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Santiago Sierra’s harshest device (review)

by on February 25, 2009

D Rosier

PTBA year 3: stage II

Unit 7: Right Here, Right Now: The Live Moment

(essay question: performer/spectator relationship)

The “line” series: Santiago Sierra’s “harshest device”



Art historical context

Contemporary context

Critical evaluation

The elite spectator


In most relational art, (e.g. that explored by Bourriaud and Kester) the spectators become participants in good social relations; the documentation audience are witness of something inspiring that they can empathise with. In the relational art explored by Bishop (what she terms “relational antagonism”), such as that produced by Santiago Sierra, the participants become involved in problematic social relations; the documentation audience are witnesses of something uncomfortable that also involves them as accomplices.

Line of 30cm tattooed on a remunerated person (1998)

Line of 30cm tattooed on a remunerated person (1998)



In 1998, Sierra made 8 works, including his first working with people: “Line of 30cm tattooed on a remunerated person”.

These “line…” works most clearly established his new field of interest to be Capitalism – remuneration and exploitation – which continues to be explored in his other, less permanent, but no less antagonistic interventions to date.

As well as the obvious references to conceptual and minimalist art of the ‘60s and ‘70s, Sierra’s later practice shows clear influences from performance art. An obvious influence which he himself cites is Vito Acconci, who, like Sierra’s later works, portray the body “in various states of distress” (Ossian Ward, 2007).

However, following the ideas in Ward’s attempt at a neutral (acceptable) reading of Sierra’s “lines”, one could consider Sierra’s practice in the same oeuvre as the performance work of Franco B or Marina Abramovic, where the artist works upon their own body – in highly theatrical and also distressing ways – and we could conclude that Sierra merely uses others rather than himself to perform the same function. This, I suggest, is a false reading of his work. For one, Sierra strips any theatricality from his performances. “In a theatrical reading of performance an “actual” live interaction between performer and audience is given priority over the record.” (Warr, 2003). Also, in Sierra’s work, there is no live audience and we, the viewer, subsequently get the real thing stripped bare of any theatricality.

4 Hour Amsterdam (1975)4 hour Amsterdam (1975)
Marina Abramovic


There are, however, similarities between Sierra and Abramovic’s work, for example in “4 hour Amsterdam” where Abramovic sent a prostitute to a private view of her exhibition at De Appel gallery, while she swapped roles with the prostitute, sitting in her window in the red light district, and literally “performing“ the full range of functions of her counterpart… (we are lead to believe). Perhaps I could have paid her to talk to her for an hour?

In both Abramovic’s piece and Sierra’s “lines” there is no live witness of the performance. There are the participants and wholly separate there are the spectators. We experience only the traces or documentation of the performances. Why might this be? Tracey Warr, in her essay “Image as icon: recognising the Enigma” (Tate, 2003), says

In live performances, people called out “Don’t do it” to Pane as she raised a razor to her face, rescued Abramovic when she passed out, and called a halt to some of Burden’s performances. That responsibility for others’ actions … is absent for the viewer of a document.”

One can surmise that the more extreme the action, the greater the obligation on any witnesses to intervene. Sierra takes this obligation (or choice) away, making for uncomfortable viewing of his works.

The late1980s and 1990s, saw a debate emerge about artistic practices defined as Relational Art/Aesthetics, and this is clearly the context which underpins Sierra’s later work.

Claire Bishop, in her response to Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics: Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics asks, “if relational art produces human relations, then the next logical question to ask is what types of relations are being produced, for whom, and why?” (2004). She suggests there are fundamental problems with the idea of “microtopian communities1”, which, she suggests, actually reinforce the group identity (e.g. of social exclusion) rather than allowing exploration of individual identity, or any sense of a broader social identity.

Shedefines Sierra’s (along with Thomas Hirschborn’s) work as “relational antagonism”:

If relational aesthetics requires a unified subject as a prerequisite for community-as-togetherness, then Hirschborn and Sierra provide a mode of artistic experience more adequate to the divided and incomplete subject of today.”

She continues,

This relational antagonism would be predicated not on social harmony, but on exposing that which is repressed in sustaining the semblance of this harmony. It would thereby provide a more concrete and polemical grounds for rethinking our relationship to the world and to one other.”

Man really attains the state of complete humanity when he produces, without being forced by physical need to sell himself as a commodity” (Che Guevara 1965).

In 1998 Sierra took his first step away from conceptual exploration within an academic (abstract) methodology, to performative works which have an extreme relationship with both the participants and the spectator. Since then, this new ideology and methodology has dominated his practice.

