“Political Prisoners in Contemporary Spain” (2018) by Santiago Sierra has been removed from Arco Madrid this week. Sierra’s piece consists of 24 pixellated photographs, including images of the deposed Catalan vice-president, Oriol Junqueras, and two leading figures in influential Catalan pro-independence groups, Jordi Cuixart and Jordi Sànchez. Sierra told The Guardian that “I don’t exhibit very much – if at all – in my city and the one time I do, I get censored. It’s the law of the jungle, a tyrannical act from other times far worse than these.”
Ranked 154 on Artfacts.Net Artist Ranking, we interviewed the artist in 2010 to acquire a deeper knowledge of his artwork and figure. The interview took place at the 4th German-Spanish cultural conference, organized by the Cervantes Institute and the Goethe Institute. The event brought together prominent figures of the German and Spanish art world to discuss the consequences for the fine arts in the current financial and economic situation. The Spanish artist Santiago Sierra was one of the two artists invited to perform an action within this event. Both polemic and admired worldwide, Santiago remained faithful to his solid style, often hidden behind controversy.
Interview with Santiago Sierra by Artfacts.Net 13 / 09 / 2010
Artfacts.Net: The symposium “Art and Crisis” focused on how the capitalist crisis affects the fine arts. In some occasions, you have described capitalism as a devastating success and you said the crisis would have similar effects. Applying this idea to the art context, where does the success of this crisis lie? Which would be the interaction between art and crisis?
Santiago Sierra: Well, when I said that crisis and capitalism are successful, I naturally meant that they are a success for their designers and beneficiaries. It is a success for the financial system. They needed a lot of money to make bubbles, and they had it. It is obvious, though, that to us, the rest of mortals, it is a robbery. But this matters less every time, and the fact is that the elite’s control over the population appears to be another devastating success. Democracy is definitely a fraud. It seems that it has also affected the art world. But it didn’t sink the ship, or even hit it. Bare in mind that the unemployed working class doesn’t buy contemporary art. Furthermore, in the art world, as in other sectors, searching in the state government’s pockets makes less and less sense, since the government is already private.
Artfacts.Net: In order to enter the conference room, you created two entrances, one for the people with a gross salary of more than 1,000 Euros and another for those who earned less. Once inside, both groups of people were separated by a wall. This is a recurrent element in your artwork to reflect the physical or imaginary walls that divide a society. Your work forces one to question which side we are on. At the end of the conference, the wall fell apart partially. Did this cause the reaction you expected from the attendees?
Santiago Sierra: A sign on the wall is only a sign on the wall. It’s the observer who attaches one value or another to the sign. This is because the signs are usually erected by institutions who have an important coercive power. However, because our sign had no backing of organized violence, all participants could act how they deemed appropriate. Unfortunately, most behavioural signs in our social environment don’t allow us disagreeing without being punished. So I imagine they enjoyed their action, and that is always good.
Artfacts.Net: After having left Madrid for finding it too stifling and going to Hamburg, which wasn’t favourable either to start an art career, what do you think about the art scenes in both countries?
Santiago Sierra: The thing is that I had certain idea of the art scene in Madrid at the beginning of the 90´s, but only of its most outsider aspect. I also knew something about Hamburg’s, but not as much. Later, between 1995 and 2000, I got to know the Mexican art scene in depth. But to be honest, after that I have been focusing on myself. So from that moment on, I began to work in distant places, I started to move a lot and, in certain way, to learn more about many places. But this made me lose the direct connection that leisure gave me with the scene. I moved to Italy three years ago and I am now planning to set my studio in Madrid. So, even though I have worked there quite regularly, I haven’t worked as much in Berlin and Madrid as in other places, so I can just tell you my general impression. And my impression is that working in Spain implies that you have to depend on institutions, and that is halfway between begging and reward. That’s why I wouldn’t recommend to anyone to set a studio there without solving this problem first. However, it is easier in Berlin because it is a cheaper area and the art scene is large and strong, but I don’t think the treasure is there either.
Artfacts.Net: “Only a cynic can set an example”. Despite sentences like this, it seems people still expect a certain redeeming attitude from you. However, as you have emphasised on many occasions, your artwork represents a reality in which some people intervene, but the intention is not to change their lives or the world through your art. You bring to light crudely and without make up social and economic injustice and you have even been censored in some occasions. On the other hand, people talk more and more about how the art world is becoming a show and they reproach you for creating media frenzy around your artworks. Are you the eternally “misunderstood artist”?
Santiago Sierra: Sometimes you need a lot of patience to stand the stereotypes that the media publish about you. And sometimes I simply don’t have it; that’s why I almost have no relationship with them. The best thing to do is to talk only with the specialized press. I think that the general press has lost all its credibility, not only on the field of art, but on all fields. There still remains some independent press, but it is scarce and, on the other hand, we artists are always being separated from our representation spaces. Paul the Octopus, for example, is only a miserable animal in a cage; he’s not a spectacle by himself since the poor beast has no idea of what is going on. I’m not comparing myself with Paul the Octopus, but this is how the media work: they turn octopuses into money and into alienating chunks of information. Ask journalists why this happens, not the artists. Why do their headlines inform about polemics that only happen when they publish them? The art world is formed to a great extent of well prepared people who are sufficiently mundane to accept artistic expressions that the media would undoubtedly tear to pieces. This is why I said earlier that artists are being separated from their representation spaces. It’s very different creating a project for a public who assumes the 20th Century (and subsequent) linguistic contributions, than for a public who is less familiarized with them and sees the project via the media instead of directly (and between Paul the Octopus and a car advertisement, of course). And regarding your question if I feel understood: yes, I do, and a lot, because I am usually very clear and firm in my presentations. Quite surely, Paul the Octopus’s fan club won’t understand me but, who cares?
