Although Berlin tabloids don't often discuss art, Santiago Sierra's latest exhibition resulted in one newspaper publishing two contradictory reviews. First, it hailed his work as 'a stirring spectacle', then it protested against the way 'the spectacle' treated its participants. The show comprised six large cardboard boxes, which stood in the Kunst-Werke's large hall. Sierra employed asylum seekers, who were not visible, to sit in these boxes for four hours a day. Officially, he was not allowed to pay them - German law forbids it. Hence the title of the work: Sechs Menschen, die für das Sitzen in Pappkartons nicht bezahlt werden dürfen (Six People Who Are not Allowed to Be Paid for Sitting in Cardboard Boxes, 2000). One participant observed: 'sitting around in narrow boxes - that's exactly what we do every day, anyway.' Asylum seekers put their names down on a waiting list, hoping that the exhibition would advertise their plight.
Most visitors to the show reacted strongly. Knowing that people were actually in the containers created a strange, oppressive atmosphere in the gallery, which was intensified by every muffled cough or invisible movement. The artist has used this strategy before: in 1998 in Mexico, for example, he paid eight people nine dollars each for four hours of sitting: 8 personas remuneradas para permanecer en el interior de cajas de cartón Guatemala City (8 People Paid to Be in Cardboard Boxes, Guatemala City, 1998).
Sierra's approach - a combination of social sculpture, ambient art, spectacle and political activism - encourages social inequities to be explored via the medium of art. Running concurrently was an exhibition of earlier works by Sierra, documented with videos and photos. Yet the concept of parading socially disadvantaged people in the art world as economic outcasts - whether pushing rocks around in a gallery for several hours (24 Concrete Blocks Moved Continuously during One Working Period by Ten Remunerated Workers, Ace Gallery, Mexico, 1999); being tattooed (Ace Gallery, Los Angeles, 1999); or simply standing around in large numbers at the opening of an exhibition (465 Remunerated Persons, Mexico, 1999) - becomes more questionable the more one sees of his work. Doubtless, Sierra's interventions get attention, but it's the kind of attention that doesn't really implement change. The artist uses the art world in order to highlight a deplorable state of affairs that nonetheless gets a lot of publicity. When the exhibition is over and Sierra's 'workers' (who are comparatively well paid) are released back into their world, the notice occasioned by their reappearance tends to remain more associated with the name of the artist than with improving the lot of the disadvantaged.
The most recent, and best, example of politically motivated art was Christoph Schlingensief's performance in June last year in Vienna, Bitte liebt Österreich - erste europäische Koalitionswoche (Please Love Austria - the First European Coalition Week, 2000). The work was a restaging of the deportation experienced by several asylum seekers: Schlingensief locked them up for a week in a container. The piece resulted in a public outcry, and put pressure on xenophobic Austrian politicians, whereas Sierra's method seems to trigger a private discomfort that is not necessarily politically acted upon. That said, Sierra appears to be popular, at least in the art world. In the last few months of 2000 he staged spectacles in Korea, Puerto Rico, Havana and Madrid.
First published in Issue 57