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Santiago Sierra, “Political Prisoners in Contemporary Spain” (2018) on view at the Helga de Alvear booth during the installation of Madrid’s ARCO art fair (courtesy the artist and Helga de Alvear)

A provocative installation by the Spanish conceptual artist Santiago Sierra has been removed from ARCO, Spain’s foremost contemporary art fair, before the fair even opened to the public.

The work, “Political Prisoners in Contemporary Spain” (2018), consists of 24 pixelated photographic portraits of various political figures currently imprisoned in Spain, including deposed Catalan vice-president Oriol Junqueras and two puppeteers — Raul Garcia and Alfonso Lazaro — who, according to  The Local, were arrested in 2016 for referencing the Basque separatist organization ETA in a performance. During today’s press preview of the fair, its organizers asked Sierra’s dealer, Madrid gallerist Helga de Alvear, to remove the work.

“Beyond the relative surprise and disappointment with which we have received the news, we consider that this decision seriously damages the image of this international fair and the Spanish state itself,” Sierra’s studio said in a statement sent to Hyperallergic. “Additionally, it constitutes a lack of respect toward a gallerist like Helga de Alvear, who participated in the launching of the fair, and toward the maturity and intelligence of the public. Finally, we believe that acts of this kind give meaning and reason to a piece like this, which precisely denounced the climate of persecution that cultural workers are suffering in recent times.”

The work’s removal has done little to dampen its market appeal; in fact, it may have added to it. In spite of its swift deinstallation, “Political Prisoners in Contemporary Spain” has already been sold for €80,000 (~$98,000).

Santiago Sierra, “Political Prisoners in Contemporary Spain” (2018) on view at the Helga de Alvear booth during the installation of Madrid’s ARCO art fair (courtesy the artist and Helga de Alvear)

“I guess someone wants to avoid a fracas over Catalonia,” de Alvear said at a press conference, according to The Local. “I’m in someone else’s house and if IFEMA does not want the exhibit there then I’ll take it away. But in my own house, nobody takes anything from me.”

A spokesperson for IFEMA, the company that runs ARCO and a slew of other fairs, provided a statement suggesting that the work was targeted for removal in in hopes of averting controversy. Now, of course, its removal has caused a scandal of its own.

“IFEMA has requested the gallery Helga de Alvear to withdraw the work of the artist Santiago Sierra, which they have agreed to do,” the statement reads. “The trade fair institution, which has full respect for freedom of expression, believes that the media controversy caused by the exhibition of these pieces is harming the visibility of ARCOmadrid 2018’s content as a whole, and it is therefore its responsibility, as the organizer, to try to distance the fair from discussion that might distract from the event.”

According to The Local, Madrid’s municipal government has demanded that IFEMA provide an explanation for the artwork’s removal. ARCO opens to the public on Friday and continues through Sunday.

Update, 2/22/2018, 11:30 am EST: The mayor of Madrid, Manuela Carmena, boycotted the opening of ARCO in protest of the removal of Santiago Sierra’s work. According to the Guardian, she had been scheduled to attend the opening, but canceled because of the work’s removal. Madrid’s city council issued a statement about the matter, which reads in part:

For the mayor, “in Madrid there must be freedom of creation.” She believes that the international image of an open, democratic, and creative city such as Madrid cannot be affected in this way, nor can any step backward be taken in the defense of fundamental rights in our democracy.

La Vanguardia identified the buyer of “Political Prisoners in Contemporary Spain” (2018) as Tatxo Benet, the cofounder of Spanish telecommunications giant Mediapro.

Update, 2/23/2018, 12:15 pm EST: The Museu de Lleida in western Catalonia will exhibit Santiago Sierra’s piece that was removed from ARCO, “Political Prisoners in Contemporary Spain” (2018), according to El País. “If someone offers you a work that is at the center of the controversy, you cannot say no,” the museum’s director, Josep Giralt, told the Spanish daily. The work will go on view next week.

The Museu de Lleida was in the news in December when Spanish law enforcement agencies repatriated 44 works from the museum to the neighboring region of Aragon.

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Benjamin Sutton

Benjamin Sutton is an art critic, journalist, and curator who lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn. His articles on public art, artist documentaries, the tedium of art fairs, James Franco's obsession with Cindy...

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