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Art and Justice 

by Ann M. Colford & r & What do you call a person who pays four heroin-addicted prostitutes enough money to buy a fix in return for tattooing a line across their backs? A provocateur? A protester? A collaborator in criminal enterprise?

How about an artist?

Though Santiago Sierra has objected to the "artist" label, his work in conceptual installations has made him a rising star in the world of contemporary art. He comes to Spokane this week for the opening of the 2005-06 Visiting Artist Lecture Series and will speak at EWU, SFCC and the MAC.

"For the series, we try to pick a theme that has some social relevance," says Lanny DeVuono of EWU's art department, one of the series' coordinators. "I first discovered [Sierra's] work in Mexico City, and it intrigued me because he was playing with issues of labor."

Born in Madrid, Sierra began his artistic life creating sculptures from cast-off industrial materials. But in the late 1990s, after moving to Mexico City, he began exploring concepts of labor and remuneration by actually paying people to be part of his work and then photographing or videotaping the process. In a 1998 precursor to his work with the prostitutes called Line of 30 cm Tattooed on a Remunerated Person, Sierra paid a man 50 dollars to have a line tattooed vertically down his back. On his Web site, he explains, "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."

Later, in Germany, where policies of immigration and political asylum have triggered national debates and protests, Sierra selected several people who had applied for refugee status and had them sit inside large cardboard boxes four hours a day for six weeks. The asylum seekers came from Bosnia and Chechnya; under German law, they are given about 40 dollars a month for living expenses and are not allowed to receive payment for work until their cases are settled. The punishment for accepting payment is deportation. "Consequently," Sierra told Artforum magazine, "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." The work was called Workers Who Cannot Be Paid, Remunerated to Remain Inside Cardboard Boxes.

Sierra's works can be called actions, interventions or performances, but they all investigate concepts of work for pay, particularly among the most marginalized sectors of industrialized society. Underlying all of his work is a questioning of the structures -- economic, social and cultural -- of the global marketplace.

"I think his work is challenging in that's it's conceptual, it's performance, it's installation," DeVuono says. "It's also challenging because Sierra focuses on the inequities that cause immigration, which is a huge issue here. People don't leave Mexico because they want to; they leave because they're broke. We live in a period of migration and his work represents migration through the filter of labor practices."

At the turn of the last century, urban dandies would stroll through gritty working-class neighborhoods to observe the hardscrabble yet somehow more exciting lives of immigrants and others of the urban underclass, purely for entertainment. Called fl & acirc;neurs, they exercised their right to gaze at those beneath them on the social ladder. Artists like those of New York's Ashcan School (George Bellows, John Sloan) emerged from the same cultural dynamic as they painted canvases of the poor and working classes for consumption by those in society's upper echelons. Over the past century, we've become even more voyeuristic; our TV screens are filled with images from so-called reality shows, where others face extreme conditions in return for a little money and fleeting fame.

In this time of voyeurism, what good does Sierra's work ultimately do in the world? After he's done, the heroin addicts still need a fix, the asylum seekers still live in political limbo and the forces of racism and inequity continue to be supported by the world's economy. One could argue that Sierra contributes to the exploitation of the downtrodden by putting their condition on display and reaping the economic benefit. Viewers of his photos and videos are complicit in the very economic systems being critiqued; they -- we -- become 21st-century fl & acirc;neurs.

And yet, perhaps the purpose is not to solve the problem but to openly raise the difficult questions, to lift a mirror to society.

Santiago Sierra discusses his art on Tuesday, Nov. 15, at noon at EWU's Art Department in Cheney. Call 359-2494. He'll also speak on Nov. 15 at 7 pm at the MAC, 2316 W. First Ave. Call 456-3931. On Wednesday, Nov. 16, at 11:30 am, he'll address an audience at SFCC's SUB, Bldg. 17, Lounges A-B, 3410 W. Fort George Wright Dr. Call 533-3746.

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