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“We Are the Exploiters”: Santiago Sierra’s Critical Realism

“We Are the Exploiters”: Santiago Sierra’s Critical Realism

Figure 1. Santiago Sierra, 250 Cm Line Tattooed on 6 Paid People, 1999. Espacio Aglutinador, Havana, Cuba.

1. Épater le bourgeois

Santiago Sierra’s Union Flag (2021) is only the most recent iteration of a long list of his works calling out the professional-managerial class (PMC) and a short list of those that have been censored. In this instance proposed for the 2021 Dark Mofo Festival in the city of Hobart in Tasmania,1 the Spanish artist was to douse a British flag in blood donated by Aboriginal people. Voices promptly decried the idea as “insulting and abhorrent,” “disgusting and terrible,” something that “should have not been considered,” “shock jock art,” and, of course, “not ‘decolonizing.’”2 The festival’s creative director gave way to pressure and canceled the piece while the private collector and founder of the hosting museum Mona apologized, saying, “It’s no wonder everyone is disgusted.”3

Despite the widespread rebuke against Union Flag, not all responses were critical.4  For instance, the Chair of the Aboriginal Land Council of Tasmania—a lawyer, activist, and author of the 2016 book Treaty and Statehood: Aboriginal Self-Determination—offered a defense of the piece and called for its reinstatement “to ensure that the free flow of ideas prevails over short-sighted censorship,” pointing out that, until this exhibition, there had not been discussions or debates around “Tasmania’s dark past,” “the blood of Aboriginal people being spilt on the lands colonised by whites,” or the question of “how were Aborigines dispossessed.”5

The major difference between the polarized reactions to Union Flag is that the censorship came from within the artworld, from curators, museum administrators, artists, collectors, and patrons, while its defense came from a lawyer and activist without. While some of the artworld professionals who decried the work spoke as Aboriginals,6 their outcry was performed from the liberal standpoint of the PMC—that is, as educated mental workers self-appointed to police what they expect from art.7 The canceling of Sierra’s piece lacked any form of mediation. It was not the result of a democratic decision following reflexive and consensual dialogues with representatives from the Indigenous communities in Australia but a reaction to the indignation expressed vocally by some individuals. If censorship followed the demands of curators, administrators, and artists, it was not because they were Aboriginals but because they were the artworld.

The kind of polemic generated with Union Flag is not new for those familiar with Sierra’s oeuvre. In 1999, he hired six young unemployed men in Havana, Cuba, paying them $30 in exchange for being tattooed. The participants accepted due to economic adversities.8 A photographic document of 250 Cm Line Tattooed on 6 Paid People shows a young man with a naked torso offering his back as a blank canvas on which a tattoo artist is drawing a horizontal line (fig. 1). His core is slightly bent in servitude, surrendered to the excruciating experience with his palms pushing against a wall. His head is facing down, almost escaping our gaze to find shelter from pain and humiliation. Meanwhile, his own sight has turned to darkness with his eyes buried in rigidly tightened facial muscles. The illustration resembles the brutal images of prison camps, torture, or other forms of dehumanization—one thinks of the tattoos performed by the Nazi apparatus on Jewish prisoners.

Union Flag and 250 Cm Line Tattooed on 6 Paid People have strong similarities. The needles that appear in both pieces, to (potentially) extract the blood of Tasmanian Aboriginals or to puncture and mark with ink the bleeding skin of unemployed Cuban natives, could be seen as a metonym of the historical violence inflicted by colonial power on the concrete bodies of the colonized. We might also associate the needles used in a blood extraction or to create a tattoo with the alleged private benefits of modern progress and consumer culture—the sort of freedom that comes with choosing health services or a preferred tattoo parlor. But Sierra’s titles provide prosaic information to avoid poetic interpretations. Instead of metaphorical allusions, his critical realism invokes the concrete idea of extraction inherent to the economic model still at the heart of contemporary capitalism and which remains suppressed both in accounts of colonialism that focus primarily on racism (rather than on both racism and economic relations) and in our quotidian acts of consumption.

The consideration of colonialism that appears at the forefront of the discussion in Union Flag was already present in 250 Cm Line Tattooed on 6 Paid People. According to the critic Cuauhtémoc Medina, one participant approached Sierra before the performance and stated, “So just like your ancestors, you come here to mark Negroes on their skin.”9 Still, he agreed to be marked in exchange for $30. This unemployed young man in Havana understood the legacy of historical colonialism, yet he also acknowledged his inevitable subordination to neocolonialism—the new dynamics of exploitation brought about when capitalism itself, rather than mercantile trade or primitive accumulation, became the primary vehicle of globalization. By contrast, the college-educated, liberal eye of the PMC, serving the new rule of capital, has fallen into what Jean-Paul Sartre called the “neocolonial mystification” by which “neocolonialists think that there are some good colonists and some very wicked ones, and that it is the fault of the latter that the situation of the colonies … deteriorated.” 10

Not very different from the French neocolonialists whom Sartre addressed in 1956, today’s neocolonial PMC believes that recognizing the identities of the colonized suffices to emancipate them from their subjugation while the structural question of class can remain ignored. By exercising a defense of identity at the cost of forgetting class, multimillionaire collector, professional gambler, and museum owner David Walsh can be absolved for canceling Union Flag, while artist Santiago Sierra should be condemned as the wicked one for having the terrible, insulting, and abhorrent idea of proposing a piece that unflinchingly reproduces colonial-cum-neocolonial dynamics in the present. Does it matter to the Aboriginal that Union Flag was canceled? In reality, no. Whatever the outcome is for the artworld’s public discussions of race, the material conditions for Aboriginals in Tasmania will remain at the mercy of those who rule the market.11

