Exhibition review: Dedicated to the Workers and Unemployed, Santiago Sierra, Lisson Gallery, London

Santiago Sierra is a notorious figure in the world of contemporary art, best known for his ethically dubious videoworks. Combining social and institutional critique with insights into art history, his work is always provocative, impossible to forget. The disconcertingly self-explanatory titles say it all: 160 CM LINE TATTOOED ON 4 PEOPLE (2000). THE WALL OF A GALLERY PULLED OUT, INCLINED 60 DEGREES FROM THE GROUND AND SUSTAINED BY 5 PEOPLE (2000). 10 PEOPLE PAID TO MASTURBATE (2000).

Sierra explores and exploits social inequality, creating art that confronts the problems of capitalist society. A magnet for writers and theorists, he could be construed as a facilitator, an artist whose wilful exploitation of people results in live events that are documented and displayed as art. As seen in Dedicated to the Workers and Unemployed, a mid-career retrospective at London’s Lisson Gallery, the camera is crucial to this process – a silent witness to the artistic contexts he creates.

160 cm Line Tattooed on 4 People El Gallo Arte Contemporáneo. Salamanca, Spain. December 2000 2000 by Santiago Sierra born 1966
160CM LINE TATTOOED ON 4 PEOPLE, Santiago Sierra (2000)

Arriving at the Lisson, visitors are confronted with a room of 14 wall-mounted monitors and headsets. Revealing a selection of the artist’s videoworks, the room is a cleverly curated montage of Sierra’s participatory works from the late 1990s to 2011. From 100 HIDDEN INDIVIDUALS (2003) to 68 PEOPLE PAID TO BLOCK A MUSEUM ENTRANCE (2000), we see grainy, black and white shots of people engaging in durational performances, toying with notions of power, surveillance and social complicity. Realised in a variety of different locations – galleries, streets, office blocks, abandoned buildings – Sierra’s performances are loaded with paradox. Both social and sculptural, culturally rich yet morally ambiguous, they have an oxymoronic allure.


8 PEOPLE PAID TO REMAIN INSIDE CARDBOARD BOXES (1999) nods towards Minimalist sculpture and the history of Conceptual Art, yet seethes with the uncomfortable presence of people, quietly complying with the artist’s instruction. The aesthetic aspects of the boxes clash uncomfortably with the brutality on show. Breathless, quivering with life, these inhabited objects show the terrible inequalities of capitalism, and its ideological hold on the body.

Sierra’s art is often read in the context of Relational Aesthetics, largely following Claire Bishop’s essay on the theory pioneered by Nicolas Bourriaud. However – as seen in the Minimalist cardboard boxes – his work also contains a sculptural aspect, one that’s often critically overlooked. It’s significant, then, that while most of works at the Lisson are videos, the last room of Dedicated to the Workers and Unemployed contains a new and revelatory sculptural work.

Installation view at the Lisson Gallery

Loudly proclaiming the word “NO” in huge black lettering, NO sculpture is a welcome aberration in a show that privileges Sierra’s documentary works. Caught between two rare photographic pieces – where the word “NO” is projected above the Pope and across the chest of an unsuspecting policeman – NO sculpture represents a new direction for Sierra, a full-blown embrace of materiality.

Loud, stubborn and indignant, this sculpture is a facet of a large-scale videowork titled NO, Global Tour (2009-2011). Two hours in length, the film documents an unusual journey, where two NO sculptures are transported on the back of flatbed trucks across Europe and the United States. In Berlin, Rotterdam, Washington and many other places (mainly the industrial areas of cities) the sculptures – weighing half a ton each, and measuring 5.10 by 13.12 feet – traverse everyday environments, creating a kinetic sensation of hope and resistance.

Through the simple invocation of the word “NO” a heavy irony concludes this unforgettable retrospective. If we consider the acts of complicity that make Sierra’s videoworks possible – the silent “yes” from his willing participants – the word “NO” seems to indicates a significant shift in tone. If, as the artist routinely insists, his work merely represents the conditions of life that we are “uncomfortable confronting”, NO, Global Tour offers a sense of possibility rarely seen in his earlier works. Dedicated to the Workers and Unemployed ends with a cry of stubborn refusal, adding a nebulous sense of hope to this hard-hitting exhibition.

Exhibition: Dedicated to the Workers and Unemployed
Artist: Santiago Sierra
Details: Lisson Gallery, London, 1 Feb 2012-3 Mar 2012
First published: Aesthetica magazine blog, March 2012. View the published article on Aesthetica here