Santiago Sierra

Santiago Sierra (b. Spain, 1966-) creates performative works that rely on participation between artist, the subjects of the works and the audience.  Through these works he accentuates the identity of participants  who are representative of social groups different to normative, affluent art audiences. Sierra hires disadvantaged, marginalized individuals to perform meaningless tasks as live performance in galleries.[1]   In 2000 he hired a tattooist to tattoo a continuous thin line across the backs of four drug-addicted prostitutes in return for the price of one hit of heroin in 160cm line tattooed on 4 People (Fig.1-3).  At the 2001 Venice Biennale he hired two-hundred dark-haired immigrant street hawkers to have their hair dyed blonde for 130 Persons Paid to Have Their Hair Dyed Blond (Fig.4-5).

[1] Sierra, Santiago, Tateshots htpp://, [Accessed 28 Mar 2011].

160 cm Line Tattooed on 4 People El Gallo Arte Contemporáneo. Salamanca, Spain. December 2000

Claire Bishop introduces the idea of antagonism arguing that social change could only be hoped for in participatory situations in which the audience was made to feel discomfort and awareness of the injustices of the world through shock tactics.  In opposition to the conviviality and amelioration of Bourriaud’s relational art Bishop offers Sierra’s use of marginalised groups, different to the usual gallery goer, displayed as spectacle, pitifully remunerated for their participation.[1] Bishop’s shock and antagonism generated by the apparent exploitation of low status, under-educated, disadvantaged social groups, placed with a spectrum of difference to those regarding them can be directly related to the discomfort of Deleuzian difference.

[1] Bishop Claire,‘Antagonism & Relational Aesthetics’ 2004, p.70.

Sierra can also be criticised for promulgating what might be called a politics of cynicism. His work is clearly just as concerned with attacking the complacency of the art institution as it is any social injustice outside the museum.

Sierra’s tactics are relatively unique. His most effective method to date has been to find unemployed casual labourers who are prepared to do virtually anything for minimum wage. Once hired they are assigned by Sierra to especially meaningless and demeaning activities. What follows is a list of such activities:

1.He paid drug-addicted prostitutes to have their backs tattooed for the price of a shot of heroin.

2.He hired 200 immigrants of African, Asian and eastern European origin, all of whom had dark hair, for an ‘action’ in which their hair was bleached.

3.He hired a group of unemployed men to push concrete blocks from one end of a gallery to the other.

4. In an exhibition at P.S.1, New York, Person Remunerated for a Period of 360 Consecutive Hours Sierra hired a person to live behind a brick wall 24 hours a day for 15 days (September 17 – October 1, 2000) without having any further instructions or duties. P.S.1 staff slid food under a narrow opening at the base of the wall. The individual behind the wall was generally invisible to the audience but was allowed to relate to the other side through the small opening in the wall.

Santiago Sierra, 700 cm of displacement for three blocks of 100 cm per side. Six people are hired to push one cubic metre blocks 700 cm. Courtesy Galerie Peter Kilchmann, Zürich.

In an interview with Stuart Jeffries Sierra was asked why his employees never rebelled against their exploitation and he responded  ‘It amazes me that people don’t attack me or, very often, the works. I do get annoyed when we speak of these people as “them”. Artists are no better. Joseph Beuys once claimed that there was clean money and dirty money. We should only take the former. I don’t believe that: there’s only dirty money. And as an artist I take dirty money. I’m paid to create luxury goods for art collectors.’ (Jeffries 2002).

A Group of People Facing a Wall 2002

As has been noted the art system will transform any mode of production into precious objects. In the case of Sierra’s work such objects would include limited edition photographs of his actions. A specific instance of such an object is a photograph of his action where an eight foot line (2.44 metre) was tattooed on the backs of eight remunerated people. The photograph becomes the precious object and the person who exhibits it—like the person who buys Benetton—buys something more than an art photograph, they buy a chic species of ethical credibility. They also buy a conversation piece. In contrast, the people who took part in the work however remain marked for life by their subjugation to High Art.

Source: Graham Coulter Smith Deconstructing Installation Art 2006

8 Foot Line Tattooed on Six Renumerated People Espacio Aglutinador Havana, 1999

ARTnews – When Human Beings are the Canvas

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