If 250 Cm Line Tattooed on 6 Paid People did not generate in 1999 a similar controversy to Union Flag today, it is because the piece was performed for a reduced, selected audience at the independent art space Espacio Aglutinador.12 Still invisible to the world stage of biennials and international art fairs, it remained away from the critical gaze of the global PMC, at least for some years. Other pieces that contributed to building Sierra’s reputation as a wicked artist include 8 People Paid to Remain Inside Cardboard Boxes (Guatemala, 1999), A Person Paid to Remain Inside the Trunk of a Car (Mexico, 2000), A Person Paid to Clean Visitor’s Shoes Without Their Consent During an Opening (performed by an eleven-year-old boy in Mexico, 2000), 10 Inch Line Shaved on the Head of Two Junkies Who Received a Shot of Heroin as Payment (Puerto Rico, 2000), and 160 Cm Line Tattooed on Four People (heroin-addicted prostitutes compensated with the market-value of a heroin shot, about $67, while they normally charged between $15 and $17 for fellatio in Spain, 2000).13

These pieces “do not pretend to accomplish a moralizing task,” but all of Sierra’s work is often condemned in a “cynical coda” for not offering anything different than the incorporation of “what was previously marginalized or hidden” into the contemporary spectacle of the artworld.14 While the most recent criticism has focused on identity and race (following the lead of the PMC’s current discussions), earlier accounts alluded more generally to his cynicism or unethical qualities, characterizing him as a “skilled manipulator of people and situations,”15 or questioning his provocative transgressions as a “shortcut to notoriety.”16 Perhaps we can say that these qualities were sufficient to make Sierra merely a target for the PMC because they remained at the level of class and that it is only when his work speaks directly in the identitarian argot of ethnicity that it faces cancellation.17 However, the role that the spectator (as a representative from the world of art) plays in front of those works is also often ignored.18 Against such claims, Andrés Montenegro Rosero has posited that Sierra’s spectator “occupies, simultaneously, opposing positions: victim and executioner, employer and employee, master and slave.”19 Rosero’s reading offers one of the few useful accounts for my understanding of the dialectics between the critical realism that Sierra practices and the systematic resistance that his works encounter among the PMC. The point that Rosero does not touch on is the distinction between his oppositions and that between colonial and colonized that was key to Union Flag’s cancellation. I argue that what generates this sort of controversy is not so much the nature of the violence itself, but how these works act as a catalyst for the artworld to confront its own participation in the exploitation of the people featured in those works.

Since the violence that Sierra invokes exists in the world as a social readymade,20 his actions might be thought of as simple naturalism, or a descriptive representation of reality. However, his appropriation of such conditions is a form of “political realism,” as Diego Sileo argues,21 or what I prefer to call Sierra’s aesthetics of dialectical or critical realism. In the most fundamental sense, the formal aspects through which Sierra presents works to the audience are as important as the performance itself. Combined with the literal relationship of exploitation on view in each action or its visual testimony, the framing via photographs, videos, and other accompanying documents produces an experience of aesthetic dissonance, placing the viewer in a dialectical position as spectator (of a work of art with its, as we want to believe, inherent emancipatory powers) and participant (in the neocolonial dynamics that govern and are supported by the global artworld).

The professional-managerial class, embrace or struggle as it may with the “reproduction of capitalist culture and capitalist class relations,”22 dislikes looking into this mirror provided by Sierra’s realism. This is striking since, as educated art appreciators, mental workers recognize the talent that modern art always had to provoke bourgeois indignation. Think, for instance, of Gustave Courbet and Édouard Manet as two examples of artists who offered an alternative to the enthronement of the market as the new master. By presenting the public with a realist rendering of social class in modern France, they offered not only class consciousness but also called the self-proclaimed integrity of bourgeois art into question. In the age of post-1989 capitalism, the rebellious spirit of modernism appears to have been tamed.

Today, most art leaves the dictates of the aristocracies of global capital unchallenged, mimicking the abstract structures that allow the market to flourish in the elite’s favor. Lately, its main commission seems to be acting as an instrument for the virtue-signaling that the PMC avows. For example, Alfonso Cuarón’s film Roma (2018), discussed below, projected this sort of radar powerfully. When artworks fail to accommodate the virtue hoarders,23 they face a public reprimand no less severe than the disgust and shock that greeted The Painter’s Studio in 1855 or Olympia a decade later. Few artists today cultivate this kind of censure in the way the avant-garde once did and are considered as repulsive as Santiago Sierra.