Marc Spiegler, writing in ARTnews (2003) describes the line pieces as “Sierra’s harshest device”. Sierra, in the same article, says, “the single line is the minimum gesture necessary”. One can interpret that as being a choice following from an aesthetic of the minimalist tradition; it or as the minimum mark the artist considers necessary to make the work for the reason of causing the minimum distress (both the temporary pain and the permanent mark) to his “human canvases”.

Clearly, these pieces have a political context and connotation. However, like so much of Sierra’s work, there is more meaning to be gained from the contextual information:

Sierra recalls reports of Guatemalan refugees and illegal workers attempting to cross the southern Mexican border and being marked on their skin by police patrols to facilitate their identification (Garcia-Anton, 2002)

Of his first line he says,

I looked for a person who did no have any tattoos or intentions of having one, but due to a need for money, would agree to have a mark on his skin for life. The person received $50 as payment.2

The concepts of exchange, remuneration and exploitation are clearly present.

250cm line tattooed on 6 paid people (1999)250cm line tattooed on 6 paid people (1999)
Santiago Sierra


The following year he made another line. ”Six unemployed men … were hired for $30 in exchange for being tattooed” 3.

160cm line tattooed on 4 people (2000)160cm line tattooed on 4 people (2000)
Santiago Sierra


In 2000 he made his last line to date.

Four prostitutes addicted to heroin were hired for the price of a shot of heroin to give their consent to be tattooed. Normally they charge 2,000 or 3,000 pesetas, between 15 and $17 for fellatio, while the price of a shot of heroin is around 12,000 pesetas, about $67.4

In the 63 minute (fairly mundane) video we see through a single, unedited shot, the actual experience of the women being tattooed. We see them, through the course of the film, in their day clothes, “off duty”, as ordinary women. Their initial nervousness about the actual tattoo experience, which moves into boredom over the course of the film. Their call, post tattoo “To the beach!” Arguably far from exploiting these women, he shows us, the viewer, a more authentic side of these women than we would ever normally experience… And in exchange for 1 hour work with Sierra they earned what they normally would in 4 hours…

Despite all this information, if we were able to have been present, as spectators would we have called “stop!”?

Also here, Sierra is able to most sharply chart the flow of labour, or more accurately “labour power5” (Marx/Engels, 1872) and it’s consequential remuneration most clearly. As Marx and Engels state, “Labourers, who must sell themselves piecemeal, are a commodity, like every other article of commerce”.

While his detractors sees the lines as exploitative, and while Sierra certainly struggled with his role in making these pieces, he sees them otherwise: “The tattoo is not the problem. You could make the tattooed line a kilometre long, using thousands and thousands of willing people”. (Quoted in Spiegler, 2003)

With all of these pieces, the whole artwork is only visible for the duration of the performance, when there are no spectators present, only the artist (as director and photographer), his assistant, the tattooist and the participants. We only experience the pieces mediated through film or black and white photographs: the individual parts of the lines, when seen unmediated, are only elements of the piece.

Sierra says he uses people as material because “they are the cheapest and most abundant material” (Ward, 2007). I hope Sierra’s comment is ironic.

As I have said, his work challenges dominant art and political ideology around participatory works as socially responsible, esteem enhancing experiences.

Space closed off by corrugated metal (2002)Space closed off by corrugated metal (2002)


Sierra has always had an uneasy relationship with galleries, curators, and the art establishment, and his work often directly targets this elite “audience” (spectator). Around the time of the lines, we can note, for example a direct hostility in both “Gallery burned with gasoline” at the Galeria Art Deposit (1997), and “Space closed off by corrugated metal” at the Lisson Gallery (2002).

He is often more concerned with this elite audience than the majority of viewers who subsequently experience his work:

It creates and uncomfortable situation because the people who are watching art are high class themselves or at least high cultured people. And these people become uncomfortable because it is a portrait of themselves.” (Sierra, quoted in Tateshots, 2008)

Sierra makes no bones about selling his work for many, many times more money than it costs him to create them. He is certainly generally very well respected in the field of high art. He was part of Bourriaud’s Hardcore group show at the Palais de Tokyo in 2003 (although his methodology and practice is conspicuously absent from Relational Aesthetics). 160cm line tattooed on 4 people (2000) is held in the Tate’s permanent collection. He is represented by several prestigious galleries in Europe, including, in the UK, by the Lisson gallery , and has represented Spain at the Venice biennales in 2001 (Persons paid to have their hair dyed blond) and 2003 (Wall enclosing a space).

