Santiago Sierra
Germany 1990-2012
31. May – 20. July 2013

The Kunstverein Arnsberg will show all of the projects created in Germany by Spanish artist Santiago Sierra. It is the first thematic exhibition of this type. Sierra, who studied the early 90s in Hamburg, has implemented over 20 projects throughout Germany between 1990 and 2012.

A public talk with Santiago Sierra will take part on Tuesday, 16 July, 2013, at 7.30 pm at Kunstverein Arnsberg.

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Abstraction in Self-Defense

Santiago Sierra’s cruel solidarity

For a long time, the history of abstraction in art was primarily a history of aesthetic essentialism: of the belief that a certain systematic order of forms would necessarily be capable of capturing the very essence of things and their manifestations and to organize them in the creative process such that something universal, something true, something definite could be said about them. Something that would rise above the here and now of the concrete environments of life.

With regard to the use of linguistic signs, the American pragmatist Richard Rorty has described this belief as the quest of (especially Western) thought for “final vocabularies,” his label for the longing for timeless formulas of knowledge and the hope for ultimate certitude.[1] What Santiago Sierra and Richard Rorty have in common is that they abandoned this hope, this need to control the world by conceiving it as an immutable and readily comprehensible place. Both resolved to harbor a different hope, one they saw as more fundamental: that the world could become a more just place than it currently is, and that what needs to be brought under control are the conditions that are the reason why it is the way it is. It was clear to Rorty that philosophy would have little to contribute to this undertaking. Sierra, for his part, has no more faith in the power of art. Yet both, each working in his discipline, radically politicized the question of what we can know and how the tokens of this knowledge may be organized, trading the interest in truth for an interest in self-determination and solidarity.

Readers who are familiar with Santiago Sierra’s art may be surprised to see it associated with a passion for solidarity; some think of it as rather noisy. Still, I believe that the concept of abstraction can in fact help us define the primary thrust of Sierra’s art more closely, and that Richard Rorty’s philosophical and political anti-essentialism may serve to circumscribe Santiago’s very clear-cut and trenchant ethical position and ultimately to describe the principle of solidarity in his art. That will be the concern of the following discussion.




Minimal art marked a turning point in the evolution of aesthetic abstraction. Distancing themselves from the heavy emphasis on the register of subjective emotion in abstract expressionism, the minimalists adopted standardized forms and materials from industrial mass production that, they believed, provided a rational vocabulary behind which the authors’ creative subjectivity would disappear; a process Sierra seems both deeply attached to and repelled by. On the one hand, it built a direct formal access for art to the anonymous principles of the world of standardized labor and commodities Sierra is interested in. On the other hand, the minimalists refused to accept any responsibility for the content, and a fortiori the political significance, of its arrangements, categorically blanking out their social context and arriving at an essentialist concept of the work. Looking at, say, a cube, they wanted to see nothing but its formal and indeed mathematical logic, a geometric body that is nothing but what it is.


Rorty had rejected this same stance—the recourse to the intrinsic qualities of a thing—as the compulsive notion that the right means of reason would make it possible to say something absolute about it, something that would be more than merely a historical and contingent description offered by a subject. This sort of whisper of eternity pervades minimalism as well as parts of analytic philosophy, whose formal logic Rorty came to feel was a retreat into the ivory tower. He accordingly proposed that, instead of sending our reason in pursuit of eternal propositions, we ought to apply it to the question of how we might limit human cruelty and how we might ultimately complete “the Enlightenment project of demystifying human life, by ridding humanity of the constricting ‘ontotheological’ metaphors of past traditions, and thereby replacing the power relations of control and subjugation inherent in these metaphors with descriptions of relations based on tolerance and freedom.”[2]


Sierra similarly saw the self-referential aesthetic of Minimal art as “an egregious presumption and self-satisfaction on the part of Western culture” from which he distanced himself by highlighting the cruelties its rationality concealed. In the formal vocabulary of minimalism, whose objectivist rhetoric flattened individuality, he found the suitable set of tools to pin down the dehumanized abstractions of capitalism. In so doing, he at once also substantially expanded the object range that vocabulary put at his disposal: his sculptures and actions make recourse not only to formal and material principles of industrial production but, from the very outset, also to the logistical procedures of goods traffic, the repressive organization of dependent employment relations, social normalization and exclusion by force of legislative, judiciary, and executive power, and most importantly, the integration of amoral interests by virtue of their economic, political, and technological standardization and legitimization.