2. Enchanter le bourgeois

In contrast to Sierra’s blood-drenched flag and invitation to real debate in the present, we may consider the more palatable depiction of Indigenous identity that Alfonso Cuarón produced with Roma. This film received accolades as a formal tribute to the Italian Neorealism or the French New Wave of the 1950s and 1960s; it was critically acclaimed, awarded the Golden Lion and three Oscars, and praised in scholarly reviews as a “technical marvel” that “could endure as a great film” and “a pedagogical object … worthy of multiple viewings.”24 However, Roma portrays a romantic fictionalization of memories of the director’s childhood nanny, and in the sense that it is semi-autobiographical and thus adopts an individual rather than social perspective as its central motif, it is also anti-realist. Cuarón puts the digital medium to work, maximizing the sensorial information capable of redeeming the artist and all of us from a feeling of guilt. It allows us to believe that the depiction of unity between the bourgeois family and their servant could override class struggle; as if Cleo, who appears to become part of the family in the transcendental embrace at the end of the climactic sea sequence, could be liberated from working again under the real disgust of cleaning shit (dog feces appear recurrently in the film) (fig. 2). This is the ultimate fantasy of liberal ideology: that all struggle can be overcome by the recognition of identity rather than by practically addressing concrete needs.

Figure 2. Alfonso Cuarón, Roma, 2018. Film still.

Despite the overwhelmingly positive reception, the film also generated critical accounts. A useful article by Sergio de la Mora summarized some objections, which run from its “aestheticization of housecleaning” to the “patronizing” enactment of “symbolic violence,” and cited Cherokee scholar Joseph Pierce’s indictment of the film’s “naturalization of Indigenous labor …, extraction of ‘emotional value,’ and … inability to imagine Indigenous life other than in relation to serving settler colonialism.”25 However, de la Mora’s review seems ultimately to absolve Roma, concluding that the “film’s clearest gift” is to provide a form of consciousness that “does hint at a future of class guilt” and a “pressing demand for the enfranchisement of this long-taken-for-granted sector of workers” (RRE). I argue that, by putting class guilt on standby for an uncertain future while wallowing in the director’s romanticized private memory, the film assures our dismissal of the reality of the present. The form of consciousness that Roma invokes contains in one convenient package the allusion to a potential guilt bound up with and counteracted by its ready-made redemption. This form of confession, the shallow critique of white male privilege the film offers, accommodates the same liberal ideology that keeps the PMC in charge of the ways freedom is meted out, and instead of building from a collective sense of democracy, it leaves the viewer comfortably couched in a sense that generous personal feelings toward those less privileged than the film’s narrator are all that is needed to solve the problems.

By looking at what the professional-managerial class loathes and what it loves, we can observe not only two different styles but two divergent approaches to reality, exemplified in what I would call, drawing partly from Georg Lukács’s “Narrate or Describe?,” the critical realism of Sierra, which narrates, and the tendentious realism (or naturalism) of Cuarón, which merely describes. While in Sierra the class struggle is narrated from the standpoint of a participant (by integrating the performer and the audience into the total action of events “recounted in all their dramatic significance”), in Cuarón it is described from the standpoint of an observer (by presenting the viewer with a picture of “social problems … simply described as social facts, as results, as caput mortuum of a social process”).26 In other words, Sierra presents us with the crude reality of the exploitation in which we participate (and which makes us uncomfortable), while Cuarón offers an indulgent version of the same problem that, albeit in a terrifically accomplished aesthetics (or precisely because it arouses aesthetic pleasure terrifically), creates a distant comfort. The latter does not represent the social problem as objective reality but, by monumentalizing identity, pushes our own class consciousness into a passive background. As Lukács explains, “[O]nly in activity [we] become interesting to each other; only in action have [we] significance for literature” (ND 123). Thus, “when … the symbol [which in Cuarón’s filmic screen is the omnipresent Cleo] is supposed to embody social monumentality and is supposed to imbue episodes otherwise meaningless, with great social significance, true art is abandoned” (ND 115).

Cuarón’s filmic recognition of his childhood nanny Liboria Rodríguez (the real Cleo, for whom the film intends to be a tribute) does not represent her own voice; it does not free her from a life as a subaltern nor grant her with a universal basic income, a minimum wage, or any other form of material sovereignty. The typical compensation of domestic workers like Cleo, who were excluded from labor protections recognized for other workers in post-Revolutionary Mexico, is barely monetary but made by providing housing, food, and other life essentials.27 As de la Mora points out, this structure of domestic work is the legacy of Spanish colonialism, in which “the caste system involved a racialization that naturalized the servitude of Indigenous people” (RRE). However, since the film itself portrays these structures naturalistically—without a critical imagination of an alternative Indigenous future—it continues to reproduce such structures in a neocolonial form. By contrast, Sierra calls out not only the structural legacy of the colonial past but the neocolonial ideology of the present. Instead of celebrating identity by alluding to a romantic fantasy, Sierra narrates our present by rendering the violence of our socioeconomic conditions brutally objective, and thus he not only exposes the rule of neoliberal capitalism but opens a possibility for humans to act with consequence—or at least gain consciousness of the place they occupy in it.

3. Symptomatic disgust

Over the past two decades, the shock and backlash that consistently follow each of Sierra’s works usually spin around a vague (and ideologically false) sense of morality. Take for instance the reactions by a Cuban art critic calling Sierra a “vulture” who “market[s] persons” in the name of an “anti-aesthetic pose” only in order to “feed himself from the surplus value of his own art”28 or the bitter response by a Spanish curator and chief editor in a national newspaper wanting “to haul Sierra over the coals” for generating “scandal” tuned to the “pulse” of the moment and making “thousands of euros,” filling his “mouth and pockets” by selling “libertarian words … at market value in the million-dollar-prized artworld.”29

This resentment against Sierra is not different from the rebuke following Union Flag. By calling him a “libertarian” in Spain, a “market vulture” in Cuba, or a “colonial artist” in Tasmania, the PMC manifests its moralizing repulsion against the artist’s wrongdoing while condoning the artworld’s neocolonizing practices. The critical reactions against the unethical art of Union Flag or 250 Cm Line Tattooed on 6 Paid People or Person Paid to Clean Visitor’s Shoes Without Their Consent During an Opening tend to decry these performances for trespassing what they consider art’s ethical limits but rarely address the material conditions of Aboriginals in Australia or unemployed people in Cuba or child labor in Mexico (that Sierra exposes so crudely by bringing their protagonists in to participate).

