Contributors to the exploitation. A conversation with Santiago Sierra

In August 2011, Santiago Sierra made appear a large Visible/Invisible NO above the figure of Benedict XVI, while the Pope was speaking on stage during the World Youth Day in Madrid. The huge NO was projected by means of a special technology, developed by the German artist Julius von Bismarck, called Image Fulgurator: a normal modified reflex projects images imperceptible to the human eye, which are instead captured by other cameras; a light sensor synchronizes the projection with the flash of other devices and allows the appearance of the NO in the shots and photographs of people attending the event, unexpectedly. Through this technological expedient, the Spanish artist protests silently against the one who at that moment represents the Catholic Church, with all its symbolic projections.


Between 2009 and 2011, Sierra puts into action No, global tour, to sensitize the exploited people to find the strength to say No to all the things that do not work on this earth, to deny any statement from the strong powers.  A monumental NO, subordinated to minimalist sculptural rigor, travels on the back of a truck, from one end of the world to the other. It is a moving sculpture (three meters high by four meters wide), a work in continuous evolution, which takes on different meanings depending on each single place that it crosses or stops in, including different cities, situations and people. It is a sort of mobile advertisement, capable of continually taking root in consciences, an icon of the opposition, a political stance. It runs along roads, places, territories, leaving visual traces in various latitudes and longitudes. It is a No understood as a denial of every statement, addressed to everything.


Sierra shows the ambiguous presences of social reality in relation to the disvalues of neoliberalism, the political dimension that characterizes the paradigmatic aspects of trauma and precariousness, of the metamorphoses in production in the era of post-industrial capitalism. Depending on the case, his works are relational, immaterial, direct denunciations, controversial translations of the encounter between art and politics, devices to trigger a real change of things, they reflect the changes in the labor market, they are staged of the exploitation of people. Sierra introduces into the world of art something that usually does not have to be seen: actions that concretely represent the social and economic mechanisms that govern the world, formal models to ascertain the dynamics of economic exchange to which each person is subjected, interventions that denounce the disappearance of the limits provided by the traditional ethical conception of work. Between 1998 and 2000 - in Mexico City, Havana and Salamanca - he involved unemployed people and prostitutes who were heroin addicts, who agreed to have a horizontal line tattooed on their upper back in exchange for a cash payment. The actions take place inside contemporary art galleries, and they take on a provocative connotation, because the artist is used to work with people excluded from society, people that he introduces into private spaces that are considered elitist. The performance with people getting tattooed a line without any decoration, a sort of permanent wound and indelible sign on the body, is radical and shocking: it testifies to the social marginality of those who accept anything to survive within a system where relations are based on violence and prevarication.


Sierra raises the question of responsibility, he faces the challenge of legitimizing artistic practice within and against the capitalist logic that sustains it, he involves institutions as active parties in the controversial and ambiguous mechanism. He stages socio-economic inequities directly within the deputies' spaces of museums and galleries, making viewers responsible (for what he stages) in real time. In 2001 in Zurich, in 2002 in New York, in 2010 in Brisbane, and in 2016 at the König Galerie in Berlin, with Form of 600 x 57 x 52 cm built to be sustained perpendicularly to a wall, the artist evokes the theme of crucifixion, focusing on the sense of materiality in contemporary religion, through a performance, in which a parallelepiped is raised and supported horizontally from the shoulders of two people, paid a minimum wage for their performance. In this performance, Sierra sees the workers as a sort of modern incarnation of Christ, where the parallelepiped refers to an arm of the cross and the action appears cold and disenchanted, to show that in the current economic situation the body has become a commodity, available and for sale at low cost. Even in the series dedicated to war veterans, inaugurated in Berlin in 2011, soldiers are considered anonymous figures spread by the media, victims of governments, who exploit them to achieve their political and economic goals. The Burial of Ten Workers (2010) is also exemplary: in Livorno the artist summons ten Senegalese workers and in exchange for a sum of money he convinces them to be buried on the seafront of Calambrone, so that only the head remains visible. Often in his works the Spanish artist involves people belonging to the poorest and most marginalized parts of society, people who sell their time and their body within a staging of economic activities regulated by a contractual system, where individuals are paid to perform a certain action, mostly unnecessary or of little value. His works are both accusations to the neoliberal system and goods with an added value ratified by prestigious cultural institutions and monetized by important and rich international galleries. In occasion of the conference Latest Works at MACRO ASILO in Rome (10 September 2019), we met Santiago Sierra to ask him some questions.



