160 cm Line Tattooed on 4 People ... is a video documenting an action that took place at El Gallo Arte Contemporáneo in Salamanca, Spain in December 2000. The artist’s text explains: ‘Four prosititutes addicted to heroin were hired for the price of a shot of heroin to give their consent to be tattooed. Normally they charge 2,000 or 3,000 pesetas, between 15 and 17 dollars, for fellatio, while the price of a shot of heroin is around 12,000 pesetas, about 67 dollars.’ (Quoted from the artist’s text accompanying the video.) The single-channel colour video constitutes an informal record of the event in which the four participating women allow their backs to be used for the tattoo. It shows the women – two blonde and two dark haired – arrive in the space and take up positions, naked from the waist up and with their backs towards the camera, straddling black bentwood chairs. During the action they move constantly, chatting, laughing, smoking, turning to look behind them, curiously watching the female tattoo artist and commenting on her processes until, finally, she cleans their wounds and covers them with bandage. Appropriately, she wears a bright red top, providing a dramatic burst of colour related to the shedding of blood. During the film, two men in dark clothes pass in and out of the frame, holding a tape measure over the bared backs for the initial measurement and taking photographs of the process as it develops.
Born in Madrid, Sierra studied at the Universidad Complutense, Madrid (1989), the Hochschule für Bildende Künste, Hamburg (1989-91) and at the Escuela de San Carlos, Universidad Autónoma de México, Mexico City (1995-7). He has been based in Mexico City since 1995. Early works involved industrial-scale interventions on urban situations: large cubic and rectangular containers placed inside buildings, and sections of road, wall and floor cut out and positioned elsewhere. In the mid 1990s he began staging actions involving obstruction and disruption in urban environments utilising fire, vehicles, rotting food, wrapping tape and, since the late 1990s, people. Taking the form of site-specific actions and installations documented by video, photography and text, Sierra’s work confronts the workings of the global capitalist economy and the persistence of the division between the first and third worlds. Each of his works highlights the exploitation of human labour taking place in systems of economic exchange. Many address issues of individual freedom and mobility and the restriction of these freedoms through national identity, border controls and immigration policies. Sierra focuses on those sections of the community who are most exploited and yet who remain least ‘visible’ in official terms: illegal immigrants, asylum seekers, prostitutes, drug addicts and the urban poor, unemployed and homeless. He employs such people to perform pointless or repetitive tasks that are often absurd or degrading. Since 1999 Sierra has paid people to sit in a cardboard box, lie inside the trunk of a car or in a wooden box being used as a bench at an art party, to clean people’s shoes without their consent, to form a crowd, to block a museum’s entrance, to masturbate on video and to support large weights as long as physically possible.
By turning the process of exploitation into a spectacle, viewed in a gallery or museum, Sierra causes the institution to collaborate in relations of power and economics, thus highlighting the ubiquity and inevitability of such relations and raising a number of related ethical questions. By enabling heroin addicts to have more heroin, as in 160 cm Line Tattooed on 4 People ... and a work made a few months previously 10 inch line shaved on the heads of two junkies who received a shot of heroin as payment, 2000, Sierra himself enters an ethically ambiguous situation in which the artworld participates by purchasing his art product. Focusing on the extremely poor and disadvantaged, Sierra’s works emphasise the tension between the choice of the participants to undertake the tasks for a wage, and their lack of choice owing to their economic situation and neglected medical conditions. The actions he instigates are metaphors – or poetic equivalents – for all the poorly paid jobs backing the structure of the global market economy.
160 cm Line Tattooed on 4 People ... is the third of Sierrra’s actions involving tattooing. In the first, Line of 30 cm Tattooed on a Remunerated Person 51 Regina Street. México City, Mexico. May 1998, the artist ‘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’. The participant received $50. The second tattooing work was 250 cm Line Tattooed on 6 Paid People, Espacio Aglutinador. Havana, Cuba. December 1999, in which six unemployed young men from Old Havana were hired for $30 in exchange for being tattooed.
The video 160 cm Line Tattooed on 4 People ... may be projected on the wall or exhibited on a monitor. It was produced in an edition of three plus one artist’s proof and one exhibition copy; Tate’s copy is the third in the edition.
Santiago Sierra: Works 2002-1990, exhibition catalogue, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham 2002, reproduced pp.52-3.
Fabio Cavallucci and Carlos Jiménez, Santiago Sierra, exhibition catalogue, Galleria Civica di Arte Contemporanea, Trento 2005, reproduced p.164.