The symptom of the conflictive feelings that Sierra’s works produce among the PMC might be summarized in the often-cited disgust that David Walsh alluded to when censoring Union Flag.30 But this form of disgust has been detached from the public sense of taste (or distaste) that Kant attributed to the universal faculty of judgment. That old idea of disgust still seemed to define the postmodern aesthetics of the 1990s that inspired Musée Picasso director Jean Clair to affirm, “From taste … we have passed on to disgust.” When Arthur Danto rendered this comment as a “neat aphoristic representation of what … happened in art in the past some decades,” he attempted to define the aesthetics of a period marked by the “repulsion, abjection, horror, and disgust,”31 which seemed (rather vaguely) to describe the work of Paul McCarthy, Damien Hirst, Kiki Smith, Cindy Sherman, or Andrés Serrano.32 Danto’s timely reflection came just two years after Sierra’s 250 Cm Line Tattooed on 6 Paid People, a piece we might feel tempted to include in this group. However, it is difficult to say that the formal aspects of Sierra’s works can elicit disgust in the same sense.

In contrast with the sensually repulsive of the scatological 1990s, Sierra’s art is defined by what we might call the socially repulsive. This repulsion does not derive from the sensorial apprehension of the artwork but from the exposure of the socially abject that pre-exists the artwork and remains veiled—until realist artists such as Sierra find an opportunity to present us with an eloquent picture of such objective reality.33 Elaborating upon Danto’s remarks to signal the now old shift to postmodernism, I argue that the repulsion, the anger, the discontent comes from a different feeling. From disgust… we have passed on to guilt.

Critics of the socially repulsive in art have not only expressed this kind of guilt-driven symptomatic disgust but dismissed these works as simple provocations or thrown them into the sac of cultural postmodernism. Let us consider two useful responses to the alleged postmodernism of Sierra’s work. One productive reading came in recent years from anthropologist Néstor García Canclini, who, in acknowledgment of a postmodern condition, articulated the idea of a post-autonomous, contextual aesthetics where “art is the place for imminence” after society has lost a storyline and the capacity to “organize the diversity in [an interdependent] world.” For Canclini, the new artistic field, in which Sierra seems to be an example, has experienced a displacement from “practices based on objects to practices based on contexts … where aesthetic difference appears to dissolve.”34

It remains unclear to me how much historical thought Canclini has given to the avant-gardes and their dissolution of the bourgeois idea of formal aestheticism (particularly, Dada in the 1920s and Neo-Dada in the 1960s). Nonetheless, his consideration of material and contextual landscapes in the production of neoliberal culture, framed in the context of globalization, is certainly insightful. Looking at Sierra’s Wall Enclosing a Space (2003) and his other intervention in the Spanish pavilion for the 2003 Venice Biennale,35 Canclini discusses these pieces as “reappropriations of objects” reflecting metaphorically on the “difficulty of exhibiting a national culture” and the conflict inherent to intercultural representations of identity.36 However, I will argue against Canclini in two ways: First, that Sierra does not dissolve aesthetic difference since, as a sensitive artist preoccupied with the linguistic aspects of the artwork, his photographs and videos actually engage with what we used to call formalism, even style—Sierra has declared himself a “minimalist with a guilt complex.”37 And second, that by missing a solid elaboration on the questions of class and labor, Canclini’s otherwise valuable insights can only explain some of Sierra’s pieces, and only in part (for what they do in their specific contexts regarding their cultural relation with market and institutions). Ultimately, this interpretation surrenders art to the resignation that we are all postmodern now—that, without a storyline, we simply need to learn to live without the idea of a collective future.

The second argument against Sierra’s alleged postmodernism comes from Sierra himself. In fact, readers like Canclini or Claire Bishop38 may receive with surprise the 2011 interview with Juan Albarrán, in which Sierra stated, “I consider myself a modern artist; I don’t like postmodernity, I don’t subscribe to it. The establishment imposes that we are all postmodern, and I don’t agree with that.”39

