Mexico City is not one of those places where fresh air is invisible. Rare is the day when, from the city’s centre, you can clearly see the mountains arising on its outskirts. A sickly curtain of pollutants hangs between them, woven of countless contaminates: ozone, sulphur dioxide, carbon monoxide, a quantity of airborne faecal matter exceeding the acceptable rate by 50 percent. Madrid-based artist Santiago Sierra’s current show at LABOR, ‘52 Canvases Exposed to Mexico City’s Air’, has drawn this air down from the sky and fixed its impurities to canvas, allowing us to visualize the toxicity of contemporary urban life. In doing so, his piece diverges from previous tendencies in his practice as a direct and visceral document of capitalism’s effect on the environment.
Over the past three decades, Sierra’s work has sought to replicate capitalist labour relations in art-world contexts to underscore their dehumanizing effects. For a 1999 project in Cuba, he hired six unemployed young men to have a single 250cm line tattooed across their backs. In 2000, he paid a museum guard to live behind a wall at MoMA PS1, New York for 365 days. Sierra has caricatured exploitation not in order to needle wage-laborers for their powerlessness, but to condemn the inhumane willingness of those in power to exploit it – and society’s acceptance of such lopsided transactions.
At LABOR, Sierra has focused his critique on more ethereal power relations. To produce ‘52 Canvases’, the artist mounted adhesive-lacquered canvases around Mexico City – named the most polluted megacity by the World Health Organization in 1992 – and allowed the air to settle upon their surfaces. Every week for a year, he dismounted a single canvas, commissioning a conservator to permanently fix its sedimented filth. The result is a disturbing time-lapse of noxious accumulation, from week one’s off-white to the shaggy dun of week 52. Sampling these materials in a laboratory, the artist found they contained heavy metal particulates and bacteria responsible for hundreds of illnesses, ranging from conjunctivitis and the flu to respiratory and skin complications.
Following these durations of exposure, the canvases are arranged in an austere gradient from lightest to darkest. From afar, they generate a minimalist, almost spiritual atmosphere. Up close, however, their surfaces of muck and stray hairs become repellent agents of contagion amidst the clean, whitewashed gallery. Considered abstractly, some of Sierra’s textures evoke the lyrical, wind-swept vapours in paintings by Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo. Yet this beauty is entirely incidental, sardonic, like that of rainbows on the surface of oil slicks, or sunsets whose colours are intensified by pollution. The show’s effect is revealingly claustrophobic: our repulsion towards the work quickly turns our attention inward, towards our lungs, covered in the very same grime.
‘52 Canvases’ is convincing evidence of humanity’s destruction of the natural environment and, in turn, the urban environment’s violence toward its makers. Without depending on the same replications of human-on-human cruelty as in his earlier works, here Sierra employs art as direct evidence of environmental degradation, like a biopsy of Mexico City’s blackened lung. With his plain presentation of fact, he turns our attention toward the systems of power responsible for those conditions, making us see anew the air – and the policies – that day by day contaminate our bodies and our souls.
Santiago Sierra, ‘52 Canvases Exposed to Mexico City’s Air’ continues at LABOR, Mexico City, Mexico, through January 2020.
Main image: Santiago Sierra, ‘52 lienzos expuestos al aire de la Ciudad de México’ (52 Canvases Exposed to Mexico City’s Air), 2019, exhibition view. Courtesy: the artist and LABOR; photograph: Ramiro Chávez
Kit Schluter is a writer and translator based in Mexico City. His collection of stories and illustrations, 5 Cartoons, was recently translated into Spanish by poet Mariana Rodriguez and published bilingually by Juan Malasuerte Editores in Mexico City, where he lives.