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The title 7 forms measuring 600 x 60 x 60cm, constructed to be held horizontal to a wall seems a spare, if adequate, description of the project presented by artist Santiago Sierra at Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA). What isn’t captured in the title is the element that moves this work (and I use the term advisedly) from the arid realm of the purely conceptual to another area entirely—one that creates a vivid and stimulating collision of ideas, form, and presence.
For the duration of the project a team of people are paid minimum wages to shoulder the seven monumental six-metre black, beam-like forms. On the day I visit I see two young women quietly whisper to each other around the beam they hold. Others stare straight ahead or listen to iPods. Facing resolutely away from their audience toward a blank wall, some rest their heads against the forms or support them with their hands as they adjust the foam pads that cushion their shoulders. The same foam pads that are used under artworks while they rest on the floor, propped against the wall, just before they are installed.
Work and relationships tend to be two things that cause people the most everyday angst. And, like its two previous iterations in New York and Zurich, 7 forms elegantly reveals a number of often unseen relationships that serve to support the work. Most obviously, the use of paid labour to present the project raises questions around what the artist has termed ‘the remunerated system’. Given that it is the first time the work had been created in Australia, it is tempting to speculate on what it might reveal about Australia’s social and economic systems based on the types of people who were recruited.
Yet I notice a reluctance in myself to engage with the work in this way. To even use the designation ‘worker’ rather than ‘person’ seems uncomfortable. Noticing this, I have an urge to see how permeable the boundaries implicit in the work might actually be. Envisaging the possibility of creating an encounter between two people rather than the ‘viewer’ (who has the time to leisurely explore the gallery) and the ‘worker’ (who bears as much as the system loads them with) that the work seems to demand, I surreptitiously have a chat with one of the people supporting the forms. ‘Are you allowed to talk to me?’ He replies (in a bright English accent) that he really shouldn’t because he is working. ‘Is it heavy?’ I ask. He says that it isn’t. At this point it is apparent to me that my interest in speaking with him is driven by a desire to in some way resolve the social demarcation alluded to earlier, this separation between ‘worker’ which evokes not only ideas of capitalist exploitation, but also the heroic images promoted by socialism, and of ‘viewer’, the leisured audience for whom the work is made. Yet it is the little ruptures in whatever system is referenced that serve to delight in this work. Simply looking at the number of mothers pushing prams through the gallery (are they worker or viewer?) makes the real complexity of these relationships clear, while no less problematic.
References to Minimalist sculpture are also playfully disrupted. In previous works Sierra has used pre-existing manufacturing forms such as shipping containers to reference minimalist shapes. Here we find that the beams are not precisely horizontal—they are all slightly different heights due to size variations in the people supporting them. This slightly off-kilter repetition lends a feeling of heaviness to the work, a heaviness which is then paired with its polar opposite, a tongue in cheek humour, which becomes apparent as the fear of collapse, like that which is inherent in the experience of a Richard Serra sculpture, is directly addressed by people physically holding the work up.
Minimalist sculpture emerged as a reaction against self-expression. On the day I visit GoMA one woman is wearing an improbable pair of high heels for her shift. Unconsciously defying the ‘mood’ of the work (the artist routinely photographs his works in sombre black and white) these festive shoes seem in some way to encompass the intersection between the formal sculptural elements and the messy figuralism of real people, with all their physical differences, their need to move and capacity for interaction and self-expression.
Sierra speaks about ‘dirty paper’ and ‘white paper’, where ‘white paper’ is the conceptual equivalent to a blank canvas. Not surprisingly he expressed a preference for using ‘dirty paper’ in his practice. Like a chemist putting reagents into an existing system, generating a chemical reaction, the elements at play in 7 forms are held in an interesting and intimate tension that brings with it a sense of vibrant energy. This makes for a richly satisfying piece, dense with meaning and connotation. Highlighting both our interdependence and the relationships that surround us, questions such as ‘what supports us?’ and ‘what loads do we bear?’ continue to resonate weeks after encountering the work. And if we follow this line of inquiry further it inevitably leads to the fundamental existential questions that we all grapple with. As I leave the gallery I look back to see one man raise his arms to adjust the weight on his shoulders. In that moment he resembles nothing so much as a pallbearer.