Santiago Sierra, a Spanish artist who regularly invites controversy with his provocative pieces, designed the mud-drenched runway for Balenciaga’s Paris Fashion Week show this past weekend.
That show earned plaudits from critics such as the New York Times’s Vanessa Friedman, who reported in her review of it that Sierra had utilized 275 cubic meters of mud that he had trucked in from a French peat bog. Demna, the designer at the helm of Balenciaga, said the set was meant to be about “digging for the truth and being down in the earth.”
“While his couture has become his experiment with Balenciaga’s legacy, the ready-to-wear has become his means of social commentary,” Friedman wrote. “It isn’t pretty out there. His mud club wasn’t either.”
Among that mud club’s attendees was the rapper Ye, who trotted through the mud wearing a bulky all-black outfit that included a mouth guard emblazoned with the Balenciaga logo and leather pants. Other bizarre offerings included a gigantic bag with an opening big enough to slide your arm through it and a bodice matched with underwear whose hem was printed with the fashion house’s name.
The Sierra set seemed to suggest that, even during times of conflict, beauty and innovation were possible. But Balenciaga’s war-zone-chic aesthetic seemed to divide online observers, with some quipping that it was merely a test of what some were willing to tolerate.
“Balenciaga is a social experiment that has gone for way too long,” wrote one Twitter user named kira, whose post has received 20,000 likes.
Sierra’s involvement also seemed to irk some members of the art world on social media. When Neue Nationalgalerie director Klaus Biesenbach sang Sierra’s praises on Instagram (“make love not war – SIGN OF THE TIMES,” he wrote), he received a barrage of comments disputing this positive assessment.
“‘Make love, not war’? By fronting the show with one of the world’s most aggro narcissists, a literal trump supporter dressed in fascist SWAT gear?” wrote dealer Robbie Fitzpatrick in response.
“The machinary of neoliberal globalism is working perfectly,” dealer Stefan Simchowitz wrote. “Consume everything in its path and use it to sell sell sell. Like a hurricane, it will consume anything and everything in its path. I prefer the cold war Balenciega of the 1950’s.”
A range of comments on Biesenbach’s Instagram also raised repeated allegations that Sierra exploits Indigenous people. These accusations stem from a controversy that raged last year, when, for the Dark Mofo festival in Australia, Santiago sought the blood of First Nations members. He had intended to soak a Union Jack flag in the blood, as a comment, he said, on British colonialism. Dark Mofo pulled the work as the outcry grew in scale.
It was not the first Sierra work to trigger an intense response. In 2018, a work called Contemporary Spanish Political Prisoners that featured blurred images of jailed Catalans was pulled from the Arco Madrid fair in Spain, allegedly because it took away from the “visibility” of other pieces on view. And in 2006, he enraged some members of the Jewish community in Germany by linking the exhaust pipes of cars to a temple in the town of Pulhein, effectively turning the synagogue into a “gas chamber.” Eventually, that work was also pulled from view.