4. The line of modernism

Before 250 Cm Line Tattooed on 6 Paid People, Sierra made Line of 30 Cm Tattooed on a Remunerated Person (Mexico, 1998) (fig. 3). This was the first work of this kind, and he explained, “I looked for a person who did not have any tattoos or intentions of having one, but due to a need for money, would agree to have a mark on his skin for life. This person received $50 as payment.”40 Discussing the formal aspects of his works, Sierra later claimed that his explorations are wittingly in search of the horizontality of the modernist narrative line that would position him as “seeing everything like the omniscient narrators of the nineteenth century.”41 This piece, consisting of a vertical line transgressing the back of a single person, seemed to contradict this intention and rather convey the fragmentary interruption in the horizontal timeline of history akin to the postmodernity that Fredric Jameson defined as “characterized by this new kind of present of time … [where] the sense of history is the loser: the past is gone and we can no longer imagine the future,” no longer imagine the storyline of a left revolutionary politics.42 In this sense, Line of 30 Cm Tattooed on a Remunerated Person might be seen as a failure. However, as the first of this series, I consider it an exploratory sketch for the artist’s longer-term modernist project. In every subsequent work, Sierra will look instead for a collective experience, bringing together groups of people connected by their precarity. In contrast to the verticality of the 30 Cm Line performed on one individual, the horizontality of the 160 Cm Line Tattooed on 4 People or of the 250 Cm Line Tattooed on 6 Paid People (fig. 4) conveys the narrative of a modernist outcry that once called for “Workers of the World, Unite!”—or today could call for the people shackled together in debt slavery to unite (against neoliberal capitalism). Instead of being ostracized by the burden of carrying a mark for life on their backs, these paid people are united by their tattooed line as much as by their condition as collective subjects of exploitation.

Figure 3. Santiago Sierra, Line of 30 Cm Tattooed on a Remunerated Person, 1998. 51 Regina Street, Mexico City.
Figure 4. Santiago Sierra, 250 Cm Line Tattooed on 6 Paid People, 1999 (group view). Espacio Aglutinador, Havana, Cuba.

The 250 Cm Line Tattooed on 6 Paid People is an opportunity to evaluate the victory of the neoliberal narrative in relation to our position as defeated (the 99% of us) and rethink a society where the old narrative of social being can still be written by artists such as Sierra, who, again, as Diego Sileo put it, places himself as a “narrator who transcends the mere transcription of facts with his story, and thus delivers us with a human world.”43 The way Sierra presents the brutal, degrading humiliation to which the people in these works are subjected prevents us from seeing it as a matter of personal adversity or hard luck. Instead, we see how it is determined by an economic model that dehumanizes social relations. In addition to the viewer’s relationship to the work as spectator/participant discussed above, the performers’ collective participation in the performance enables a social awareness of their own condition as exploited. The line that unites the individuals—and can only fully exist in their union—is at the same time dissolved by the mobility of their concrete bodies. After the action, the line will be fragmented, but there exists the possibility of remapping the modernist narrative line every time they unite. This union in solidarity against the conditions endured by alienated individuals is a quality expressed by many modernist artists.

Modern art has had an affinity with class struggle throughout its history—an inclination directly tied to its talent for provoking bourgeois indignation. Not so different from the reactions that Manet’s Olympia aroused in the 1865 Paris Salon, or Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon incited when first seen by the public in 1916, the controversy around Sierra’s art today is due not to the exploitation represented in it but the fact that its audience is now the class in denial that exploitative economic relations enable their everyday lives. Similar to the subjects in Olympia or Les Demoiselles or Courbet’s Stonebreakers, the prostitute, the laboring child, the unemployed, the junkie, the immigrant, the homeless, the Indigenous that Sierra employs in his works belong to the bottom strata of capitalism’s economic order and are subject to the worst forms of neocolonial exploitation. This class never protests against art because they are not part of its sphere.

The critical imagination of democracy that modern artists outlined provoking the reactionary bourgeoisie was never easy to achieve. The similarities between Sierra and a modern socialist like Courbet may help to make my sense of this project more clear. 44 For example, we might consider Person Paid to Clean Visitor’s Shoes vis-à-vis The Stonebreakers, whose offended audiences were comprised of consumers on the world stage of biennials and contemporary fairs in 2000 and flâneurs in the Paris Salon in 1849 (figs. 5 and 6). Think of the broken aesthetic pleasure of the bourgeois eye who, protected under the sensual touch of silk and satin clothes, arrives in a carriage through clean cobbled streets to the 1850 Paris Salon only to be exposed to Courbet’s picture of “desperate and unredeemed rural poverty”45 where a boy too young to work and a man too old to break rocks labor in pre-modern conditions to produce the cobblestones for the streets and carriages of the urban beneficiaries of modernity. Or think of the discomforting experience of fed and drunk guests at a gallery opening when their luxury shoes are abruptly polished by a dirty, starving eleven-year-old Indigenous boy in huaraches who would otherwise be hidden in a sweatshop across the street or in Bangladesh manufacturing their brand name shoes.

Figure 5. Santiago Sierra, A Person Paid to Clean Visitor’s Shoes Without Their Consent During an Opening, 2000. ACE Gallery, Mexico City.
Figure 6. Gustave Courbet, The Stonebreakers, 1849. Oil on canvas, 165 x 257 cm. Previously Galerie Neue Meister, Dresden, destroyed 1945.

There is a striking similarity in the grainy images of Sierra’s unemployed young man in Havana and the eleven-year-old boy in Mexico and the couple of too young and too old workers in Courbet’s France. Not only are all these scenes dimly lit, our vantage point is higher and looks down to their bowed faces as they veer away from the pictorial frame that divides us. They turn their backs on us, looking away towards the right and bottom limits of the image. These are not portraits of individual characters (who could allow a feeling of pity in the liberal, cultural sense) but illustrations of the abjection that, otherwise, remains blurred and outside our field of view.

