Work is Humiliation

Spanish artist Santiago Sierra brings with him a giant NO to Reykjavík. It’s the main piece of the ‘NO: Global Tour,’ which has finally reached Reykjavík. It’s simply two giant letters, N and O, each twice the size of a grown man, that travel the world, to places where there is a reason for saying NO. “It works perfectly in every context. It’s like a magnetic field. It attracts attention and attracts its own context,” Santiago tells me when we sit down at Hafnarhúsið, which will host his exhibition until April 15. “This island had a silent revolution. People were saying no to a lot of things,” he continues and when I tell him that perhaps the main anti-establishment website during the protest was called “The Daily No” (Dagblaðið Nei.), he smiles and says: “Perfect.”

While he’s now bringing us a giant No, Sierra has made a career out of making people say yes to the strangest requests, often using money to persuade people to do things that most of us would always say no to. There are almost fifty videos and photographs of his work at the exhibition (and also on santiago-sierra.com) and often the description of the work says it all:

Eight people paid to remain inside cardboard boxes in Guatemala.
Sixty-eight people paid to block a museum entrance in South-Korea.
Veterans of the wars of Afghanistan, Iraq and Northern Ireland facing the corner in a Manchester gallery.
Ten inch line shaved on the heads of two junkies who received a shot of heroin as payment in Puerto Rico.
Ten black men penetrate 10 white men.
Six unemployed young men from Old Havana were hired for $30 in exchange for being tattooed.
Ten people paid to masturbate in Havana, Cuba.

And in Iceland he’s looking for a bank employee with a guilt complex, but when we met nobody had applied yet. “All he has to do is stand facing a corner, just like in detention,” Santiago says.

THE ARM OF LIFE

For him this is all a way to make art connect with real life. “To pay people is nothing new, it’s always being done. When you enter an art gallery a lot of people have been there, cleaning, hanging up lights, selling tickets, getting things ready. Art is part of the world and everybody participates, whether they are inside the gallery or not,” he says. He mentions a piece that illustrates this, described as “A worker’s arm passing through the ceiling of an art space from a dwelling.” Says Santiago: “Behind every work of art there is life and in that case, the life was the people living above the art museum. There is always some connection, the people at the museum are no different to those outside it.”

This is something most people will agree on, but what about exploiting people for art–is that any better than exploiting them for capitalism?

“We don’t hire people forever, just for a day. I’m trying to make things look worse than they are. And what we’re doing is symbolic—but I also live in the capitalist world, I have to sell my art. In Cuba I paid men 30 dollars to masturbate—30 dollars are a decent monthly wage in Cuba.”

But isn’t that the same argument Western companies use when they pay people much less, say, in Chinese factories then in Western ones, that they’re still getting better paid then the average Chinese farmworker? “If I pay more I’ll look like a good person—but that is not the purpose of my work, to make myself look like a good person. It’s to talk about how things are, which is why I cannot pay with equality or fairly.”

PAID HUMILIATION

And the amount of pay is actually crucial to many of his works. Sometimes the subjects realise this. One of the pieces is described thusly: “Two women took turns during a week, for three hours each day, tied down from their ankles to a wooden block. They were paid 5.000 pesetas an hour, some $24, the equivalent to the fixed price for sexual services in the streets of this zone. One of them, aware of the possible commercial workings of the piece, requested, as a condition for doing the job, 10% of the profits the artist might receive.”

And sometimes the artist puts the words in their mouth, as he did when he hired a beggar in Birmingham to say the following words to the video camera: “My participation in this project could generate a $72.000 profit. I am paid $5.”

Yet, what is the justification for getting people to humiliate themselves for the sake of art? “This is very common. To feel humiliated working—to work is humiliation in itself,” he says. “You have to convince yourself that what you’re doing is wonderful, meaningful… maybe for you it’s terrible to masturbate in front of a camera, but others do far worse things and call it work.”

Does that apply to Santiago’s work? “I’m not a worker, I haven’t worked since 1995. I’m not working. A person who’s working has to depend on a salary, has to work to make somebody else rich, and that is humiliating. I think that the dictatorship is the workplace. The only way is to find a collaborative system, with equality. You have a boss, there is a structure there and exploitation, even if we have different ways of hiding it.”

And how does he manage not to work? “It’s all about organisation, to work for oneself instead of having a boss to answer to. Those who work manual labour could structure their work so that they take turns. There really isn’t that much work to be done, it just has to be evenly distributed. Some call it anarchism, but I think it’s just about doing what’s right.”

So I ask him if he is doing what’s right. “I try to, with my ideas and what I do,” he says. “But I live in this society and you don’t always have a choice. But the goal is always to do right and be true to myself.”

MEDIA DISTORTION

But how do others feel about his work? “I often get criticised in the media. Not because of the works, but because the media has a preconception of what they should say. And they are not always independent; there are often advertisers and owners to answer to. And the media often creates hype around my work when there is none, when everything is peaceful around the exhibition they make up a drama. Which is a shame, I want to have a dialogue with the media, but it’s not going too well.”

But outside the mainstream the reaction is different. “I find that independent media are the best—bloggers etc. There I find voices that I connect to. And the people that come to my shows are well educated and they understand. That’s not the problem but the distortion in the media,” he says, leaving The Grapevine very nervous that it will somehow distort his work and his words.

Ásgeir H Ingólfsson

Originally published in The Reykjavík Grapevine on February 20th 2012.

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