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...
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