A twenty-first-century modernist, Sierra’s art has at its core the class struggle of old socialism. What produces a definite sense of discomfort is the fact that, unlike the traditional materials at hand for the modern artist, his medium is the human labor of others. Sierra complicates this bodily immediacy by concealing their identities (as individuals and in the cultural sense), thus making viewers in front of these works experience a bodily empathy with the subjects portrayed that is somewhat abstract. The pose and point of view presented in the photographs are formal choices that produce the psychological actualization of an aesthetic dissonance. We feel our gaze on the right side of the image (call it the beautiful, the good, the respected, the proud, the productive), the side that enjoys the benefits made possible by the alienating labor of those on the other side (call it the ugly, the evil, the wretched, the humiliated, the abject). Both places are mutually reflexive: like it or not, most of us are at the same time beneficiaries and potential candidates to becoming part of a Sierra piece, and thus any disgust should also be understood as a symptom of the unconscious fear before our own contingency. We cannot maintain our distance from them on a structural or physical level, and this is what makes the demand for a new story possible.

5. No absolution

The art of Santiago Sierra offers more than a critique of class and the reconstruction of the storyline of modernism. His works can also offer us a reconciliation between identity and class, which is foreclosed on by the PMC but might be possible (or at least I would like to propose this hypothesis) by looking at what Jean-Paul Sartre called a system in interiority, or the “mediation between two moments of transcendent being.”46 In his 1961 lecture at the Gramsci Institute in Rome, Sartre clarified his notion of transcendent being by discussing a logic of self-emancipation towards class consciousness through the materialist status of subjectivity—in opposition to the Marxist “pan-objectivism” that, more clearly held by Lukács, “ignores the subject” (RL 3).

Sartre employed a “dialectic of three terms,” identifying two forms of exteriority and their mediation in a moment of interiority. The first is “the exteriority of within … whose crowning feature is organic status, from which death can return us to the inorganic,” and the second is the exteriority of “beyond,” reflecting “what this organism finds in front of it as a work object … in order to maintain its status as an organism.” The mediation of the two moments of transcendent being occurs in the moment called interiority and “it is at the level of this mediation … that we encounter pure subjectivity.” This mediation, Sartre argued, “is necessarily immediate to itself in the sense that it does not contain its own knowledge” (RL 9–10). However, since “knowledge seeks to match an idea to its object, the more it develops the more its difference from the known object diminishes” to the point that “perfect knowledge would be the object functioning with the subject inside making it function. Perfect knowledge of an oil well is the oil well” (RL 13). This form of knowledge acts on the object that is known but leaves out the subject and, therefore, the possibility of transformation. A second stage of consciousness is required to lead to transformative commitment.

If we return to the Union Flag controversy, that first stage of perfect knowledge is of the kind that the Yorta Yorta curator who censored Sierra’s work called for: “If you are not Indigenous, you are not an expert in Indigenous culture.”47 This statement not only reflects the displacement of the source of expertise from modern subjectivity to postmodern identity but fails to recognize the second kind of exteriority in Sartre’s system, the kind necessary for the subject to feel the particularity of her “work objects” in order to maintain her separate organic status. By missing a mediation with this form of transcendent exteriority, organic identity becomes reified, and the being surrenders the possibility of transformative self-emancipation to capital. Without the mediation Sartre proposes, one may embrace the (ideologically false) authenticity of organic identity while, from the standpoint of the PMC, unauthentically collapsing the accountability that lies at the heart of class unconsciousness.

For Sartre, the subjective construction of an object (we could say, identity) is “a relation of the inside and outside with an inside that does not know itself” (RL 12). If we can agree that it is the appearance of the subjectivity-object to the subject herself that leads to its transformation (RL 14), then what may be truly transformative is to discover and confront the residue of our bourgeois ideology, to acknowledge that “there is no absolution for art,” as curator Lutz Henke put it, and make a conscious object of the fact that next to our Indigenous or non-Indigenous subjectivity there is a class subjectivity.48 In the dialectics of neocolonial subjectivity, an Australian curator speaking as an Indigenous person is at the same time the beneficiary of a Commonwealth passport and a mental worker of an art institution. Her voice certainly has power, but this power stems not from her identity alone but from her belonging to a class allowed to be empowered by the elites of capital—and only for as long as it serves the institution’s interest to capitalize on identity.

What Sierra was proposing with Union Flag was precisely the critical mediation between the two forms of exteriority—the organic blood collectively extracted and the inorganic flag—that coexist in deep conflict within the pure subjective identity and the unresolved, unmediated history of colonial domination. However, by expressing its repulsion and forcing the censoring of Union Flag, the PMC exercised its neocolonial power through the neoliberal structures of the artworld: that is, by projecting representations of racial inclusion while creating class division between those curating or consuming art and those who cannot afford the festival’s expensive admission tickets, or between those with a college degree and the invisible frontline workers who, regardless of race (although most likely are underpaid and powerless Aboriginals, Blacks or Hispanics) perform the manual labor of cleaning and catering for the consumers of culture.

