by Catalina Restrepo
It doesn’t matter that your cell is better than the one across the hall, it’s a cell nonetheless. No member of a society can be free without the freedom of all. Freedom is for everyone or no one
Catalina Restrepo: Considering how controversial your work can be, you’ve earned a well-deserved spot in art history. How do you perceive the reading of your work in and outside of the art world?
Santiago Sierra: They were always polarized readings that go from black to white with few middle ground views. My colleague, artist Pilar Villela, said my work is a quick venom and a slow balm. The first reactions to my work are visceral, pointed; the soberer reactions come later, little by little. Sometimes my work is taken as a succession of lucrative scandals and other times as a valuable testimony of our time. Maybe it’s not my work but our society what makes it polarized. Our public is very diverse and it’s not because of its level of specialization but rather because of its role in the game. Not only do they visit us from universities but also, and above all, from favored social groups and it doesn’t always sit well with them.
Catalina: Political art is always urgent because it plants reflections and critical postures, but do you think it could tangibly change a society, structure or system of power?
Santiago: I’ve always said that little can a painting do by confronting an atomic bomb. Killing is more efficient than seducing, but that doesn’t make our activity void of capacity for action. Art is powerful in its own way; what would be of the Pope in Rome without his St. Peter’s Basilica? In any case, the only thing that could change the world, if it ever does, would be the self-organization of society, all of it, even artists.
Catalina: There are those that visualize you as an artist that is willing to personify the very mechanisms that use “evil” (or what is wrong in society), in order to have an impact; get a rejection, a critical posture from people. Sometimes that rejection is directed towards the very problem you are confronting in each project and other times towards you as the responsible one for the action that is thrust upon them. I would imagine this is something you have to constantly deal with. Right? What would you say to that?
Santiago: The idea is to repeat evil in homeopathic doses and give full aesthetic strength to the act; dote it with intensity. Make the insignificant act of masturbation or fitting yourself into a box, an unacceptable one. A work of art is produced in the mind of the spectator. In that way, I don’t look to ease. Deprive them of a happy ending. I like this method because it doesn’t happen in life, or at least not much. It’s all in the mind of the observer. It’s a method prone to criticism, how can it not be, but an effective one. It’s a way of putting things on the table and making it impossible to ignore. However, what I don’t like about artists that deal with social drama or politics is that the artist is always safe and demonstrates to be free from injury, like a messiah. The most atrocious and suspicious example is Bono, singer from U2. I rather be clear that I am not speaking from a point of saintliness.
One day millionaires discovered how to detach themselves from the label “exploiters” and they became “collectors.”
Catalina: People that make up your work come from harsh realities which you present in your work in a cold and cruel way, the same way the systems you allude to do. Are you, not as an artist but as a person, moved by this? Have you managed to establish a relationship with the people that participate in your projects beyond the labor contract, once the project has concluded?
Santiago: I don’t like to talk about my feelings, nor about myself or what happens behind curtains in my projects. I rather see myself as an omniscient narrator of the 21st century.
Catalina: This last decade is characterized by the exponential growth in the number of millionaires in the world. This directly coincides with the art market, institutions, and the various domes of power; something that is visible in the abundance of private museums and mega galleries contrast to public institutions where their budget is minimal. As someone who has made their critical stance public in the face of the powerful in this professional field, what is your opinion of the present?
Santiago: One day millionaires discovered how to detach themselves from the label “exploiters” and they became “collectors.” Now they are considered protectors of the arts, benefactors, sophisticated people and worldly. Photographable and admirable. They told their millionaire friends and very soon, the world was filled with art fairs and galleries. And that is the story of art in the 21st century.
Catalina: At the beginning of your career you began by making references to “work” and lately, it’s gotten closer to the theme of prisoners and migrants. It’s no secret that many countries find cheap labor through unfair imprisonment —particularly migrants and minorities— to use them as a workforce. Do you think possible that this evolution in the concept of work is reflected in the evolution of your own work?
Santiago: Society is made up of prisoners. Work is the true dictatorship and the daily prison. It differs in that; at the end of the day, you return to the cell you pay for through work. A cell with bars is the most extreme form of labor, as is prostitution or the army. We’re all living secluded in an unfair system, cruel, and unequal in its opportunities. The world is a gigantic panoptic of jailers and inmates. Our society is an environment of unhealthy interactions. It doesn’t matter that your cell is better than the one across the hall, it’s a cell nonetheless. No member of a society can be free without the freedom of all. Freedom is for everyone or no one. The truth is, I’m responding with phrases you’ll find in any bathroom graffiti within any panoptic. Prisons, all of them are an unacceptable disgrace.
Catalina: Lastly, tell us a little about the projects you’re currently working on.
Santiago: In May, I’ll be showing one of my latest works with Helga de Alvear in Madrid and in November, at Labor gallery, we will present the result of a procedural work produced during a year in México City. We’re also working on new projects in Tijuana and New Delhi. The Spanish King burning, we hope to do it in less than a year.