‘Santiago Sierra: 52 Canvases Exposed to Mexico City’s Air’

Exhibition, opening at Kemper Art Museum Feb. 23, will launch WashU’s Ecology Now! series

Santiago Sierra, “52 Canvases Exposed to Mexico City’s Air),” 2019, exhibition view. (Photo: Ramiro Chávez, courtesy of the artist and LABOR. © 2024 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VEGAP, Madrid)

The Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum at Washington University in St. Louis will present “Santiago Sierra: 52 Canvases Exposed to Mexico City’s Air” Feb. 23 through July 29.

Sierra, who lives and works in Mexico City and Madrid, is known for provocative performances and installations that explore social inequity and the dehumanizing effects of capitalist labor relations, particularly in art-world contexts. His work has been exhibited extensively all over the world.

“52 Canvases Exposed to Mexico City’s Air” highlights the contaminants — the ozone, carbon monoxide, and sulfur and nitrogen oxides — that can slowly but surely poison the urban environment. It consists of 52 canvases, lacquered with adhesive, that Sierra placed on the floor of a city building, windows open to the elements. Each week, one canvas was removed and the pollutants that had fallen to its surface were permanently affixed.

Presented in a massive grid, “52 Canvases” serves as an index of toxicity. Panels gradually shift from light to dark, beneath a steady accumulation of dust, soot, bacteria and other particulates. The effect is at once striking and sobering — a yearlong time-lapse that enables the viewer to visualize processes too slow for the eye to follow but too unrelenting for society to ignore.

“Santiago Sierra: 52 Canvases Exposed to Mexico City’s Air” debuted in 2019 at the Labor gallery in Mexico City. It is organized for the Kemper Art Museum by Meredith Malone, curator.

Santiago Sierra, detail, “52 Canvases Exposed to Mexico City’s Air),” 2019. (Photo: Ramiro Chávez, courtesy of the artist and LABOR. © 2024 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VEGAP, Madrid)

About the artist

Santiago Sierra was born in Madrid in 1966. He studied visual arts in Mexico City, Madrid and Hamburg, Germany. Since the mid-1990s he has realized numerous projects, including collaborations with such institutions as the Center for Art and Politics, Israel (2018); Stiftung Kunsthalle Tübingen, Germany (2013); Magasin III Museum for Contemporary Art, Stockholm (2009); Kestner Gesellschaft, Germany (2005); and Kunsthaus Bregenz, Austria (2004).

Sierra’s work has been shown in group exhibitions at the Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, Germany (2022); MUAC, Mexico City (2021); Kunstmuseum Bern, Switzerland (2020); Museum für Moderne Kunst, Germany (2017); Sharjah Biennial, United Arab Emirates (2005); São Paulo Biennial (2004); Liverpool Biennial, England (2004); and Venice Biennale (2001, 2005). He represented Spain at the 50th Venice Biennale in 2003.

Ecology Now!

“Santiago Sierra: 52 Canvases Exposed to Mexico City’s Air” also will launch the campus series “Ecology Now! Art + Humanities in the Anthropocene,” which aims to reframe our relationships with the environment in new and unexpected ways.


Following the exhibition opening, on Feb. 23, “Ecology Now!” will continue with Ursula Heise, who will explore connections between conservation and social justice Feb. 27; and with Nicole Seymore, who will investigate the cultural and environmental history of glitter Feb. 28. A panel discussion on “Culture and Environmental Crisis” will precede the latter.

Other events include the panel “Toxic Sublime: Art and the Climate Crisis” (March 20); a talk and workshop with environmental historian Conevery Bolton Valencius (March 21 and 22); and a lecture on Indigenous contemplative traditions by Yuria Celidwen (April 5). The series will conclude May 6 with author, philosopher and filmmaker Timothy Morton.

For more information, visit publicscholarship.wustl.edu.

Visitor information

“Santiago Sierra: 52 Canvases Exposed to Mexico City’s Air” will open with a public reception at 6:30 p.m. Feb. 23 and remain on view through July 29. The Kemper Art Museum is located on WashU’s Danforth Campus, near the intersection of Skinker and Lindell boulevards. Visitor parking is available in the university’s east end garage.

Regular hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays through Sundays. The museum is closed Tuesdays. For more information, call 314-935-4523 or visit kemperartmuseum.wustl.edu. Follow the museum on FacebookInstagram and YouTube.


“Santiago Sierra: 52 Canvases Exposed to Mexico City’s Air” is made possible by the leadership support of the William T. Kemper Foundation.  All exhibitions at the Kemper Art Museum are supported by members of the Director’s Circle, with major annual support provided by Emily and Teddy Greenspan and additional generous annual support from Michael Forman and Jennifer Rice, Julie Kemper Foyer, Joanne Gold and Andrew Stern, David and Dorothy Kemper, Ron and Pamela Mass, and Kim and Bruce Olson. Further support is provided by the Hortense Lewin Art Fund, the Ken and Nancy Kranzberg Fund, and members of the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum.

Ecology Now! is organized by WashU’s Program in Public Scholarship, in partnership with the Kemper Art Museum, the Center for the Environment, the Kathryn M. Buder Center for American Indian Studies, and the Center for the Humanities’ Science in the Public Square, in Arts & Sciences.

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