There is no return to a pre-capitalist state for Sierra. His reconstruction of the storyline of modernism does not look back into the past (as Cuarón did with Roma) but to the present. Like the nineteenth-century modernists, this realist critique of class shakes the present uncomfortably but aims for a class consciousness and political unity that can be projected into the future. Setting aside the postmodern tradition of cultural leftism, the works discussed above manifest the capitalistic economic relationships of our everyday lives and cannot be defined by the post-autonomous condition Canclini suggested. Rather, they should be framed altogether by the old utopias of modernism and its “accompanying aesthetics” and organized around the autonomy of art that Jameson thinks “paradoxically offer[s] the strongest avenue for the integration of art in a socialist society.”49

Sierra’s works, in resonance with the modernist aspirations of the old aesthetics that once served the emancipation of collective subjects, offer a resistance to the neocolonial ideology that today serves the increasingly authoritarian rule of global capitalism’s plutocracy by drawing critical attention to the self-proclaimed integrity of the artworld. His art awakens the indignation of a sector of the PMC because it exposes the same uncomfortable truth that Sartre once presented in front of French colonists, namely that “it is not true that there are some good colons and others who are wicked. There are colons and that is it.”50 Sierra’s critical realism looks up at the professional-managerial class and its liberal neocolonialism to present the exploitative condition of the global artworld itself, leaving us viewers to cope with the thought that, “[We,] the world of culture, are on the winning team, we are, surprise, the exploiters.”51


