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By Culturekiosque Staff

LONDON, 8 JANUARY 2009 - Tis the season to be jolly...or so we thought. Death Counter (Contador de muerte), a major new artwork by the controversial Spanish artist Santiago Sierra was unveiled on New Year's Day on the façade of the London headquarters of multi-national specialist insurer Hiscox. The giant LED sign documents the annual number of human deaths worldwide, from any cause.

Adhering to his minimalist aesthetic, Sierra's latest buzzkill aims to serve as a fast-paced reminder of the transient nature of human life right in the heart of London's financial district. It is on loan to Hiscox for the period of one year in exchange for an insurance policy of âÂ'¬150,000, payable in the event of the artist's death and valid for the duration of the exhibition. Thus, it exists not simply as an artwork in its own right, but also as the public symbol of a legally binding contract between Hiscox and the artist.

According to the insurers, "Exploring the concept of value in relation to human life and art, this collaboration accentuates elements of risk and value speculation to raise a number of questions around how value is determined; how this value corresponds to concepts of labour and commodification; how an artist's death affects the value of his work; and how we consider the relationship between life and work in our own lives."

The metrics of Death Counter are based upon a demographic projection taken from the US census, currently estimated at being just over 55 million deaths per year, at a rate of nearly two per second. Furthermore, the value of the insurance policy has been set in careful relation to the value of the artwork. As with his previous projects, Sierra has dramatized the relationship between "work" and "worth" by placing precise economical transactions in a visual context.

Although currently based in Mexico City, Santiago Sierra was born in Madrid in 1966. Past and current projects and performances for several major institutions focus on situations in which people are willing to take part in his unusual activities for a small payment. For example, he pays drug-addicted prostitutes with a dose of heroin to have a line tattooed on their backs, or he pays impoverished immigrants a minimum wage so that they would execute heavy labour tasks, such as moving extremely heavy concrete blocks and carrying them around aimlessly in an exhibition room. Frequently, the artist's works mistreat the human dignity or the body integrity of the volunteers. When questioned or criticized for his artistic strategy, Sierra often replies: "These are the conditions of your life, which you don't want to see."

Still, Sierra's brand of shock art has been well received. Notable works range from Iraqi volunteers sprayed with quick-setting polyurethane foam at London's Lisson Gallery in 2004 to the highly provocative 245 m3, Stommeln Synagogue, Pulheim, Germany, 2006 where Sierra pumped automobile exhaust fumes into a synagogue-turned-gas chamber and visitors (escorted by a firefighter) had to wear gas masks to enter; to the The Anarchists at Volume in Rome on 25 December 2006 at Midnight where a group of 8 militant anarchists was convoked to listen to the Pope's Mass. Each one wore a black jute capirote, receiving 100 euro for it.

© Santiago Sierra: The Anarchists, 2006, Rome
© Photo courtesy of the artist

Other notable works include:

  • A person paid for 360 continuous working hours, P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, Long Island City, New York, 2000

  • Submission, Proyecto Juárez, Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, 2006/07
  • The Trap and The Adults , Centro Cultural Matucana, Santiago de Chile, Chile, 2007.

Recent group exhibitions include The Living Currency, Tate Modern, London, 2008; and Arte no es Vida: Actions by Artists of the Americas 1960-2000 , El Museo del Barrio, New York, 2008

In 2003, Sierra was invited to represent Spain at the 50th Venice Bienniale.

Santiago Sierra's Death Counter Web Site

Title photo: Santiago Sierra

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