Sierra uses the capacity for formal abstraction generated by his minimalism-inspired practice not to elevate his art above the historical contingency and the feelings of split and subjugated subjects, but to make their structural oppression unmistakably clear. “It’s not discovering empty vessels that’s interesting, but using them (…) and in that regard I’m in the same situation as many others who see minimalism as an arsenal of instruments they can avail themselves of but whose emptiness on the level of content they can’t bear.”[3] Instead of modifying or criticizing minimalist ideologies, Sierra reproduces them, with the one difference that he fills their “emptiness” with social reality: with materials that occupied a clearly defined place within a contentious set of social circumstances, or with the bodies and lives of people whose physical and mental stigmatization, segregation, lack of freedom, and exploitation is not his fault but that of a systemic logic he renders as disinterestedly as the minimalists did before him. But unlike the minimalists, he primarily aims his formal frame of reference at political and economic systems whose cruelty—as well as, sometimes, the resistance to it—his work appropriates.




A few examples from Santiago Sierra’s oeuvre:


PRISM. Workshop, Hamburg, Germany, 1990

Early on in his artistic career, Sierra clarified several fundamental differences that set him apart from minimalist doctrine. For PRISM as well as CUBIC CONTAINER, created that same year, he built cubes whose typological lineage may be traced back to Donald Judd. Presenting one of Judd’s “Specific Objects” twice, both recumbent and standing up, would be sacrilegious, but Sierra’s photographs of PRISM deliberately show these two different states of one and the same object, categorically excluding pure self-reference. Judd placed such emphasis on the depersonalization of his works that, to his mind, any fingerprints left on them would destroy them. Sierra, by contrast, manufactures his spatial object out of a used truck tarp whose dirty surface bears the documentary marks of the distances it has travelled and the labor and processes of goods traffic.


WALKS. Hamburg, Germany, 1990

In thirty-six pictures, Sierra’s first photographic series records eighteen situations the artist, then a student at the Hamburg academy, encountered as he roamed the urban space: stacks of pallets, stone slabs, and other construction supplies whose arrangement evokes the structural systematic order in the art of Carl Andre, Sol LeWitt, Donald Judd, and other representatives of minimalism. Yet Sierra’s found objects do not hew to the standard of rational uniformity. On the contrary, they illustrate how much the references to industrial production in minimalist formalism were idealized and stylized, whence minimalism was neither capable of nor interested in recognizing that the geometric standardization of industrial formats was more than anything else an economic rationality: the rationality of efficient manufacturing, transport, and construction processes to which the workers charged with executing them were compelled to adapt. Every one of Sierra’s found motifs documents a divergence from this rationality, an interference between the demands of productivity on the one hand and a subtly resistant subjectivity on the other hand, that submits to the diktat of formalism only just as much as necessary. Like PRISM, WALKS programmatically presents each object from two different points of view, contradicting, on the level of perception as much as presentation, the minimalist essentialism with its belief in its independence of the individual angle from which it viewed a given object.


250 CM LINE TATTOOED ON 6 PAID PEOPLE. Espacio Aglutinador, Havana, Cuba, December 1999; HIRING AND ARRANGEMENT OF 30 WORKERS IN RELATION TO THEIR SKIN COLOR. Project Space, Kunsthalle Wien, Vienna, Austria, September 2002

Santiago Sierra paid six unemployed young men 30 dollars each for allowing him to tattoo a line across their backs. For a total length of 250 cm, Sierra arranged six backs side by side and had a horizontal tattoo drawn across them. Buying a human person’s body for 30 dollars for the execution of a work of art that will presumably be of limited interest to that person but whose trace he will not be able to shed off for the rest of his life seems a perverse thing to do. So does a second work created in 2002, HIRING AND ARRANGEMENT OF 30 WORKERS IN RELATION TO THEIR SKIN COLOR. Sierra had the Kunsthalle Wien hire thirty workers, men and women, with lighter as well as darker skins, sorted them by the tone of their skin, and lined them up, faces to the wall, dressed in nothing but underwear. The two works made in 1999 and 2002 have in common that each subjects human bodies to abstract formal principles that negate their individuality at the price of what would seem to be inadequate compensation—principles that may be found in minimalist and Conceptual art practices no less than in everyday practices of social normalization, segregation, and stigmatization. Sierra appropriates the former in order to render a compressed reproduction of the latter. In this sense, his approach is perfectly conventional and at bottom nothing more than an application of found social and aesthetic patterns which nonetheless become intolerable in combination.


