Santiago Sierra (Madrid, 1966) is one of the most controversial artists in the international art scene. He has become famous for his critique of the contractual economy through a series of remunerated actions where people – typically immigrants, casual workers, or even homeless wanderers – are paid to perform some pointless task which is then documented on video and through black-and-white photographs. Poor people and minorities are Sierra’s art supplies.
He has them perform some of the most, humiliating and dangerous tasks. Example of these “performances” are Falling walls that are sustained by 5 Mexicans, Cubans youths who are tattooed with an ugly 250 cm line across their backs, and immigrants who are asked to sit in boxes for four hours. By designing such intentionally pointless “jobs,” Sierra highlights the disjunction between such workers and their work, showing labor as an imposed condition rather than a choice one makes. The remunerated worker doesn’t care if you tell him to clean the room or make it dirtier,” Sierra remarks. “As long as you pay him, it’s exactly the same. The relationship to work is based only upon money. ” Sierra’s work is itself sometimes accused of being exploitative and of careerism masquerading as a mission. His art performances has also been seen as an attack on capitalism in general and the art world in particular, as irritant, as analysis.
The participants in his pieces of art are always paid the local minimum wage, while Sierra’s documentation of the event can generate substantial financial gain both for the artist and the galleries that represents him. His work, involving social or political structures, is intended to question established power relations, in the realm of art as well as society at large. In his works he directly questions viewers regarding the limits imposed by contemporary capitalist globalized society through themes of significant political and social connotations such as worker exploitation and marginalization.
These and other pieces, in which senseless labor is hired to provide evidence of the conditions of work in the third world and of immigrants’ work within the first supposedly force the viewer to acknowledge the impact of globalization, taking the logic of late capitalism to an untenable extreme. Sierra himself has compared his work to 1970s performance art, to (in Sierra’s words) “the physically hard, almost Sisyphean labors of Marina Abramovic and Ulay, who carried endless buckets of stones in a 1978 performance.
But Lifted Out Wall takes the idea one step further, because the work is performed by paid employees” . Sierra could have represented the suffering and exploitation of underpaid laborers, the victims of global capitalism, by painting them, sculpting them or even made a film about them; but instead, he chooses to brand them with a tattooed line to show that there are people willing to volunteer for such humiliation for what little money he offers them. Example of that is his piece of art “160 Cm Line Tattooed On 4 People”. In Sierra’s words, “The tattoo is not the problem.
The problem is the existence of social conditions that allow me to make this work. You could make this tattooed line a kilometer long, using thousands of willing people””. Sierra’s work has not always been so controversial. In one opportunity he had a good time being senselessly aggressive, by paying a truck driver to block one of the busiest freeways in Mexico City, by positioning his white trailer across the road, thus generating not only a massive traffic jam, but also the ultimate minimalist industrial object. Once in a while, if not simply once, Sierra transcends his own offensiveness.
For his project at PS1 two years ago, “Person Remunerated for a Period of 360 Consecutive Hours,” he paid a guard of a Hispanic background at the museum to sit in isolation behind a walled-off portion of the gallery. The individual was permitted to bring anything he wanted into his new “cage”, and he was able to spend his somewhat free time eating, and drinking through a narrow opening at the base of the wall. Perhaps, staying away from everyday duties, might not be such a bad thing, especially since he was getting paid $10 per hour.
Santiago Sierra artistic politics is brutality, and on times sadist. True, wage slavery partakes in its share of both, especially when a plentiful pool of immigrant labor is available, though that still says little about Sierra’s own processes. Sierra’s work is not symbolic or about oppression, but instead, it is oppressive itself. Sierra made a new work entitled “Person Saying a Phrase” in 2002, for his first exhibition in the UK. On this piece, a beggar in Birmingham’s New Street was paid to say: ‘My participation in this piece could generate a profit of 72,000 dollars.
I am being paid five pounds. ’ On video, the beggar didn’t appear to care about the artistic or political implications of the statement. Contrary, he seemed to be quite happy to accept five pounds for his efforts. As mentioned earlier, in most of Sierra’s pieces of art, he has had no shortage of people willing to perform to be paid to stand cheek by jowl inside a gallery during the private viewing, to sit in an empty box, and even to perform the more degrading tasks of masturbating in front of the camera after having been paid $20 or having their backs tattooed.
Some other “performances” pieces of art are ironic and extremely provocative. In 2001, in the Venice Biennale, illegal immigrants from different parts of the world whose natural hair color was dark were paid to dye their hair blond. In 2000 in San Juan Puerto Rico, a 10 inch line was shaved on the head of two junkies who in exchange each were given a shot of heroin. This is a clear example of what Coleridge describes as suspension of disbelief, which is “the willingness of the audience to overlook the limitations of a medium, so that these do not interfere with the acceptance of an art construct”.
Our repulsion as passive viewers on the idea of how these two young guys got paid with heroin in exchange of their performance, is diminished by the pleasure of watching them sitting next to each other, maybe casually chatting, while we accept the final piece of art, that is a shaved line on their heads, that is going to leave a temporary empty spot in their scalps. One of Sierra’s pieces of art that is very interesting in my opinion is the “8 People Paid to Remain inside Cardboard boxes”.
On this piece eight boxes of residual cardboard were made and installed, separated from each other at equal distances. Eight chairs were place next to these boxes. A public offer for work was made, asking for people willing to remain seated inside the boxes for four hours due to the excruciating heat, receiving about $9 per hour. There are different elements on this piece that suggest some interpretation. The first one is the people who performed this piece. They all are from Hispanic background.
It is interesting that Sierra selected only Hispanic people because it suggests a universal issue that countries of first world face: Illegal immigration issue. Even though Illegal immigrants are not allowed to work, Sierra paid them to sit under cardboard boxes in a semi-occupied office building. Another element that is interesting on this piece is the box itself. That element can be interpreted as the shields that illegal immigrants use to protect themselves from getting caught.
The idea of being inside the box isolated for four hours and get money in exchange for this performance can be compared to what illegal individuals do: work under the table, and do not reveal their legal status to prevent being deported. At the same time, the box used in this piece is from a disposable material. It is cardboard box. This fragile material doesn’t provide sustainable support to those who are inside the boxes. The cardboard boxes just cover the individuals that are inside them, but it is susceptible to be removed easily.
It does not provide a solid and reliable place where the individual could rely 100%. Would that suggest the idea that the people who are inside disposable boxes are disposable as well? Another element present in this piece is the urge factor: the situation of desperation in how many of these illegal immigrants are that despite of their legal situation, they expose themselves to be part of this “performance” so they can get paid.
In conclusion, Santiago Sierra’s work is an example of an antagonistic work. By paying workers in or from underdeveloped countries to perform activities (often very unpleasant) conducted by Sierra himself, he is doing the opposite of creating a space for consensus. He uses his own rules, and as a spectator, our integrity is being questioned. Sierra’s work forces us to reflect upon our own values, as a viewer, participant and human being.