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In 2007, Santiago Sierra launched his new art product to the world, within the framework of Proyecto Juárez, an initiative for “public art that breaches local frontiers and infiltrates international circuits”. It was titled “Sumisión” (Submission), although originally it was to be called “Palabra de Fuego” (Word of Fire). It consisted of the word being excavated on a hill and filled with fuel that would then be set on fire to activate it. The ruckus began when Sierra denounced the censorship of the authorities, when they prohibited him from lighting it. So the title was also transformed to coincide with the word that had been excavated. Formed by letters that were 15 metres tall, it was situated in Anapra, one of the poorest zones of the city, beside the frontier with United States that radically separates Ciudad Juárez from El Paso, Texas. Close to Anapra have also appeared some of the sadly infamous deaths of Ciudad Juárez, the female victims of serial murders that are still unresolved.
The context can be understood perfectly. But which submission is Sierra talking about? That of the authorities, to the murderers? That of the inhabitants, to drug trafficking and crime? The businessmen in the face of the cartels? The victims, to their murderers? Is it an accusation, a statement or a proposition?
The ambiguity of the word, its melange of political discourse and lack of any clear message in its textual meaning, its magnitude and monumentality, and of course, the grace of the censorship, made this piece a political art hit on the international circuits. Because it had the courtesy of leaving the spectator in a space of reflection, because it didn’t give any direct answers nor ask any specific questions. The type of work that can travel from Hong Kong to New York, committed ergo censored (what a scandal!).
But in Ciudad Juárez the interpretation of the piece is very different. In the first place the word ends up being offensive to collectives, activists, associations and inhabitants in general (all groups with whom Sierra did not seek to join forces) that endure the gambit of a degraded and violent situation, often putting their lives at risk solely to vindicate basic human rights. They don’t feel submissive nor do they believe the victims were. And of course they consider the political classes to be accomplices more than submissive. And despite recognising the complexity of the situation, none of them has any doubt that asking specific questions and giving blunt answers is vital.
What is more, one asks oneself what are we talking about when we talk about contextual or public art in this piece. It’s true the word was excavated in Juárez. But it wasn’t for any local benefit that the money was dedicated to this production, in a context where practically all the artistic agents scratch themselves with their own nails, working for the love of art; in a city of 1.300.000 inhabitants that has only one art museum. “Sumisión” was produced, but never presented, in Juárez, images of it are sold in galleries that are by no means public, circulating in international networks that have nothing contextual about them. Ciudad Juárez is not a context, so much as a subject that the artist uses to his own benefit, a place for production that brings only profits: as occurs with the maquiladora industries, responsible for a large part of the situation. Just as it benefited from the accusation of censorship when the reality was that Proyecto Juárez didn’t take the necessary security precautions and the fire brigade told them that under these circumstances it would be impossible for them to control a fire provoked in the desert (now that is context).
I’m not the only one who shows a certain scepticism about the proposals of Santiago Sierra, but in this case, what concerns me is the ease with which in international art circles we assume supposedly political discourses, that are decontextualized, of which we know nothing more than what the artist statement wants to tell us. How easy it is to become engaged in the cocktail of the biennale of the moment. How easy it is to look at others, saying that we don’t judge, hiding behind the idea that the works are open in meaning, coming to superficial conclusions that we circulate at the next cocktail, the next biennale or the next gallery.
"A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world" (John Le Carré)