PRINT October 2002



Although he started out as a more or less traditional sculptor in an arte povera vein, Santiago Sierra is today best known for paying others to perform his pieces (he has paid people to sit in cardboard boxes, get tattoos, even masturbate on camera). Over the past three years, I have worked with Sierra several times—in Berlin, Munich, and New York. On each occasion we started out with the intention of restaging or, better, recontextualizing his 2000 work Lifted Out Wall Leaning Over by 60 Degrees and Held Up by 5 People, but the particularities of each venue ended up producing altogether different pieces. Lifted Out Wall was initially performed in Mexico City, Sierra's adoptive home. Five workers cut out a wall from floor to ceiling, extracted it from its original position, and held it at a sixty-degree angle. Each participant was paid 700 pesos (about $65) for their labor. During a four-hour period over the course of five days, four of the men held the wall in this precarious position while the fifth supervised, verifying that the angle of inclination was maintained.

The piece's dynamic formal qualities and sociological resonances seemed to me worth exploring in different national, cultural, and economic situations. But to carry out the project, one must find five workers willing to perform this arduous task for the duration of the exhibition at wages the institution can afford, which inevitably precipitates various free-market ironies: To wit, in a poor country like Guatemala it's easy to find laborers who will do the work for a pittance, but the art institutions there often can't afford to pay them; in a rich industrialized country like Germany, the museums can afford wages that are relatively enormous but typically—can't find any (legal) workers willing to perform such backbreaking labor. Sierra and I revisited these issues when the artist was at P.S. 1 this summer installing Tarpaulin Suspended from the Facade of a Building, Museo la Tertulia, Cali, Colombia, 2002—which didn't, alas, entail the removal of any walls.

Klaus Biesenbach


The curator at Kunst-Werke, or KW, Berlin, Klaus Biesenbach, asked to show Lifted Out Wall Leaning Over by 60 Degrees and Held Up by 5 People in the summer of 2000. We discussed how the performance, which deconstructs the gallery and dissects the space, vaguely recalls the work of Gordon Matta-Clark or the physically hard, almost Sisyphean labors of Marina Abramovic and Ulay, who carried endless buckets of stones in a 1978 performance. But Lifted Out Wall takes the idea one step further, because the work is performed by paid employees.

The original production of Lifted Out Wall took place in Mexico City. At that time, I had worked mostly in Mexico and nearby countries like Cuba and Guatemala. I wasn't thinking much about Europe or the United States at that point. I was surprised that the piece turned out as it did—and that it had been realized at all. I had thought at the time that the performance would push the limits of the workers' capacity for obedience, that it would become intolerable, and that they would ultimately refuse to do it. In retrospect, I think my analysis of hard labor for remuneration was very different from my ideas today, which have been shaped by the experience of realizing many difficult projects.

In Mexico or Guatemala you can easily find people who will perform hard labor for very low wages. The problem is that the art institutions in those countries for the most part can't afford even this minuscule cost (by first-world standards). When I began to receive invitations to show outside Mexico (and Berlin was one of the first), it essentially didn't change my work. The same fundamental labor mechanisms are in place nearly everywhere, though expectations are quite different. KW wanted me to re-realize the lifted-out wall piece, but I wanted to talk about Germany and not directly quote an earlier work. In the end, I insisted on producing a more site-specific and more appropriate piece for Berlin and so proposed a work dealing with the political climate there.

I first experienced Germany as a foreign student at the Hamburg Art Academy and therefore knew firsthand how the country treated its immigrants. In the summer of 2000, there was much heated discussion about German policy with respect to political refugees, a debate that reached its climax when neo-Nazis from nearby Leipzig killed an African asylum seeker. At KW our project—Workers Who Cannot Be Paid, Remunerated to Remain Inside Cardboard Boxes, 2000—involved Chechen refugees who were not permitted to work, under threat of repatriation (which would, in most cases, lead to jail time or worse back home). Consequently, we could not openly state that we were paying the refugees, and in a sense the institution had become an ally, both to me as the artist and to the refugees.

When I was invited to restage Lifted Out Wall in Munich at the Kunsthalle, my attempt to reconceive the work failed once more. Here, we had to deal with a pristine new museum space, like a jewelry box in a bank safe (indeed it is run by a bank's cultural foundation), beautifully designed by Herzog & de Meuron. The Kunsthalle would not even consider tearing down a wall, which might ruin their unvarnished floors. For the project we came up with instead, Elevation of Six Benches, 2001, the museum required us to employ legal workers, who were then paid to hold up all the leather benches in the museum galleries for extended periods of time. We accomplished what we had set out to do, but the institution, in this case, wasn't our ally. Nevertheless, the project was effective in its realization, since it reflected the reality of labor relations in Munich. Munich is a clean and prosperous city, and consequently the only people we could find to perform the task at hand were unemployed actors and bodybuilders who wanted to show off their physical prowess.

My final attempt to realize Lifted Out Wall was for the “Loop” exhibition at P.S. 1, in December 2001. But once again, we had to respond to the specific economic and political realities of the time. After September 11, P.S. 1 lacked the funds to hire five people for six hours a day, five days a week, for a six-week duration, so we had to settle for presenting video documentation of the original performance. I suppose P.S. 1 wasn't in a position then to court new problems. In any case, I didn't want to fly to New York—not out of a fear of terrorist attacks, but out of a fear of American immigration officials.