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Last Saturday, I took the subway up to the United Nations building to hunt down a flatbed truck carrying giant black letters spelling the word NO — an artwork by Mexico City-based provocateur Santiago Sierra. “NO” is spreading its terse proclamation of dissent throughout the Western world at the moment with a one-day stopover in New York (as part of Performa 09) after stops all over Europe. It heads south next week for Art Basel Miami.
Sierra had arranged for a film crew to document “NO,” and I rode with them for the afternoon, observing the truck on its planned route around Manhattan. We set up across the street from the UN building, which looked stark and pearly in the setting sun. “NO” drove in front of the building very slowly (high security prevents parking) and the cameraman got some great pans of our global center of negotiation and diplomacy suddenly looking negated.
A few people walking by noticed the truck too, but they were notably charmed by the big letters. One mother said to her child “It’s like Sesame Street!” So much for political outrage.
Our next stop was on 44th Street near Times Square, where the National Debt Clock is located. Installed on the side of a building, the billboard-sized digital clock has tracked our rising national debt since 1989. The truck found a great parking space just below the Clock and we spent about half an hour there watching the numbers zoom upwards, while tourists posed for photos with the giant word. The Clock is currently at over 14 trillion dollars, and climbing by ten thousand dollars every second or so. Last September our debt broke $10 trillion, which the clock had not been equipped to display; it was modified to represent our shameful 14-digit burden. “NO,” says the truck, “N-O.”
Being near Times Square was also the perfect position for the word NO to hover between the skyrocketing debt behind it, and in the foreground, hordes of tourists loaded down with shopping bags. “NO!” I thought, “no one needs anything from the M&M store! Look at the clock!” This truck was getting to me.
Sierra describes his project with the following:
“NO expresses a response to the universally recognizable imposition. NO is the clearest exercise of the right to dissent before reality as a whole, its chaos, its future…”
I liked the idea that the entire realm of dissent could be distilled down to this single syllable. As Ghandi put it, “noncooperation with evil is as much a duty as cooperation with good.” In other words, the end of complacency and the beginning of revolution begins with NO.
The truck’s next stop was in Chelsea, where there’s a lot to say no to. Yet, it seemed as though by going to Chelsea (and by going to Miami during Art Basel) the project lost some momentum. A lot of politically-oriented artworks tend to migrate back toward an art audience in order to get recognition, which is unfortunate because there are few audiences as politically monocultural. While they attempt to validate themselves as artworks, their impact fizzles.
We parked for a few minutes in front of the X Initiative, where I got to run through their new shows. On the top floor exhibit of Hans Haacke’s work, there is a large photograph of a bent beggar woman extending an outstretched hand in front of a huge white luxury yacht. The title of the work said it was taken during the opening days of the 2009 Venice Biennale. Satire and glaring inequality can make great photographs, but what was it doing here on display for an audience that probably wants to be on the A-list of that yacht, drinking champagne and discussing some great Santiago Sierra exhibit they just saw in Gothenburg? Something in me said NO, and wondered.