Richard Rorty hoped to rid “humanity of the constricting ‘ontotheological’ metaphors of past traditions” and thereby overcome “the power relations of control and subjugation inherent in these metaphors.” The two works by Sierra present a contribution that is apt to promote this Enlightenment project: his engagement with the aesthetic vocabulary of line and color scale renders an “ontotheological” reception intolerable. A hypothetical 250-cm line, he demonstrates, is, in its normative definition, not just a mathematical quantity or an artistic “idea”—in a world inhabited by human beings, it implies preconditions and consequences that may be and indeed are painful. Similarly, the subdivision of perceptual space into scales of graduated color is much more than a purely formal systematic order at the moment such scales meet their analogues in social hierarchies that sort human beings in accordance with criteria of racial and national backgrounds.



Six tall cubic units, improvised cardboard constructions, arranged in a row. Inside, seated on chairs and invisible from the outside, six people, classified by the title as workers who cannot be paid and yet are remunerated to quietly remain inside these pods, six hours a day, for six weeks. The Chechen immigrants could not be paid because, as asylum applicants, they were prohibited by German law from accepting wages, and so they received an informal compensation for the time they gave to the project. Notably, the title of Sierra’s work describes these persons as workers, not as asylum applicants. So Sierra in no way calls their desire to work in question; what prevents them from working is their legal status, which Sierra circumvents by invisibly rewarding them for their performance as part of his action. Responding to this and similar actions, the press liked to insinuate that Sierra cruelly took advantage of the distress the people he exhibited were in.


In a more sober assessment of what happens here, however, we cannot but note that Sierra reproduces an objective state of affairs. In their lives no less than in Sierra’s work, the persons he has hired find themselves in a normalized situation that closely confines their bodies and constrains their possible actions; there is nothing they can do but persevere and wait. The isolation in which they sit matches their social status. The fact that the art audience does not generally take a serious interest in them—or, to the extent that it does, only “abstractly,” as representatives of a critical social issue—is part of this situation. Few of those who saw the action had probably ever been as physically and perhaps emotionally close to an asylum applicant as they were at the moment they put their ears to one of the cardboard boxes in the exhibition to find out whether there really was someone in there, and then perhaps expressed their profound concern, or else their indignation, that there was. In rendering the six workers invisible to the audience by enclosing them in six cubes lined up in a row, Sierra’s arrangement is precisely realistic.


PERSON SAYING A PHRASE. New Street, Birmingham, Great Britain, February 2002

The people who participate in Santiago Sierra’s actions are never extras; they are unfailingly members of the social group the particular work examines: workers, the unemployed, prostitutes, war veterans, Roma, Huichol, whites and blacks, women and men. In many instances, the title or subtitle of the work indicates that they were compensated for their participation in a project, often specifying the exact amount. (A complete catalogue raisonné of Sierra’s oeuvre may be found on his website at, which serves as a hub for the documentation of his practice, making all necessary information on the individual projects publicly accessible.) The compensation Sierra offers is usually as little as the people he hires are willing to accept. There is probably no work that illustrates more clearly why that is so than PERSON SAYING A PHRASE. In a Birmingham street, Sierra has a man who is presumably homeless and certainly poor repeat a sentence the artist dictates to him on camera: “My participation in this piece could generate seventy-two thousand dollars profit, I am paid five pounds.” Sierra articulates the exploitative relation at the heart of the work or has it articulated.


The disparity between the two sums is glaring, as is the fact that the man pronounces this truth under duress. At the end of the one-minute video recording, he appears appropriately bewildered; it is fairly evident that he had not known which sentence he would be paid five pounds to pronounce. Sierra’s action formally resembles the widely established instant polling and candid camera television formats for which people are aggressively accosted in the street. And it is a performative act of exploitation that is possible only on the basis of a capitalist value-added chain in which the final price a product—in this instance, a work of art by Sierra—fetches can be completely uncoupled from the real investment in it; a just allocation of the profit is not part of the plan. Sierra here shows himself in the role of the exploiter, noting that “what is permitted in the world of art of course coincides with what is permitted in the world of capitalism. We share one and the same reality.”