1.  The festival has been held during the summer solstice since 2013 and is characterized by controversial displays blurring art, music, and performances of “pagan radicalism.” See
2.  Sarah Cascone, “An Australian Arts Festival Has Canceled Artist Santiago Sierra’s Plans to Douse the British Flag in the Blood of Indigenous People,” Artnet News, March 23, 2021,
3.  David Walsh, “David’s Response to Union Flag,” Mona blog, Museum of Old and New Art, last modified March 23, 2021,
4.  The rebuke was primarily posted on social media with its characteristic rash spontaneity. The anarchy reigning in the world of algorithmic platforms and its instrumentality to impact a target audience has made it a preferred media not only for Trumpism or the corporate world but also for the liberal faux activism of the PMC.
5.  Michael Mansell, “Mansell Calls for Union Flag to be Reinstated by Dark Mofo,” Tasmanian Times, March 24, 2021,
6.  For instance, one of the commentaries came from a senior curator at Museums Victoria in Melbourne, whose professional profile identifies her as a “proud Yorta Yorta woman” and who explained in an interview that, “If you are not Indigenous, you are not an expert in Indigenous culture, no matter how many PhDs you have.” See Eirin Torgersen, “Kimberly Moulton,” Vimeo video, 0:57,
7.  As Catherine Liu has put it, “People trained in this regime of symbolic manipulation love to weaponize outrage to fuel moral panics, but they are unable and unwilling to face their identity as a class. In the liberal professions, they police each other to enforce the sort of social and intellectual conformity required by their class, one that is fundamentally fragmented by competition and individualism. All PMC-approved policies about inequality, racism, and bias circle back to strengthening their sense of political agency and cultural and moral superiority.”  See Catherine Liu, Virtue Hoarders: The Case Against the Professional Managerial Class (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2021), 73.
8.  The piece was performed during Cuba’s Periodo Especial (1991-2000), an extended economic crisis resulting from the U.S. embargo over the island after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
9.  Cuauhtémoc Medina, “Recent Political Forms: Radical Pursuits in Mexico,” Trans, no. 8 (2000): 145–63.
10.  Jean-Paul Sartre, “Colonialism is a System,” in Colonialism and Neocolonialism (New York: Routledge, 2006), 36.
11.  According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Aboriginals remain 1.9 times more likely to not be employed when compared to non-Indigenous Australians. See “Indigenous employment,” Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, September 16, 2021,
12.  The artist-run gallery was founded in 1994, based in the modest home of director Sandra Ceballos. See
13.  For illustrations and descriptions of these and other works by Santiago Sierra, see
14.  Carlos Jiménez, “Turbulencias en el panóptico,” Lápiz, no. 167 (2000): 47. Translated by the author. All translations hereafter are the author’s unless otherwise indicated.
15.  Adrian Searle, “Absolute Excrement,” The Guardian, December 4, 2007,
16.  Isabel Lafont, “¿Puede la pornografía ser arte político?,” El País, January 14, 2009,
17.  This is especially true when ethnicity manifests differences at the level of class. For instance, the piece Hiring and Arrangement of 30 Workers in Relation to Their Skin Color (2002) was produced in Austria without major trouble. However, when Sierra proposed a similar piece at P.S.1 in New York, where he wanted “to line up all the P.S.1 workers according to the position they occupied and photograph their backs.” He was censored since “they knew that … there would be a perfect gradation from white to black, because the people who work at the door are black, but when you go upstairs, the watchmen are more Latino, and at the top, it’s the paradise of the white man.” See Teresa Margolles, “Santiago Sierra by Teresa Margolles,” BOMB, January 1, 2004,
18.  An exception is Claire Bishop’s insightful reading of Sierra’s work in Artificial Hells. See Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship (New York: Verso, 2012), 219–39. Bishop focuses on the politics of spectatorship and puts the emphasis on what she calls delegated performances, or the process of hiring non-actors for the performance. In these pieces where the audience interacts with the performance, “the viewer’s phenomenological encounter with the work,” Bishop points out, “[was] disturbingly cold and alienated.” This argument cannot explain the strong reactions against the two most controversial pieces discussed here, since they can only be experienced through documentation or a recap of the artist’s proposal. I disagree with Bishop’s reduction of these actions to “delegated performances” and argue they become instead mediated actions insofar as they entail a pendular swing between our perception as viewers and the exploitative reality of the world.
19.  Andrés David Montenegro Rosero, “Radical (Dis)Identification: Santiago Sierra’s Double(D) Spectator,” Third Text 29, no. 6 (2015): 491.
20.  A term used by Rosero after Pilar Villela Mascaró to discuss the contextual conditions that preexist in Santiago Sierra’s works. Andrés David Montenegro Rosero, “Locating Work in Santiago Sierra’s Artistic Practice,” Ephemera 13, no. 1 (2013): 111.
21.  Diego Sileo, “Santiago Sierra. Mea Culpa,” in Santiago Sierra: Mea Culpa, ed. Diego Sileo and Lutz Henke (Milano: Silvana Editoriale, 2017), 13.
22.  See Barbara Ehrenreich and John Ehrenreich, “The Professional-Managerial Class,” Radical America 11, no. 2 (March/April 1977): 13.
23.  See Liu, Virtue Hoarders.
24.  Jonathan Risner, “Roma by Alfonso Cuarón (review),” Chiricú Journal 3, no. 2 (2019): 167–69.
25.  Sergio de la Mora, “Roma: Representation vs. Exploitation,” Film Quarterly 72, no. 4 (Summer 2019),  Hereafter cited in the text as “RRE.”
26.  Georg Lukács, “Narrate or Describe?,” in Writer and Critic and other essays, ed. and trans. Arthur Kahn (London: Merlin Press, 1970), 111, 113. Hereafter cited in the text as “ND” followed by the page number.
27.  See, for instance, Sara Hidalgo, “The Making of a ‘Simple Domestic’: Domestic Workers, the Supreme Court, and the Law in Postrevolutionary Mexico,” International Labor and Working-Class History 94 (Fall 2018): 55–79.
28.  Héctor Antón Castillo, “Cuando las actitudes devienen mercancía: El arte de Santiago Sierra,” Réplica21, December 20, 2006,; and “Antropofagia de Santiago Sierra,” Artepoli, accessed June 4, 2021,
29.  Laura Revuelta, “Santiago Sierra, el arte de la contradicción,” ABC Cultural, March 4, 2018,
30.  As cited above, Walsh sentenced, “It’s no wonder everyone is disgusted.” Walsh, “David’s Response.”
31.  Arthur Danto, “Paul McCarthy,” in Unnatural Wonders: Essays from the Gap Between Art and Life (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005), 85.
32.  See also Arthur Danto, The Abuse of Beauty: Aesthetics and the Concept of Art (Chicago: Open Court, 2003).
33.  Of course, Sierra is not the only one. To cite other examples of this form of realism, Hans Haacke’s Der Bevölkerung (2000), Andrea Fraser’s Untitled (2003 videotaped sexual encounter in exchange for $20,000 with a private collector), or Christoph Büchel’s Barca Nostra (2019) are works that have produced similar repulsion while trying to engage viewers with a dialectical criticality of the darker side of everyday life.
34.  Néstor García Canclini, La sociedad sin relato: Antropología y estética de la inminencia (Buenos Aires: Katz, 2010), 12–19. An English version was published as Art Beyond Itself: Anthropology for a Society without a Story Line (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014).
35.  The main piece required a Spanish passport to access the space enclosed by the wall. Most visitors were excluded, including Canclini, an Argentine.
36.  Canclini, La sociedad sin relato, 111–14.
37.  Rosa Martínez and Santiago Sierra, “Santiago Sierra in conversation with Rosa Martínez,” in Santiago Sierra (Madrid: Turner, 2003). Reproduced in Santiago Sierra: Mea Culpa, ed. Diego Sileo and Lutz Henke (Milano: Silvana Editoriale, 2017), 42.
38.  To clarify, Canclini’s and Bishop’s interpretations of Sierra’s work are among the most engaging and productive. Nonetheless, they discuss a postmodernist stance with which Sierra disagrees and do not respond to his modernist statement.
39.  Santiago Sierra in Juan Albarán, “Del fotoconceptualismo al fototableau. Fotografía, performance y escenificación en España (1970-2000)” (PhD diss., Universidad de Salamanca, 2012), 420.
41.  Albarán, “Del fotoconceptualismo,” 420.
42.  Fredric Jameson, An American Utopia (New York: Verso, 2016), 13.
43.  Sileo, “Santiago Sierra. Mea Culpa,” 13.
44.  John Berger portrayed Courbet as a “declared and incorruptible Socialist” whose “Socialism was expressed in his work by its quality of uninhibited Fraternity.” See John Berger, Portraits: John Berger on Artists (New York: Verso, 2015), 226–35.
45.  Berger, Portraits, 233.
46.  Jean-Paul Sartre, “Jean-Paul Sartre’s Rome Lecture,” in What is Subjectivity? (New York: Verso, 2016), 8–9. Hereafter cited in the text as “RL” followed by the page number.
47.  See Torgersen, “Kimberly Moulton.”
48.  Lutz Henke, “Mea Culpa? There Is No Absolution for Art,” in Santiago Sierra: Mea Culpa, ed. Diego Sileo and Lutz Henke (Milano: Silvana Editoriale, 2017), 18–21.
49.  Jameson, An American Utopia, 36.
50.  Sartre, “Colonialism is a System,” 38.
51.  Santiago Sierra in Henke, “No Absolution for Art,” 20.
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