An artistic solution

Published: Tuesday 15 January 2008

santiago sierra's artwork, currently showing at Lisson Gallery in London, can safely be called revolutionary. Exhibits consisting of rectangular solid blocks neatly organized on the gallery floor may not draw attention until the viewer gets to know the material used to make them. The Spanish artist, known for challenging power structures, picked up human waste from New Delhi and Jaipur, and processed it for three years to produce his art (see pp 44-45). These blocks can also be used to make furniture, door panels and other utility products.

Far away from the London gallery in Bell Street, where connoisseurs contemplate these blocks in awe, more than two billion people in the world are in constant search for some place to relieve themselves everyday. Absence of toilets has taken a serious toll on the well-being of a majority of people in the low-income and developing world in the form of disease and social problems like high school drop-out rates among girls (see p 58). While the global bureaucrats say the Millenium Development Goal (mdg) for water is on track, achieving this for sanitation has turned out to be a Sisyphean task. Over the last decade, canny entrepreneurs have developed various business models for water. With believers in the 'market' in positions of power and an effective rhetoric of public-private partnership, efforts and investment in water supply have been getting priority. But the current water supply spread will not be sustainable without an extended and effective sanitation coverage. The problem remains that we do not have any 'business model' with human waste.

Sierra's art, though probably intended to comment on the lives of toilet cleaners, seems to be pointing in the right direction. Suddenly, human waste has a purpose, it can be recycled. Appropriate management of sanitation can help boost local economies through proper collection and processing of the excreta of billions to be turned into solid blocks. Lisson has done a brilliant job by putting these blocks in front of fashionable London art buyers; excreta now has social acceptability. It can replace a lot of wood and plastic.

Apart from being sanitized, the recycled material ceases to stink. Just one idea: these blocks can be sold with various fragrances. Just imagine a door made of recycled human waste with lavender fragrance.

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