Santiago Sierra – Destroyed Word, Te Tuhi, 9 March – 14 July

I recently checked out the Santiago Sierra work, Destroyed Word, at Te Tuhi in Pakuranga. On the Saturday morning the centre was bustling with locals poring over a large collection of sea shells, a show by Bepen Bhana was standing waiting in anticipation for its 1pm opening, and plenty of refreshments were being consumed at the surprisingly well-appointed café.

I spent a moment or two watching a short video of Søren Dahlgaard and Mark Harvey do battle in cardboard armour – a wonderful display of paint-splattered play. Gaphoomph was an interesting investigation into how far playing the fool can be considered acceptable both within the confines of what constitutes an art work as well as in terms of the limits of the Te Tuhi foyer – whether they would get paint all over the carpet and the spectators a palpable tension.

I then delved into the darkness to see Sierra’s work. Destroyed Word consisted of a ten channel video installation featuring the dramatic destruction of the ten letters spelling KAPITALISM. Filmed in ten different countries, each giant letter was constructed of something significant to the economy of the nation.

The ten vertical videos displayed a wide variety of materials making the letter and an equally wide variety of ways and means to destroy them. Of the most violent, we were subjected to: wood and plasterboard bashed to smithereens with sledge hammers in France; letters in foam and in wood cut to pieces with chain saws in Germany and Austria; concrete toppled by demolition machines in Sweden; and an A-shaped tower displaying two-litre bottles of milk (see-through plastic in the light – oh dear!) shot to bits in New Zealand (Te Tuhi commissioned by Sierra to stage this).

I was initially engaged in the work – it was quite intriguing to watch how long it might take and how the destruction would be wrought. The films were shot from a single front-on camera angle over varying lengths of time. All shot in black and white the ten films had a uniformity which made it difficult to recognise that they were shot in such a variety of countries. One would expect that the light in the Indian one would be very different from one in, say, Holland.

While I applaud any artist brave enough to make truly bold statements, I do question some of Sierra’s motivation to shock, with many of his past projects overstepping the line of what some people find acceptable(1). He does get a lot of attention for this and I wonder if that is what primarily drives his practice. Although not shocking, Destroyed Word is in keeping with his now long-standing practice of using the underprivileged to perform menial tasks to expose and comment on the exploitative practice of the corporate world. Sierra employs ‘ordinary people’, paying them in the manner of the capitalistic world that he critiques, to enact the destruction.

Perhaps the title should have been Destroyed World, the artist’s ironic message of the havoc wreaked by capitalism clearly evident. I could stand only so much before I started to feel that I was witnessing some sort of male annihilation fantasy. Indeed in all but the film where he lets pigs loose on a giant pig food ‘S’, the violence against ‘Kapitalism’ was enacted by men. I wonder why the artist did not think to include some women as the corporate greed machine surely subjugates them often even more harshly and they too would want to take their revenge.

Most problematic for me was the film shot in Papua New Guinea where two bare-chested svelte locals perform an exacting task of chopping down the ‘I’ with axes. It felt uncomfortably tokenistic next to the other nine films. I have read that none of the protagonists was told that their letter was part of a larger word or what that word was. But one wonders whether these chaps were even told that their totemic ‘I’ was even a letter.

While it is easy to be seduced by a work by an artist as well-recognised as Sierra when he includes little old New Zealand, I think that this work could have gone further, as many of his other works have, in its critique of capitalism.

PJ MacBridges – May 2013

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Endnote
(1) In 2006, Sierra provoked controversy from the German Jewish community with his installation near Cologne, 245 cubic metres, a make-shift gas chamber which he filled with exhaust fumes from vehicles parked outside. In 2008 Los Penetrados, a 45-minute video piece, consisted of eight acts showing different couples having anal sex.

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