Social issues are explored with all manner of approaches by a wide range of artists. It is a subject of much importance and endless debate. Santiago Sierra’s controversial work sparks strong reactions of anger and offense whilst others such as Rikrit Tiravanit use more subtle ways to address issues. This article looks at some of those who go beyond audiences’ expectations and shock thresholds to deliver some truly thought provoking and outrageous works.
A huge part of contemporary art practice concerns itself with social change. Many argue that the purpose of art is to engage people with such issues. Joseph Beuys term social sculpture views the whole of society as an artwork, to which all members can contribute. Beuys believed that art has the potential to transform society;
‘Art is the only political power, the only revolutionary power, the only evolutionary power, the only power to free humankind form all repression’. (Beuys, 1973)
Santiago Sierra’s work has criticized the institution of art. His work seemingly aims to expose capitalism by strongly critiquing its corporations’ unjust methods of production, confronting the audience by highlighting poor, unfair labour conditions and the extremities workers will endure by reproducing these same exploitative conditions, inflicted in the name of art. He has often employed underprivileged workers, prostitutes and drug addicts to perform pointless and laborious tasks, paying them the minimum amount possible to do so. He implicates the audience and attacks the desensitised numbness of the consumer who accepts the inevitable crimes that must take place in order for them to buy their commodity.
8 people paid to remain inside cardboard boxes would appear to unsuspecting audiences at first glance as minimalist sculptures, unaware of the excruciating labour, to which it refers. The worker here is put in a position of shame in which they have undignified conditions imposed upon them with no control over the work.
Sierra is criticised for always inflicting these conditions on others and not himself, however, considering his work aims to imitate the capitalist system, perhaps his role in this is to be the very system he excoriates. This reaction is not unexpected by the artist – when you put your name on the work it seems that you’re held responsible for the capitalist system itself.’ (Sierra 2004).
More recently, the Russian artist Petr Pavlensky is using his body as a performative means of highly political activism to oppose conditions implemented by the state, responding to escalating laws suppressing activism and banning the promotion of homosexuality
He was catapulted into the international public eye in 2013 after nailing his scrotum to the cobblestones in the Red Square, Moscow. After undressing and affixing himself, he continued to stare vacantly at his injury in the freezing temperatures. This figure represented someone of apathetic, disempowered political indifference. Pavlensky previously received attention by sewing his mouth shut in 2012 whilst holding a sign reading ‘Action of Pussy Riot was a replica of the famous action of Jesus Christ’. This form of silent protest is usually a passive statement, reaching people through the visual rather than volume but with the addition of self mutilation comes an aggressive passion and the spectacle is difficult to ignore.
Mutilating his body as a metaphor for the condition of the social body is performative but imposing himself on public places is an installation that the audience has no choice but to passively consume, and the police have to choice to participate in, perhaps even unwillingly collaborate in, adding a depth to the work.
Addressing social issues through participation is the underlying concept of Paul Harfleets Pansy Project, an installation based series of works as a reaction to homophobic abuse. The project was a response to daily abuse in the streets, in a country considering itself to be accepting of homosexuality and diversity.
Placing flowers is a ritual upheld to communicate an accident or tragic event. Harfleet used this tool to mark the damaging seriousness of abuse. With the pansy carrying the weight of the insult directed at effeminate men and using it as an instrument, it is a universal signal for passersby. Stark titles such as Fucking Faggot! add a jarring and sobering context to the seemingly delicate act and associated sorrow of planting flowers, exuding confrontation.
The criticism of many of these bold works is the element of shock tactic. It is critiqued as a shallow tool used to attract attention, but to truly consider this as a criticism one must ask if it is effective. If the aim of these works is to bring about social change, this strategy does indeed utilise shock to reach its intended audience; the large general public who can enable the change it seeks. In a climate where art is so entrenched in politics and social engagement, it is often discussed whether it is the responsibility of artists to address social issues. Petr Pavlensky himself believes “an artist has no right not to take a stand”, but in many cases, whether an artist accepts responsibility or not, there comes a point when their works’ impact on society may well be out of their hands.