Santiago Sierra’s third solo exhibition at Team Gallery, Veterans, displays nine photographs of war veterans standing in corners. All that is visible are the backs of their bodies; their hands are clasped either behind or in front of them. Some are in uniform, and some are not. Some are accessorized, wearing for example, a watch or cowboy hat. One veteran in particular stands in plain clothes holding a cane, signifying a possible combat wound.
In Veterans, the concept of retrospection, not only in terms of combat, but also in terms of showing the hindside of the body, reveals an acute relevance to the Art21 Blog’s current theme, hindsight. Then, there is the relevance of these bodies to this column: Sierra’s photographs are documents of performances.
For the past two years, Sierra has solicited veterans living in the cities where his shows are located to pose for thirty minutes in the corners of galleries and museums. As is the customary exchange, Sierra remunerated the veterans with an amount equivalent to their wages as soldiers.
The exhibition both serves and negates performance as the experience of live bodies in front of an audience. By way of virtual bodies, as seen in photographs and thus as records of memory, Veterans disturbs the idea of performance as a live act. A double hindsight reveals itself in the performance-document; the first is from the perspective of the viewer looking at the veterans’ backs, and the second is from the perspective of the veterans. Although the viewer cannot know where the veterans’ gazes are directed, it is possible to imagine that they are not looking at the floor or the wall but inward, remembering their experiences of war.
Team Gallery’s press release describes the veterans’ positions as both an enactment of “children’s punishment” and “silent protest.” One word that came to my mind was “refusal”—a refusal to face the world and uphold an image of patriotism. These portraits are unattached to notions of triumph or failure that we read through media. The veterans’ postures do not indicate their attitudes about their actions in war or what the outcomes of those actions may have been. They are merely working for Sierra, doing what they are told, and then walking away.
Given the way these veterans are positioned, it is not possible to formulate a value judgment or message about war, nor can we glean Sierra’s perspective on these issues. Although Veterans connects to the artist’s past works on labor and performance, such as Hiring and Arrangement of 30 Workers In Relation To Skin Color (2002) and Group of Persons Facing The Wall and Person Facing Into A Corner (2002/2008), the realities of his current subjects point to something different. What is shown and simultaneously not shown here are the veterans’ beliefs and principles. We do not know if these beliefs carried them into combat, helped them get through it, or failed them; or if those principles remain or have since collapsed. As in much of Sierra’s work, the viewer is confronted with human survival, wherein human or inhuman behavior becomes harder to define. Veterans collapses this binary further, daring the viewer to take a position.
Veterans is on view at Team Gallery in New York City through May 25, 2013.