Santiago Sierra’s Political Prisoners in Contemporary Spain, 2018, at ARCOmadrid before it was removed. Photo: Galería Helga de Alvear.

Catalan Museum to Display Santiago Sierra Work Censored at ARCOmadrid

Artist Santiago Sierra’s controversial series of portraits of twenty-four political prisoners that was pulled from ARCOmadrid last week will soon be exhibited at the Museum of Lleida in Catalonia, Spain. The fair had ordered Galería Helga de Alvear to remove the work so that it did not undermine the “visibility” of the other works exhibited, causing the artist to denounce the act as censorship.

In response to the work’s removal, Madrid’s mayor, Manuela Carmena, announced that she would boycott the fair’s launch in the “utmost defense of freedom of creation, expression and exhibition in Madrid.” Following the backlash, organizers of the fair released the following statement: “We regret and sincerely apologize for the controversy that has arisen from our request for a gallery to remove a piece, which was never intended as an act of censorship, even though it may have been publicly perceived as such.”

The work has since sparked debate about the freedom of expression in Spain. In its annual report, Amnesty International revealed that the number of cases involving the violation of people’s freedom of speech in Spain is on the rise. “Dozens of people were prosecuted for ‘glorification of terrorism’ and ‘humiliation of victims’ on social media networks.” Among those arrested recently include a rapper who was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison for distributing songs with violent lyrics and two puppeteers who were accused of praising terrorism during a performance in 2016.

“I don’t like this at all,” Sierra told Sam Jones of The Guardian. “I don’t exhibit very much—if at all—in my city and the one time I do, I get censored. It’s the law of the jungle, a tyrannical act from other times far worse than these.” Titled Contemporary Spanish Political Prisoners, 2018, the piece features partially pixelated portraits of figures ranging from activists to politicians such as Oriol Junqueras, the head of the pro-independence party the Catalan Republican Left. The work has since been sold to collector Tatxo Benet, a partner of the media conglomerate Mediapro, for almost $100,000. “I knew that the piece was powerful but I would never have imagined it would be censored,” he told Gareth Harris of the Art Newspaper.

Commenting on the Museum of Lleida’s decision to exhibit the piece, which will be displayed starting March 7, Sierra told CatalanNews that “what happened in ARCO is fortunately a thing of the past. The point now is for the political prisoners to be released and for cultural workers to stop being persecuted.”