Visiting Artist Profiles

Gabriel Sierra

By Brandon Brown June 26, 2012

The Visiting Artist Profile series, which highlights some of the artists, curators, and scholars who intersect with the Bay Area visual arts community through the various lecture programs produced by local institutions.


This article is part of the Visiting Artist Profile series, which highlights some of the artists, curators, and scholars that intersect with the Bay Area visual arts community through the various lecture programs produced by local institutions. Gabriel Sierra is the artist-in-residence at Kadist Art Foundation from May 19 to July 21.

Gabriel Sierra. (              ), 2012; installation view, Kadist Art Foundation, San Francisco. Courtesy of the Artist and Kadist Art Foundation, San Francisco.

One of the many allegorical lessons from Star Wars (1977) is that sometimes the most minor act of resistance can bring sovereignty to its knees. Consider the Rebel fleet: broken, defeated, and stitched together from the scraps of a war long considered over. Against the enormity of the Death Star and all it represents, the Rebels can't possibly contend. Yet perhaps the corollary lesson is that sovereignty itself, by the totality of its presentation of force, is forever blind to its own sites of vulnerability. Star Wars demonstrates that there are many forms of tactical resistance, that when facing an enemy unknowably vast and powerful, direct engagement is only one of many possible tactics.

Gabriel Sierra, born two years before Star Wars debuted, has shown work recently at the Kadist Art Foundation, the New Museum Triennial, the exhibition K at California College of the Arts, and the 12th Istanbul Biennial. Much of his work takes the form of interventions into the spaces of galleries by means of alteration, enhancement, incision, boring out, and burrowing in. Sierra transforms the architectural logic of his exhibition spaces. In order to provoke questions about the coherence of the body traversing space, his works challenge the traditional modes of sculpture, design, and architecture. Moreover, these pieces threaten the coherence of the gallery space and access a temporary and imaginative architecture.

Sierra recently completed a residency and installation at Kadist Art Foundation in San Francisco. Peering south from the Kadist’s Reading Room, a viewer can see through several rectangles cut from the gallery walls. At the horizon of sight is the suggestion of a structure, with which one engages more fully as one gets closer to the array of constructed objects at the end. Part of the pleasure, of course, is seeing what one would otherwise be forbidden to see, normally blocked by the solid wall of the gallery. This gesture suggests art as an antidote to the separation perpetuated by the conventional opacity of art exhibition spaces.

Sierra writes, “We can look at the form of an architectural space as something that questions the behavior of the human body,” suggesting that architectural space bears on the political life of those subject to it.1 Sierra is especially interested in transitions between spaces, in how we literally move from one place to another. The work at Kadist, for instance, opens the walls in such a way that it performs a translation of the building’s design. Sierra’s series of Structures for Transition concentrate

 

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NOTES:

1. Ruba Katrib, “Customized,” Mousse 28 (April 2011): 103.

2. New Museum, “The Ungovernables, 2012 New Museum Triennial,” http://www.newmuseum.org/exhibitions/448.

3. Katrib, "Customized," 104.

on what some might say are a building’s least memorable but functionally critical places, the places and passages in-between.

Sierra’s concentration on transitional space is facilitated by his architectural interventions. Such interventions, aimed at reorganizing the viewer’s environment and sense of self within a space, are well-known tropes in modern and postmodern art. And as a result, Sierra’s work could be neatly construed in a tradition of architectural cutters and splicers—artists whose works are familiarly understood to challenge normative modes of functionality in order to produce (often utopian) uncanny topographies. But unlike duo Arakawa and Gins’s reversible destiny houses or Gordon Matta-Clark’s monumental incisions into houses and buildings, Sierra’s architectural pieces almost all take place in one kind of space: the art gallery. 

Admittedly, one might be tempted to depreciate Sierra’s intervention based on the particularity of the site. The curatorial statement for the New Museum Triennial reads, “‘The Ungovernables’ is meant to suggest both anarchic and organized resistance: protest, chaos, and imagination as a refusal of the extended period of economic, ideological, sectarian, and political conflict that marks the generation’s inheritance.”2 One might read this sentence with a fair sense of skepticism. That is, despite the complex and rigorous theoretical apparatus that has unpacked and repacked the relationship between politics and aesthetics in the past forty years, the strong claims that protest and chaos are emerging inside an institution like the New Museum might seem extravagant to some.

I read Sierra’s work, however, as enacting within a very deliberate choice of sites. In some ways, the gallery is one of the most familiar, stable sites of capitalist activity. The popular imagination supposes that the gallery contains creative works that challenge, inspire, and address difficult questions, political or otherwise. But the very consistence of those sorts of activities resembles the fantasy of a placid, static economy. You don’t know what you will encounter when you enter the gallery, but you know one thing for certain, which is that art will be there. Considering that artworks are some of the most stable commodities of exchange in contemporary capitalism, the art gallery is like a more dependable bank. 

In interviews, Sierra describes the purpose of his work as dealing with the “specificity of place” and the “problem of how we organize our lives between the concepts of space and time.”3 Why not start, then, with the gallery: a place, to reiterate, as much about status quo and hegemonic reification as it is about the uncanny and unpredictable? Sierra’s work is grand in its investigations of illusion and revelation, and of reorganization and destruction, in the name of utopian renewal—but these dramas are undertaken not in the city plaza but in the commercial zone known as the art gallery. 

In this way, a piece like the one on view at Kadist invites its viewers to witness a transformative act that is precisely minor. It is minor but is conceivably perpetual and possibly disruptive of political spaces outside of the space of exhibition. Embodying resistance on the molecular level, its purpose is to infect strategies of everyday life by paradoxically confining itself to the endlessly whitewashed, safe space of the art gallery. That is, the work suggests that the minor itself has a viral efficacy, like Luke Skywalker’s little ship hurtling through space, dodging laser beams, looking for that little crevasse by which the whole fucking thing falls.

Gabriel Sierra. Untitled (the devil in the shape of a ladder), 2012; ladder, wood, plaster, paint. Courtesy of the Artist

 

The Visiting Artist Profile series is supported by the San Francisco branch of the Kadist Art Foundation. Kadist participates in the development of society through contemporary art by collecting and producing the work of artists and conducting various programs to promote their role as cultural agents. The foundation also supports the work of curators, academics, and magazines internationally through its residency program and by hosting public events on Wednesdays and a Saturday Reading Room at its space at 3295 20th Street in the Mission.

 

 

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