Madrid art fair pulls Catalan 'political prisoners' installation

Madrid (AFP) –


An installation by a controversial Spanish artist which refers to Catalan separatist leaders as "political prisoners" was removed Wednesday from a major Madrid art fair at the request of the venue's operator.

The dispute over the work by Madrid-born artist Santiago Sierra, known for his provocative stunts, comes as tensions simmer between Spain's central government in Madrid and pro-independence groups in Catalonia over their failed independence push.

Titled "Political Prisoners in Contemporary Spain", Sierra's installation featured 24 pixelated photographs, including one of Catalonia's ousted vice president Oriol Junqueras who has been in jail for the past three months over his government's failed independence bid.

The installation also included photos of the leaders of the two biggest grassroots pro-independence associations in Catalonia, Jordi Cuixart and Jordi Sanchez, who are also in jail on charges of rebellion and sedition.

They are among several Catalan political leaders and activists who are detained while they are investigated over their role in the northeastern region's secession drive.

Amnesty International has called their ongoing pre-trial detention "excessive and disproportionate" and urged their release.

- Installation sold -

The state-owned trade fair operator Ifema said it had asked the Helga de Alvear gallery to remove Sierra's work from the Arco contemporary art fair because the controversy it caused was "hurting the visibility" of the other exhibitors.

While it said it "respects freedom of expression", Ifema said its priority was to allow the more than 200 participating galleries to enjoy a "return on their investment".

Sierra accused Ifema of "censoring" his work, saying on his Facebook page that its decision "seriously damages the image of this international art fair and the Spanish state itself".

He also called the move showed a "lack of respect" towards "the maturity and intelligence of the public".

Sierra's work also included the photos of two puppeteers who in 2016 spent five days in jail for allegedly "glorifying terrorism" with a play on words involving banned Basque separatist group ETA and Al-Qaeda during a performance.

But the artist had the last laugh -- at the end of the day a spokeswoman for the gallery said the installation had been sold for 80,000 euros ($99,000). She declined to name the buyer.

Sierra, who is in his early 50s, has courted controversy in the past. He sparked outrage in Germany in 2006 with a project intended to give people a sense of the Holocaust by pumping lethal car exhaust fumes into a former synagogue and letting visitors enter one by one with a breathing mask.

His other works have included tattooing the backs of drug addicts and spraying a group of stateless Iraqis with foam.