Artfacts.Net: You have a pessimistic and defeating feeling about reality’s violent pressure. Social relationships revolve around work and remuneration. As you explained before, violence exists when there is an instrument that forces another person’s will; and that instrument is money. Life is work and work means punishment and death. Capitalism has caused people to lose their value and buys their time, their body and their will. Even you have bought other people’s bodies and will. Isn’t there a hint of hope? Have you always found candidates to your actions reaching beyond unimaginable borders?
Santiago Sierra: Yes, the number of temporary, unspecialised and disposable workers keeps on growing; and that is the idea of capitalism: increasing poverty by stealing the resources that kept poverty at bay. Capitalism’s machinery seems perfectly lubricated, computers and guns too, so capitalism works well and, when that happens, the poverty-stricken increase exponentially. And regarding my defeatism, it’s not exactly that. I take it as a personal strategy because, if not, hope and fear paralyse you.
Artfacts.Net: Your art always causes the public to react. Your work isn’t necessarily art that is only to be seen, and even less to be appreciated for its beauty: it is to be discussed. Your actions are based on the process and they show their maximum strength when they are being carried out. Later, they are captured in pictures and videos in order for them to be marketed. Does this type of art receive enough support from galleries and collectors? Despite the difficulty of your means of art, and taking into account your notoriety around the world in museums, biennials, etc., do you think your work features sufficiently in the art auctions? To what extent do the aesthetics and themes of your artwork influence this result?
Santiago Sierra: Well, I have my market; I know I’m not Botero, but there it is. Regarding support, I can’t expect to sell as much as Jeff Koons because our themes are very different, and it’s normal. I obtain good support and it’s not precisely the number of people that support me what makes it so good, so I feel comfortable in my position. Auctions make me feel I’m risking my career in a casino; they don’t convince me. However -and I’m not an expert- I preferred being sensible about the prices of my artworks and I can say, indeed, that they are worth what they cost. Apart from that, this has nothing to do with strategies. I spend my time working on my projects; it’s what I really do.
Artfacts.Net: And if what we get back isn’t money directly? The art world works following the same pattern as capitalism. According to Professor Georg Franck, fame or attention in the cultural world also follows these mechanisms. The curator or the director of a museum or gallery lends his exhibition space and his fame to an artist, who will work as an employer and of whom is expected the return on this investment is in form of reputation or fame. Speculating with reputation has even more social consequences than money. “Wealth pales in comparison with fame.” What do you think about this?
Santiago Sierra: Paying with glory is a very stupid trick, but of course it works. Go to the offices of any museum and ask the interns, or think about the Biennial of Venice, which only works because the participants pay everything for themselves. Glory is a good trick, but in the meanwhile, if the system doesn’t change, people should be paid for their work, and that’s it.
Artfacts.Net: Just another example from today’s modern art world: last June Art Barter presented its second exhibition in Berlin after its launch last year in London. As its name indicates, the particular characteristic of the exhibition is that it revolves around the idea that artwork will be acquired by individuals through alternative means to money. For instance, Tracey Emin exchanged her artwork for a 30-hour French tuition course. Do you think this is pure utopia, searching for alternative means to money in the art world, apart from being a nice proposal in times of crisis? Would you exchange any of your artworks for anything but money?
Santiago Sierra: Bartering has always been very common between artists: to pay the bill in a guesthouse or to exchange artworks. I don’t think we are standing in the way of the practice of trading. The thing is that my marketable artworks have been created to be sold, and what you are talking about is very exceptional.
Artfacts.Net: In 2009 you launched the project NO, GLOBAL TOUR. A massive NO on a lorry has travelled across America and Europe, stopping by the most varied places: the artistic environment, financial and industrial districts, public buildings and so forth. And it will continue its voyage during the next months. According to the discourse of your artwork, one could think it is a NO to capitalism, a NO to the actual system, from which there is NO exit… What lies behind this exaltation of the NO?
Santiago Sierra: The tour is now going through its Asian phase and we will do a road movie of the European and American phases next year. The tour will continue until we get tired of it. Since the filming is over, moving it from one place to another is now easier. I will try to make it as global as possible. On the meanwhile, and while the NO continues moving, I will try to include the least literature I can to the action. The word NO is very emphatic, and little more can be said after saying NO.
Artfacts.Net: No doubt, Santiago Sierra has become a figure of international renown. It is obvious where you’d have seated in your Berlin action. What have you won, apart from the gross amount of money, or lost personally and artistically during this process of crossing to the other side of the wall? As you have said, you can’t be considered a proletarian artist, because, despite the subject matter of your artwork, you produce luxury goods. However, would a part of you still want to sit on the “proletarian” side?
Santiago Sierra: Definitely, no. The proletariat isn’t a good place to be in. Proletarians have the lowest salaries and a high unemployment rate. They are the ones who are being seized and unserved in all their basic necessities, so nobody should be a proletarian. Regarding my earnings: I haven’t worked for over 10 years and that is wonderful, trust me. I don’t have to offer my body in the market for someone else’s benefit. And I never ask anyone to lend me money. As you can imagine, I have won a lot with art: my freedom.
Interview: Patricia Blasco
Translation: Marta Jiménez and Paula Rodríguez