Mauro Zanchi: Having realized that in our society participation means selling our time to third parties, what does your practice (understood as "antithesis of participation") intend to denounce or undermine? Does your approach to reality and the facts of history derive from a Marxist matrix?


Santiago Sierra: To speak of slavery is to speak of freedom in its absence, just as to speak of the disasters of war implies a longing for peace. What will the pariahs of the earth and the famished legions do when they are above as the song wishes. Then they will stop being outcasts and they will stop being hungry. They will cease to exist. That is, the ultimate goal of the working class is to stop working just as the ultimate goal of the soldier is to return home alive. I can't imagine that hypothetical day after with the ex-workers making monuments to work like in the former USSR.


In a research that investigates and problematises the interactions between individuals and power relations, what role has what remains unresolved or unsaid?


Things are much harder than I've been able to show with my work. I use a symbolic language from which one cannot glimpse the vastness of the world of contemporary slavery. I move in the repetition in homeopathic proportions of the evil that I try to portray with which what I lack is to reach that real intensity of the capitalist nightmare. But that's something I can't and don't want to do.


Are your works devices that amplify the emotional tension?


Art in general appeals to the sensitive rather than the rational. This is not exclusive to my artistic production, it is common to the arts and that is why Plato expelled us from his republic. Art doesn't have 500 pages to explain itself, it's a single glance that conveys as much information as possible. Of course the emotional is our methodological essence.


At the heart of your work there are actions that take place "from life", outside of artistic institutions, and your militancy calls into question hegemonic cultural values and political power. What does it trigger when these actions are brought into museum spaces?


If a museum contacts me to ask for a new work or to show one already done, it is because there is a certain complicity. The museum keeps and exhibits what society values most, or at least that's the theory. Naturally that's just verbiage. Finally, they are private or public museums where decisions are made on a personal basis and for curricular purposes. So in the end everything depends on specific people with different attitudes towards life and art. So I've had all kinds of experiences. I've had a hard time working in some museums and in others everything has been much better than expected. I don't have a fixed opinion about museums. It depends on who's inside. This can be extrapolated to self-managed social centers. You can find people who collaborate with you in the exercise of your freedom as an artist and you can find the opposite, the delirious orthodoxes of heterodoxy. In my experience as an artist I only know with certainty how things are going to go if I work with people I trust completely, and not even one hundred percent. Any new experience is unpredictable a priori.


How do you use the instrument of ambiguity in the creation of your work? How can it provoke a thought and a dialogue that has the power to generate an impact, to stimulate political changes or personal reflections, to generate a disobedience or a call to action? 


Well, maybe it's not ambiguity I use. I don't like the universal obligatory use of the happy ending to conceptually close an artistic proposal. One can say anything, but one must not forget that the happy end may invalidate any proposal. I work for an intelligent public that I don't want to brainwash. This makes my work pose unsolved problems, open to be thought in freedom. I wouldn't call it ambiguity.

Nor do I know if they are calls to action, but everyone is free to act or not. My impression is that the public already brings that decided from home before seeing my work. I don't want to tell anyone what they should or shouldn't do.



You use a very varied range of artistic tools to translate your actions, your conversations with the world, to make them understandable to users: from photography to sound and then video and sculpture, media that allow the public to create a relationship between the action and the concept it represents, so as to generate an emotional involvement. When someone enters one of your exhibitions, is he/she introduced into an exhibition space or into an emotional dimension?


