Santiago Sierra

Spanish-born Santiago Sierra is one of a group of young expatriate artists who live and work in Mexico City, perhaps seduced by that singular setting—huge, chaotic, polluted—and the way in which the country’s complex and contradictory social, political, and cultural conditions are made manifest on every street.

For his recent exhibition, curated by Taiyana Pimentel as part of the Museo Rufino Tamayo’s new Sala 7 program, Sierra presented 465 personas remuneradas, 1999, a kind of performance that took place on the opening night of the show. Visitors to the space (after that night) were greeted by the projection of a roughly three-hour videotape of the event, which had been recorded by a surveillance camera looking down on the gallery. For the opening, Sierra had the museum hire 465 people (a number calculated to create an arbitrary density of five people per square meter of gallery space) through an employment agency. The artist stipulated that the museum request young, dark-haired, male mestizo workers; these “actors” were then told that they would be participating in a political theater piece and instructed to arrive at the gallery on opening night.

Striking, at times even funny, the video made of the “happening,” which shows the gallery crowded with dark-haired men gathered in groups, looking at each other in search of answers, or simply looking bored, is loaded with social, political, and cultural meaning. At once protagonists and outsiders, the personas often act and look displaced. (One must also note that a room packed exclusively with young inquisitive men can’t help but conjure a crowded gay bar.) Their appearance and sheer number are reminders of the country’s cheap labor force and “the mestizo condition,” bringing the city streets into the museum.

Context plays an important role in the work: The Museo Rufino Tamayo is a public institution, central to the country’s intricate cultural bureaucracy, and although it’s new, Sala 7 is already among the city’s most prestigious exhibition spaces for contemporary art. Ultimately, public money paid these workers-turned-actors, who were used as art performers most likely without their full understanding, to be at the museum. The piece highlights the exclusiveness typical of art circuits around the world, but such cultural barriers are perhaps greatest in Third World countries. The 465 personas have been art-objectified, have become commodities, yet now of a different value, in a different system—the economy of (conceptual) art.

One might question the Spanish artist’s use of young Mexican mestizo workers as his primary material: Is Sierra merely reproducing in a museum a ruthless socio-economic system that should instead be fought? What are the ethical implications of his manipulation of these workers? There is a great deal of risk in the piece, and despite the ethical problems it would obviously pose to the strict Marxist, 465 personas remuneradas raises crucial questions about the uneasy polarities—the museum and the city streets, intellectuals and workers, art and politics, culture and power—that are found all over the world, but are especially urgent here.

Adriano Pedrosa