they do -- by using them. And yet it isn’t enough to use them, he won’t resist twisting the knife into his victims, to insult them further by ascribing to them an absurdity.
Remember him “going to bed crying” over the Cuban masturbator piece? More lies. Sierra knows full well that prostitution is state-sponsored and rampant in Cuba. What those men did was a mild break from a much harder life. Nobody said no because they are hungry and in need and they have had to do much worse for much less, and Sierra knows it. Years before, when he graduated from university, he moved to Hamburg’s red-light district (for the low rents, uh-huh) for several years, I say to lord it over the poor broken people there. This was before he discovered the vast human ocean of “material” for a Spaniard -- still viewed as conquistadores -- in Mexico.
This guy has nothing but contempt for people, including himself:
“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. As an artist I take dirty money. I’m paid to create luxury goods for art collectors. We all have dirty hands.” (Notice how he neatly implicates everyone in his scam.)
As for his vaunted anti-capitalist principles -- the public persona of someone who bites the hand that feeds him -- more lies, lies, lies and propaganda. After being chosen to represent Spain for the Venice Biennalle 2003, and being paid big money for it, he said, “Spain means nothing to me -- like any other country, it’s an ideological construction with political effects.”
Actually, Spain, like many other countries, is an incredibly strong and enduring historical effort, a geopolitical struggle, a human chain unwinding for centuries, and acres of actual nourishing soil used by millions of contending people trying to make life somehow better. This is a land of extremes, of flamenco and the Basques, of the Inquisition, the Kabbalah, and the Moors. It is a giant life with scars and it deserves respect. But Sierra cares nothing for this actual factual human history because it gets in the way of his convenient, reductive slogans, and his pseudo-radical attitude.
He has also said: “I know that I am just making art and it is too big to change, because capitalism is like the sun, it appears every day and it is impossible to stop it. But I really hate the capitalist system because it is killing people all over the world.”
Yes, he hates it so much that he flies all over Europe and the West exploiting the desperate underclass diaspora, subsidized by some rich person’s money. He has said, “My role in this game is to press my finger on the sore places and create uncomfortable situations for people who want to have fun in the gallery.” But because he has surrendered to the system he supposedly jabs -- “I make luxury objects for rich collectors” -- I think I know where his finger is. And his nose. A difficult position!
Santiago Sierra is a liar and an operator. He is about as subversive as Mark Kostabi, and as principled as the Chapman brothers; the gallerists, including Lisson, Dietch and Carlier Gebauer Berlin -- who have jumped into his frame are just as cynical and greedy as he is; and the journalists who swallow it whole -- I mean Marc Spiegler from Art News and Helen Smithson -- are probably the worst: they allow idiotic claims to stand, with no questions. For example, they don’t ask what makes Sierra different from the cruel store manager who puts human signs out on scorching street corners, or dresses someone up in a chicken suit to sell food. Sierra didn’t discover exploitation -- in his stupid phrase, “the remunerated system” -- he just uses it because he likes it.
I did find two art journalists, besides Jeffries, who have nailed this sadist before me:
In each of the works documented, the role of the artist is that of the empowered. He is the sweatshop owner, a miniature Gap prepared to force individuals to work hard at incredibly low wages, because they are in need of money. Ricardo Miranda Zuniga in the Spleen, 10/9/2000.
Sierra’s work is not symbolic, it is not simply about oppression, it is oppressive itself. Again, that hypothetical defender of Sierra’s work may say that his work does this in order not to excuse itself from the cruelties of the labor market. But why recapitulate something in order to say that it is wrong, something any moral midget can do, and instead not try to help transform those social relations? John Menick, 7/13/02
I’m going to take John Menick up on this challenge, and suggest a piece -- a gesture, really -- for Santiago Sierra that just might redeem him, though he would never take it up, but it will at least highlight just how sadistic this little shitler is.
He said, “I know that I am just making art and it [capitalism] is too big to change.” And he hates capitalism (you mean, like in Cuba and Mexico?) because “it’s killing people all over the world.”
Very well. His art-making results in documentation selling for, say, $8,000 apiece. For that amount of money, plus shipping and handling, Santiago Sierra could send two multi-purpose generators -- giant makeshift Cuisinarts -- to Mali, and liberate hundreds of people, mostly women, from lives of literally grinding physical labor, poverty, and ignorance -- simply because of lost time.
“Isn’t it wonderful?” marveled Biutou Doumbia, talking above the din of a diesel engine kicking into high gear. Balancing a baby on her back and cradling a large sack of peanuts in her arms, she approached a contraption that looks to have sprung from a Rube Goldberg blueprint -- a most unlikely weapon in this country’s war on poverty.
After paying the equivalent of 25 cents for machine time, she emptied her 15 pounds of peanuts into a funnel leading to a grinder and blender connected to another funnel, and an ooze of thick peanut butter emerged from its spout. The job was finished in 10 minutes. All that was left for Mrs. Doumbia was to scoop the peanut butter into a dozen jars and sell it on the market. Then, she said with a laugh, she might take a nap. “Before, it would take a whole day to pound and grind the peanuts by hand, and the butter wouldn’t be as fine as this.”
If you read the whole article I took this excerpt from -- and you should go now and read it all and then come back -- you will see the far-reaching implications of free time, and the incredible difference ten thousand dollars can make. Free time for oneself, for the first time in one’s life. What is more precious than time?
Here is Sierra’s implicit answer: at the 2003 Venice Biennalle, Santiago Sierra has hired a woman to sit before the brick wall -- another wall! -- he made to block access to the Spanish Pavilion. He has put a hood over this woman’s head, and she sits silently there all day. She is only free to breathe. In Mali, because of a $4,000 generator, hundreds of women are freed up to learn to read and write and start their own businesses. A single generator affects 300 people for generations. But here in the developed West, the rising art bastard Santiago Sierra manages to find a new way to humiliate, to stunt, and to silence the most vulnerable people on earth -- women. Nothing redeems this pig.
Why the art world tolerates and encourages such sadism is beyond me. To say it simply reflects the larger stupidities of Jackass and Bumfights, Fear Factor and rotten.com explains nothing, it just kicks the subject further down the street.
People like Sierra, Gillian Wearing (Drunk) and Vanessa Beecroft (almost every piece) are thug fascists, just plain mean people, hiding behind formal conventions to feed their need to humiliate others. When Bruce Nauman makes Violent Incident -- pulling chairs out from under the other, etc. -- he is using actors, playing with permutations, showing us how foolishly cruel we can be to each other by drawing it out into absurdity. But when Wearing fuels and films a frieze of real drunken people against a white backdrop, just letting them fumble and fart around, that is cruelty, and not very far from the abbatoir.
Artists who “work” on themselves, including the early Zhang Huan (65 kg. 1994) and the most recent Marina Abramovic (The House with the Ocean View, 2002) can have integrity, and respect for themselves and others. Whatever they endure, they endure themselves. They are on a journey, and the audience is a part of it, but mainly as witnesses.
Artists who “work” on others, though, like Wearing, Beecroft, and Sierra, are misanthropes, people-haters, who not only want to see others humiliated or ordered around, they want to do it themselves. For them, the audience is implicated in the whole scam by visiting and watching and buying and supporting their work. A massive sliming of mutual humiliation.
Between these two lie the questions we set aside earlier, about balancing esthetics and morality, about the dangers of removing the mediating object, and how that changes the dynamics between the artist and the audience. But the answers are simple: Morality always trumps esthetics. As for the rest: Respect the boundaries. The Golden Rule. Hands Off. Grow up. And above all: Don’t be fuckin’ with me.