On the flipside, and more telling, galleries such as PS1 and Kunshalle Vienna while clamouring to show Sierra’s work, both rejected a piece Sierra hoped to make, lining up the gallery staff by order of salary, bare-backed to show the change in skin tones from light to dark. Kunshalle rejected it on the grounds that it didn’t fit the “paradigm of remuneration”, which seems both a blatant interference by the curator, and a cowardly act on the part of both the galleries.

Although there is no doubt that Sierra makes “political” art, he, in common with most of his colleagues working in the “convivial” realm (Bourriaud, 1998), don’t see themselves as making work than can actually change the world, quite the opposite:

It seems more pressing to invent possible relations with our neighbours in the present than to bet on happier tomorrows” (Bourriaud, 1998).

Similarly, Sierra says,

I can’t change anything. There is no possibility that we can change anything with our artistic work. We do our work because we are making art, and because we believe that art should be something, something that follows reality. But I don’t believe in the possibility of change. (2002)

However, these works, unlike those of most of his contemporaries’ convivial works, seek to expose, rather than ameliorate, social tensions.

He invites the viewer to consider the usually invisible labours of those at the bottom of the international labour market: the unqualified, or refugee, or immigrant, or illegal worker, exposing how “human dignity is an economic privilege” (Spielger, 2003). As Sierra says, alluding to the majority of menial work carried out throughout the world, “The remunerated worker doesn’t care if you tell him to clean the room or make it dirtier.” (ibid). There is an extremely direct and painful relationship between the performer and spectator, despite the mediation of the work as we experience it here.

Guernica (1937)Guernica (1937)
Pablo Picasso


Contemporary art, like all art that has gone before, in all previous societies, either reinforces or challenges the status quo.

Relational art practice can either focus on creating mythical “microtopias”; or it can expose the social realities, and help us, the spectator, to understand and hopefully inspire us to try to change the world, as work such as Guernica did less than a hundred years ago. And Sierra’s work – despite his protestations – is well placed to do that.

Much of Sierra’s work is brutal. It is also a response to a brutal system, which creates the economic conditions that enable him to make this work. And Sierra’s work holds up a mirror to that, into which we, the viewer, can spend some uncomfortable time looking.


Bishop, C (ed.) (2006) Participation, Whitechapel

Bourriaud, N (1998) Relational Aesthetics, Les press du Reel

Kester, G (2004) Conversation pieces Community + Communication in Modern Art, University of California Press

Marx, K (1867) Capital Lawrence and Wishart

Marx, K, Engels, F (1872) Manifesto of the Communist Party Progress Publishers

Siegel K, Mattick P (2004) Art Works: Money Thames and Hudson

Warr, T (2003) Image as icon: recognising the enigma, in Art, Lies and Videotape, Tate publishing


Bishop, C (Fall 2004) Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics, October Magazine issue 110

Bishop, C (February 2006) The Social Turn: Collaboration and its Discontents Artforum

Guevara, C (March 1965) letter to to Carlos Quijano, published as “From Algiers, for Marcha : The Cuban Revolution Today from ” The Che Reader, Ocean Press, 2005.

du Bois, J6 (2003) Santiago Sierra: The Little Conquistador [accessed 17/10/08]

Speigler, M (June 2003 ) When human beings are the canvas ARTnews

Ward, O (December 2007) Ward, O Interview with Santiago Sierra Time Out


2002-1990 (2002) Birmingham, England. Ikon gallery, article by Katya Garcia-Anton

300 Tons and Previous Works: Sierra, S and Schneider, E (2004) Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther Konig

Emails/phone calls

Elena Crippa, Lisson Gallery 5/11/08

Ibid [13/11/08]

Websites [accessed throughout] [accessed 17/11/08]

Images not from Sierra’s website (chronologically) [accessed 26/10/08] [accessed 31/10/08]

1See Conversation pieces Community + Communication in Modern Art (Kester, 2004) for examples of this type of practice.

2The person, the sum of money and the length of line are all arbitrary: Sierra set an amount he could afford, and which to him was acceptable remuneration (market value) for the task (Crippa, 2008).

3Again, his choice of $30, is what he deems fair and right to the participants, and affordable to him (market value).

4 Around the time this was made, the price of heroin in Spain had grown enormously, all sorts of lateral markets were growing. Some women who had “normal” jobs, who were also heroin users, were being forced into prostitution in order to support their habit (Crippa, 2008)

5By labour-power or capacity for labour is to be understood the aggregate of those mental and physical capabilities existing in a human being, which he exercises whenever he produces a use-value of any description” (my emphasis) (Capital)

6This author has sought from M du Bois, his provenance (CV or similar) but has received no response.


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