Interview with Santiago Sierra
Berlin has recently hosted the 4th German-Spanish cultural conference, organized by the Cervantes Institute and the Goethe Institute. Prominent figures of the German and Spanish art world came together at ďArt and CrisisĒ. They discussed the consequences for the fine arts in the current financial and economic situation in order to develop possible approaches and creative solutions. The Spanish artist Santiago Sierra was one of the two artists invited to perform an action within this event. Both polemic and admired worldwide, Santiago remains faithful to his solid style, often hidden behind controversy. We have taken this opportunity to acquire a deeper knowledge of his artwork and figure.
Artfacts.Net: The symposium ďArt and CrisisĒ focused on how the capitalist crisis affects the fine arts. In some occasions, you have described capitalism as a devastating success and you said the crisis would have similar effects.
Applying this idea to the art context, where does the success of this crisis lie? Which would be the interaction between art and crisis?
Santiago Sierra: Well, when I said that crisis and capitalism are successful, I naturally meant that they are a success for their designers and beneficiaries. It is a success for the financial system. They needed a lot of money to make bubbles, and they had it. It is obvious, though, that to us, the rest of mortals, it is a robbery. But this matters less every time, and the fact is that the eliteís control over the population appears to be another devastating success. Democracy is definitely a fraud. It seems that it has also affected the art world. But it didnít sink the ship, or even hit it. Bare in mind that the unemployed working class doesnít buy contemporary art. Furthermore, in the art world, as in other sectors, searching in the state governmentís pockets makes less and less sense, since the government is already private.
Artfacts.Net: In order to enter the conference room, you created two entrances, one for the people with a gross salary of more than 1,000 Euros and another for those who earned less. Once inside, both groups of people were separated by a wall. This is a recurrent element in your artwork to reflect the physical or imaginary walls that divide a society. Your work forces one to question which side we are on. At the end of the conference, the wall fell apart partially.
Did this cause the reaction you expected from the attendees?
Santiago Sierra: A sign on the wall is only a sign on the wall. Itís the observer who attaches one value or another to the sign. This is because the signs are usually erected by institutions who have an important coercive power. However, because our sign had no backing of organized violence, all participants could act how they deemed appropriate. Unfortunately, most behavioural signs in our social environment donít allow us disagreeing without being punished. So I imagine they enjoyed their action, and that is always good.
Artfacts.Net: After having left Madrid for finding it too stifling and going to Hamburg, which wasnít favourable either to start an art career, what do you think about the art scenes in both countries?
Santiago Sierra: The thing is that I had certain idea of the art scene in Madrid at the beginning of the 90īs, but only of its most outsider aspect. I also knew something about Hamburgís, but not as much. Later, between 1995 and 2000, I got to know the Mexican art scene in depth. But to be honest, after that I have been focusing on myself. So from that moment on, I began to work in distant places, I started to move a lot and, in certain way, to learn more about many places. But this made me lose the direct connection that leisure gave me with the scene. I moved to Italy three years ago and I am now planning to set my studio in Madrid. So, even though I have worked there quite regularly, I havenít worked as much in Berlin and Madrid as in other places, so I can just tell you my general impression. And my impression is that working in Spain implies that you have to depend on institutions, and that is halfway between begging and reward. Thatís why I wouldnít recommend to anyone to set a studio there without solving this problem first. However, it is easier in Berlin because it is a cheaper area and the art scene is large and strong, but I donít think the treasure is there either.
Artfacts.Net: ďOnly a cynic can set an exampleĒ. Despite sentences like this, it seems people still expect a certain redeeming attitude from you. However, as you have emphasised on many occasions, your artwork represents a reality in which some people intervene, but the intention is not to change their lives or the world through your art. You bring to light crudely and without make up social and economic injustice and you have even been censored in some occasions. On the other hand, people talk more and more about how the art world is becoming a show and they reproach you for creating media frenzy around your artworks.
Are you the eternally ďmisunderstood artistĒ?
Santiago Sierra: Sometimes you need a lot of patience to stand the stereotypes that the media publish about you. And sometimes I simply donít have it; thatís why I almost have no relationship with them. The best thing to do is to talk only with the specialized press. I think that the general press has lost all its credibility, not only on the field of art, but on all fields. There still remains some independent press, but it is scarce and, on the other hand, we artists are always being separated from our representation spaces. Paul the Octopus, for example, is only a miserable animal in a cage; he's not a spectacle by himself since the poor beast has no idea of what is going on. Iím not comparing myself with Paul the Octopus, but this is how the media work: they turn octopuses into money and into alienating chunks of information. Ask journalists why this happens, not the artists. Why do their headlines inform about polemics that only happen when they publish them? The art world is formed to a great extent of well prepared people who are sufficiently mundane to accept artistic expressions that the media would undoubtedly tear to pieces. This is why I said earlier that artists are being separated from their representation spaces. Itís very different creating a project for a public who assumes the 20th Century (and subsequent) linguistic contributions, than for a public who is less familiarized with them and sees the project via the media instead of directly (and between Paul the Octopus and a car advertisement, of course). And regarding your question if I feel understood: yes, I do, and a lot, because I am usually very clear and firm in my presentations. Quite surely, Paul the Octopusís fan club wonít understand me but, who cares?
Entrance view of Art + Crisis - Courtesy Galerie Ulf Saupe, Berlin
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