Most of the critics who have objected to the dubious moral quality of large parts of Sierra’s oeuvre have given insufficient thought to these circumstances; in particular, the reference to the techniques of minimalism, which is so pivotal for this art, has not been fully appreciated. The assessments of reviewers who have strongly disapproved of Sierra’s work have ranged from the diagnosis of a nihilistic attitude that knows not but to repeat social cruelties it is impotent to change to the charge of utter cynicism on the part of the artist, who is said to profit from the cruelty inflicted on others. Yet there are four things we need to understand before we make up our minds about his art:


1.    Low wages designed to maximize profits and the social immiseration, exclusion, and marginalization of certain demographic groups, etc. are widely current and standardized everyday practices. Sierra’s approach differs from the social processes it structurally appropriates only in that it renders them in compressed form, and as art.

2.    If presenting certain realities to the public “as art” without false bottoms and without any moral commentary is seen as “scandalous,” the inevitable implication is that the rendition of realities in the realm of aesthetics and within the confines of cultural institutions is regarded as illegitimate while the same realities are otherwise not just tolerated as normal but even generally accepted and practiced as the social standard. Only such standards are usually not directly visible as such precisely because they are, for many people and to a large extent, perceptible only as abstract social arrangements and not as a tangible reality of life. Money, moreover, it is an abstraction to begin with.

3.    Santiago Sierra’s practice is documentary first and foremost. He registers real processes and captures them in suitable media of representation and storage. He is the waiter, not the cook. That people are willing, for example, to put themselves in humiliating situations for little pay is evidence not of Sierra’s unscrupulousness but of the fact that these people are prepared to suffer humiliation for money and do so not only at Sierra’s behest but, in many instances, in their daily lives, a fact that surely has its roots in the social circumstances in which they live and not in their masochism.

4.    That the participants themselves feel that Sierra’s projects are unfair, exploitative, or straining is an assumption that should at least be verified. When I worked with war veterans whom Sierra hired to stand bashfully in a corner of an art space for several hours and days, my experience was the exact opposite. To quote one of them: “I am grateful to Sierra for this opportunity. Because this really is my life. It’s just that ordinarily no one’s interested in it. This thing here allows me to step out of that invisibility for once.” Another said: “But this is one truth. Because we do feel ashamed. I think it’s perfectly right to stand by that, even if doing so is difficult.” By quoting these statements, I do not mean to argue that the actors always identify with the actions they execute, and even if they did, we would have to ask to which extent they are conversant with the context in which they perform them. But we may also underestimate the awareness the actors have of their own situation as well as their solidarity with Sierra’s attempt to articulate it.


Richard Rorty became embroiled in a long-running debate with Habermas over whether the universality of human rights could be justified in ultimately essentialist terms; that was what Rorty thought Habermas was trying to do with the recourse to an “ideal communication situation” he believed to be illusory. Rorty himself took a position that many found hard to accept but that later received support from Chantal Mouffe: human rights cannot be justified, they are nothing more and nothing less than a way in which human beings agree to regulate they way they deal with each other, sharing the belief that cruelty of any kind is the worst humans can inflict on humans and so pledging to avoid doing so. The entire remaining political and cultural debate over human rights can then only be about what we think is cruel and what is not, who “we” are, and how this we may be extended to include groups of people who currently take a different view of the matter.


Rorty thus radically delegated the moral agreement between people to give a certain form to their coexistence to these people, refusing to recruit the aid of any other source of normative authority such as reason. He rejected the belief that human beings have something at the bottom of their hearts that renders them capable by nature of good and just action with the—programmatically anti-essentialist—remark that “there is nothing deep inside us except what we have put there ourselves.”[4] That is why he thought that literature—and I extend his argument to include all arts—rather than transcendental rights were the best instrument to bring the struggles and sufferings of others home to people and to render cruelty so intolerable to them that avoiding it would truly mean something to them. Thinking one’s way into perspectives that are not one’s own as one engages with a work, feeling solidarity with others’ fates, empathizing with people one may not even understand: these, Rorty believed, were far more important for the humanist project than philosophical attempts to lay the foundations of a universal ethic.


