Wednesday, 23 January 2008

From Shaman to Showroom

Discussion of the Santiago Sierra exhibition at The Lisson has predictably centred on the slabs of shit he has installed there. But it’s a relatively big show, and it was another piece that stayed with me. Documenting a recent installation in Venezuela, a large photograph shows four gleaming SUVs parked with engines running in a small space overlooking Caracas. Long black concertina-like tubes conduct the exhaust fumes out of the pristine space and into the city’s already polluted air, and here they are coiled on the floor of the Lisson, like the carapaces of giant centipedes, alongside bits and pieces of the packaging they came in.

Apparently in its ecological concerns Four Black Vehicles with the Engine Running Inside an Art Gallery alludes to Gustav Metzger’s Project Stockholm of 1972. I immediately thought, however, of Yannis Kounellis’s Dodici Cavalli Livi of 1967, when the Greek artist led twelve horses into the immaculate white spaces of L’Attico gallery in Rome. To an extent Kounellis was building on Joseph Beuy’s 1965 How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare (above)

Six years after Cavalli, Beuys closed the circle when he spent 24 hours locked in a New York loft communing with a coyote (above).

I’ve only ever seen photographs of the Kounellis piece (above), but one can imagine its profound sensory charge and the sheer presence these powerful animals must have had in the exhibition space: the sharp percussion of hooves on tile, the pacing and snorting, the reek of dung, piss, sweat and fresh straw, all offset and intensified by the environs. One can equally imagine the affective impact of Sierra’s version, the heat that must have been generated in that small gallery, the ground bass of the four reverberating engines setting up micro- tremors in walls and floor (below).

What interests me is the distance between Sierra today and Kounellis and Beuys in the 60s and 70s. The latter two attempt to re-enchant the sequestered chill of the gallery space by forcing an encounter with the materialism of the natural world which it excludes. In this they display a vestigial faith in the gallery system that now seems quaint. Their fundamental gesture is one which obeys a logic of transgression that was looking tired even in the 1960s: a wager on the existence of a pure outside that is intrinsically resistant to being co-opted by the cash nexus, and can therefore be recruited to undermine or redeem it.

Sierra's installation suggests the opposite route, forcing the issue through a complete identification with the rapacious marketeering of the commercial gallery system. So what we get instead of Kounellis’s musky neo-classical tableau is a dead-eyed Ballardian fetishism of contoured metal and gleaming chrome. Rather than romantically renewing the space with the vitality of the natural, and despite Sierra's tiresome radical shtick in his other works, the presence in the gallery of these four quivering hulks implies that Capital has no exterior which can be mobilized against it. The itinerary then: from Kounellis to Sierra; from horse to horsepower; from shaman to showroom.

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