The emotional character intrinsic to the visual and sound arts is discussed above. As far as the variety of supports is concerned, it is because I personally don't know how to do anything with my hands. This gives me an enormous freedom to work with any medium, format or technique, for which I only have to look for good professionals. When an artist falls in love with his own manual skills he locks himself up in a mausoleum with himself and his art. Not to know is to look for who knows, it is to work with the outside world. It's, let's say, working outdoors.


Violence of the images, with a strong expressive icasticity, references to unpleasant situations, alarming signs of the deep existential unease in which our time is debated, alienation and a fierce criticism are the elements that characterize your research from years. Can you tell us about the intrinsically political character of your work?


I'm not a good theorist. I can answer questions in short: why do I take this particular decision when making such a piece, but if I open the panorama and ask for the whole not know what to say. What you're asking me to do is briefly elaborate a credible political theory underlying my artistic practice. The truth is that my basic approach was always to be an artist, to make good art, the art that I would like to see in a gallery or anywhere else. Being an artist is in itself a powerful political approach without resorting to further arguments. I work without a boss, I do what I think is right, my limits are what reality imposes on me and I don't collaborate with someone I don't want to collaborate with. With that I'm already served.


Your exhibition at the Pac in Milan was entitled Mea culpa (2017). We are interested in further exploring the theme of guilt in your research, and the strategy of a system - exploiter and exploited, victim and perpetrator are both part of the system - to create a culprit, in a world dominated by the market and wars.


In the Catholic rite, at a moment of Mass, believers are asked to beat their chests as they repeat: because of me, because of me, because of me, because of my great guilt. It is one of the innumerable techniques employed by that religion to achieve the destruction of the individual and his self-esteem in order to obtain the perfect slave; the one capable of enslaving himself. 

Although these rituals are still used, they are old-fashioned. Nowadays, the mass media such as television, Hollywood or the Internet provide similar contents of a self-punishment character. Convincing the victim of his guilt in the abuse is a manual for all abusers. 

These themes have been overflying my artistic production for a long time, focusing that guilt on the work environment, military, sexual, etc... That's why our exhibition in Milan ended up with that title.


How much longer will the Catholic Church survive with its influence on the strong Western powers? Why does the Ukrainian veteran, in your work, need to stand face to face against the wall if he is nothing more than a small cog in the great machine of war?


In your own question you can perceive the empathic effect produced by seeing a person punished, and that is that the veteran is a case equidistant between victim and executioner. Those who decide the great deals of war will not carry for the rest of their days images of horrors that will not let them sleep. The veterans did the dirty work and not even fifty years later will they forget the atrocities of which they were a part. Deciding death from an office thousands of miles away is not the same as killing the person in front of you, seeing him split in two. The veteran, like the prisoner, bears the guilt of society, and like the prisoner is at the same time the great victim of society. Under the seats of military vehicles the ammunition is stored. It is dirty ammunition, it contains depleted uranium, so veterans come back with cancer of the colon, uterus, prostate, etc... When we shot “No Global Tour” interviewing homeless people in Washington we realized that they were all war veterans, all with huge mental problems and all kinds of problems. I don't punish the veteran, I just visualize him and present him as what he is.

The Catholic Church and its influence is due to its masterful and brilliant techniques of social domination and capitalist accumulation. They are true sages of evil, nothing surpasses them in the West.


Can you tell us about your most recent actions and performances?


I don't usually comment on my work before presenting it to the public. This limits my ability to react if something goes wrong and neutralizes the effect of seeing something for the first time. It's like showing King Kong in the film trailer. I can tell you that I am presenting a new work in Mexico this November. It's a work that has taken a year to produce and will be presented at the Labor Gallery in Mexico City.



Translated by Sara Benaglia

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