As I see it, this position coincides exactly with the ethical stance Santiago Sierra’s work stakes out and the manner in which this stance finds its form. Sierra refuses to predetermine or even only suggest any moral perspective on the events he invokes with his art. In this regard, he adopts a core idea of minimalism, according to which the meaning of a work cannot be found within that work itself; it is only attributed to it in the course of the beholder’s active engagement with it. But Sierra radically politicizes this involvement of the beholder: by emptying his own practice of moral content, he delegates the judgment of its moral quality to the audience. The viewers of his actions, sculptures, films, and photographs find themselves confronted with cruelties they do not generally have to suffer themselves, at least not just now, and whose ethical justification they often cannot but feel to be highly questionable. They almost inevitably find themselves disagreeing vigorously with the work, which they may perceive as inimical, and tend to spontaneously and passionately side with individuals who are otherwise distant abstractions to them or express opposition to certain social and economic developments they do not generally take much offense at. What may initially appear to be a piece of artistic provocation in the end squarely aims at the construction of an emancipated viewer’s position and a negotiation over what we believe to be morally defensible or indefensible.[5]


Sierra’s social criticism by artistic means accordingly takes place not as the presentation of a critical—nor of a cynical—attitude on the part of the artist or his art, but as an imposition on the art audience: they are compelled to perceive the real exploitation, oppression, and humiliation of people that Sierra initiates in museums and galleries or during biennials as a conflict that disrupts the semblance of social harmony and necessitates the negotiation of different ethical standards—a negotiation that seems increasingly impossible today and yet constitutes the core of the political. To this end, Sierra, eschewing the classical and established path of abstraction, which leads from the specific to the universal, from a given human being or material to an overarching formula that subsumes the particular instance, chooses instead the inverse route, setting out from the really existing abstractions at the heart of social normality, which he applies directly to a concrete body and its emotions, to a real life and its time, to a specific personal history and its consequences.


Sierra regards social violence not as a departure from what is socially opportune, but as an expression of the normative form of power and the economic system we effectively support: capitalism and liberalism. He declares his solidarity with those who are taken into account in the calculus of today’s world as mere sources sometimes of efficient labor and sometimes of disturbance, and demands recognition for the feelings and (lost) struggles of people whom our own economic and political order condemn to exactly the humiliating circumstances Sierra presents to us as such. But he denies his audience the absolution promised by a critical art that, while it enlightens us by denouncing repressive conditions, is impotent to change them. In so doing, he also disrupts the self-deception of the art scene, which likes to believe that it occupies a place that is exempt from these conditions.


To the extent that Sierra’s art is cruel, that is because abstractions are cruel at the moment they seize and control subjects or even negate them outright. And since art lacks all power to prevent practices of social cruelty, Sierra suggests, it can still associate its own aesthetic formalism with the sanctioned barbarism and offer onlookers an opportunity to distance themselves from it.

Alexander Koch, June 2013

Translation: Gerrit Jackson

[1] See Richard Rorty, „Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity“, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1989, 3 ff.

Edward Grippe, “Richard Rorty (1931–2007),” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (

Quoted in Gabriele Mackert and Gerald Matt, Santiago Sierra, exh. cat., Kunsthalle Wien project space (Vienna: Kunsthalle Wien, 2002).

Richard Rorty, Consequences of Pragmatism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982).

Claire Bishop has accordingly discussed Sierra (as well as Thomas Hirschhorn) as a key figure of a concept of relational aesthetics turned political and indeed democratic in the proper sense of the word. Clearly distinguishing his work from Nicolas Bourriaud’s warm and fuzzy notion of social interaction, Bishop, drawing on the work of Mouffe and Laclau, emphasizes that the principle of a democratic social order consists not in consensus and harmony, but in the understanding that many of our views are incompatible and that this incompatibility is in fact legitimate. Sierra, Bishop argues, renders relational antagonisms visible that the semblance of social harmony suppresses, and so creates a concrete basis on which to rethink our relation to the world and to ourselves. See Claire Bishop, “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics,” October 110 (Fall 2004), 51–79.

Santiago Sierra, installation view at Kunstverein Arnsberg, 2013