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.
Abstraction in Self-Defense
Santiago Sierra’s cruel solidarity
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. 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.
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.”
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.” 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
WALKS. Hamburg, Germany, 1990
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
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.
WORKERS WHO CANNOT BE PAID, REMUNERATED TO REMAIN INSIDE CARDBOARD BOXES. Kunst Werke, Berlin, Germany, September 2000
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 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.
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.” 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.
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.
 See Richard Rorty, „Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity“, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1989, 3 ff.
Santiago Sierra, installation view at Kunstverein Arnsberg, 2013