Santiago Sierra, El Degüello or How Much is Enough?


Santiago Sierra, El Degüello or How Much is Enough?

Review by Kremena Nikolova-Fontaine. Photo by the author.

On a carefree Sunday afternoon, I went to see the film and video work of the Spanish artist Santiago Sierra (b. 1966) at Hafnarhús, the Reykjavík Art Museum.


"The Black Cone" by Santiago Sierra outside the Icelandic parliament, Alþingi.

Originally, I thought I had written enough art reviews about the cutting-edge exhibitions displayed at Hafnarhús, but once I set my foot inside the exhibition hall, I couldn’t think of any other options this week.

Typically Sierra’s filmed performances include hired menial workers, illegal immigrants, addicts, prostitutes, the unemployed and other members of the lowest classes of society, who enact some kind of humiliatingly inhuman labor in groups for many consecutive hours, for which they are paid the equivalent of the minimum salary in each given country (he has created artworks in Mexico, Cuba, Italy and Germany, among other countries).

The audience is warned beforehand that the exhibition purposefully aims at an overpowering depressive atmosphere.

I was seriously worried whether the process of writing this art review would turn my carefree mood into profound desperation because of the state of worldly affairs and eventually lead to personal surrender in light of my unpromising future as an immigrant.

But the explosion of provoking images and unanswered philosophical dilemmas did not leave room for my mind to wander until the task was done.

When I entered Hall A on the ground floor, the surroundings reminded me terribly of another exhibition once displayed in the same space by the Norwegian artist Gardar Eide Einarsson (b.1976), entitled "Power has a Fragrance" (October 2010 to January 2011), which I did not review, and I wondered if there is anything new under the sun.

In the same unsentimental black-gray-white vocabulary, Einarsson explores a similar subject of social conflict in modern society, but through complex and abstract layering of corporate logos, urban graffiti and images from the mass digital media, while Sierra imitates the objectivity of old-fashioned social documentary photography such as the Farm Security Administration’s photographs from the era of the American Depression.

A comparison with the work of the Icelandic representatives at the Venice Biennale 2011, Libia Castro (b. 1969) and Ólafur Ólafsson (b. 1973), whose project from the Biennale "Under Deconstruction" is currently at display at the National Gallery of Iceland (until February 19, 2012), also springs to mind. Like Sierra, the artistic duo uses socio-political video-works and performances.

The announcement "Your Country Does Not Exist" made by Libia and Ólafur as part of "Under Deconstruction" also resembles one of Sierra’s statements.

He shared in an interview with Bomb Magazine that: "A nation is actually nothing; countries don’t exist. When astronauts went into space they did not see a line between France and Spain... They are political constructions, and what’s inside a construction? Whatever you want to put there."

The difference is that Castro and Ólafur emphasize the use of optimistic colors by dressing their performers in dotted uniforms and in the chromatic filming of their video-works.

They also include music especially composed for their performances. For example, the silent heroism of their low-paid migrant Ukrainian workers in the video "Caretakers" is glorified by classical music in the background, giving the piece a lyrical and surreal artistic quality rather than sounding as mere documentation, even though the spoken text is unsentimentally factual like Sierra’s.

The intention of Castro’s and Ólafur’s works is equally serious as that of Sierra, but unlike him they provoke empathetic awareness with their densely informative and confessional content.

Despite Sierra’s self-proclaimed deceitful motivation that "My misery is your misery", as revealed in the above-mentioned interview, he also contradicts himself by saying: "If I thought about how to give real visibility to these people, I wouldn’t have chosen the art world as a platform to do it, but rather a determined political activism—but I don’t trust that either."

Sierra claims to be interested in the ugliness of capitalistic society with its failed promises, but he does not deny his commercial success as a product of the same wicked system: "When you sell a photograph for $11,000 you can’t possibly redeem anyone except yourself."

The artist’s self-contented honesty is refreshing in that he does not aim to generate empathy, but tries "to get people worked up " which sabotages any high ideals as a possible inspiration.

The artist also defends his right to use hired workers, rejecting accusations of abuse, in stating that, “The museum watchman I paid to live for 365 hours behind a wall at P.S.1 in New York told me that no one had ever been so interested in him and that he had never met so many people“.

Watching the crazy annual global event "No Pants Subway Ride 2012" on You Tube, which started as a silly post on Facebook, where only volunteers are involved, made me wonder whether Sierra could have found an equal number of people to participate in his performances just for the sake of art and no pay. But this would have totally destroyed his ground concept of humans being slaves to money.

Yes, workers are invisible and suppressed under the unjust structure of society, but are they really incapable of dignity? “It’s possible to have dignity in society, but it costs money. A person without money has no dignity. In any case, I don’t see a connection between politics and morality or between art and morality,“ Sierra said.

The restricted area in Hafnarhús on the second floor facilitates two explicit video-works. The first one “10 People Paid to Masturbate” (Cuba, 2000) shows men masturbating at their homes for money.

In the second video,“The Penetrated“ (Spain, 2008), many couples of different races and sexual orientations have intercourse but the text does not specify their salary, so they may just as well have been rich, as money is not the only motivator for sexual interaction.

Sierra subjectively explains: “I think that happiness is not possible and unhappiness is. The rich man is in a state of tremendous slavery to money. His level of suffering is very much reduced, but it’s slavery like any other form of it.”

I must admit with admiration that Sierra is an extremely prolific artist, but the quantity of his work does not guarantee quality.

The works which impressed me the most are the ones which provide interesting background information, rather than just eye-opening concepts, such as in "El Degüello" (NY, 2003).

The title refers to a bugle call from the Spanish army, which signifies the complete destruction of the surrendered enemy without mercy, translated as "cut the throat".

In fact, the piece that I like the most currently stands in front of the Icelandic parliament, Alþingi, not at Hafnarhús, a monument of civil disobedience entitled "The Black Cone", as part of the exhibition "NO, Global Tour".

As for myself, I would choose to have my throat cut in the midst of a heated moral battle over finding myself in an undignified state of fearful surrender, but I do not mind being tempted by commercial success. My happiness is yours, too.

The exhibition "NO, Global Tour" runs until April 15, 2012.

The Hafnarhús building of Reykjavík Art Museum is located on Tryggvagata 17, 101 Reykjavík.

Kremena Nikolova-Fontaine – kremenan (at)

Kremena Nikolova-Fontaine is a passionate collector of art books, dedicating every spare moment to learn more about art while dreaming about having an exhibition of her own. She studied graphic design at the School of Visual Arts in Akureyri from 1999 to 2002. In college she realized that she didn’t want to be a designer or commercial artist but rather an illustrator and writer. At the moment she’s experimenting with her first graphic novel.

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