FEATURE ANDRES SERRANO
The American Family Association hates him, the international art community loves him. ANDRES SERRANO has to be one of the most controversial artists of our time. On the eve of his first show in Scotland, featuring photographs taken in a morgue, Lila Rawlings spoke to him and found
more to the work than meets the eye.
The Morgue (Knlted to Death 1), 1992
do not know Mr Andres Serrano. and I hope I never meet him. because he is not an artist. he is a jerk.’ So reckoned the right wing fundamentalist Jesse Helms back in 1989. These words were delivered in support of Senator Alphonse D’Amato who had torn up a picture of Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ on the floor of the US Senate, a tantrum that left few people in any doubt as to who the jerk really was.
The offending picture was a 60in by 40in Cibachrome photographic print, featuring a wooden and plastic cruciﬁx suspended in a tank of hazy. effervescent liquid. The cross and ﬁgure of Christ. bathed in amber hues. radiate outwards to create a deep orangey red light. Bubbles are scattered across the picture and the effect is like looking through a ﬁsh tank ﬁlled with four gallons of lrn Bru. The picture was produced by Serrano using not ﬁzzy pop. but a Plexiglass tank full of his urine.
Consequently. a national debate over free expression and federal funding of the arts exploded across America. sending shock waves through the country’s cultural life that are still reverberating. Nevertheless, Andres Serrano continues to jar the raw nerve of America’s unconscious with his choice of taboo subjects and ‘unconventional’ ways of working. The list of his subject matter reads like the smash hits of the sacred and the profane. From his ‘bodily ﬁuids’ series (milk. blood, semen. urine) to his terrifying yet sumptuous portraits of Ku Klux Klan members taken in Georgia. to his intimate and fetishistie gun pictures, his work is uncompromising and
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unrelenting. Forget the Stars and Stripes. Andres Serrano takes America’s dirty linen and runs it straight to the top of the ﬂag-pole.
Serrano is a softly spoken, gentle kind of a guy. Born in New York in 1950 to an Afro-Cuban mother, and a Honduran father who left when Serrano was a baby, his childhood was far from rosy. His mother suffered from mental illness and spent long periods in hospital, Serrano got into drugs and spent time dealing on the street. ‘I am drawn to subjects that border on the unacceptable because I lived an unacceptable life for so long.‘ he says. After jacking in his painting and sculpture course at Brooklyn Museum Art School, he started taking black and white photographs on the streets where he hung out and spent a lot of time looking at the portrait work of photographers like Richard Avedon. Bill Brandt and August Sanders.
Although influenced by this work, Serrano has never seen himself as a photographer. ‘My intent was never to become a photographer but to use the camera as an artist.’ he says. ‘ln fact, I have always maintained autonomy as an artist rather than a photographer. For example, I’ve never printed my own work or been interested in learning how to.’ In the early 1980s he started making big tableaux pictures in which models posed as characters and objects were turned into religious symbols. Catholicism and Serrano’s unresolved relationship with it has always been a central theme in his work and he has always been candidly open about his opinions of the Church. describing it as: ‘oppressive. as far as dealing with women, blacks, minorities, gays, lesbians. and anyone else who doesn’t go along
with the program.’
In the late 80s he produced a series of photographs that included Piss Chris! and set out to challenge Catholicism’s idealised image of Christ’s body and blood in contrast to ‘the physical nature’ of mortal man and woman. The use of his bodily fluids at a time when AlDS had become so proliﬁc gave the work a powerful resonance.
In a more recent series of work entitled The Morgue (Cause of [)(’(lI/l). he attempts to challenge conventional attitudes to death. And challenge these images do. A morgue. after all. is not a place most people would choose to hang out in. A passing scene on Homicide is one thing, but the reality is a whole different story. It signiﬁes sad, lonely. often violent deaths and reminds us of the inevitability of our own physical end. In these pictures, Serrano shows us a ‘secret’ place in a sanitised society, a place where individuals are reduced to naked bodies on a slab.
Taken over three months in an unspeciﬁed morgue. Serrano has photographed what he refers to as ‘John and Jane Does.’ or people who die ‘without an identity’. Printed as giant, glossy Cibachrome images. there is a horrifying and fascinating quality to the work. Kind of like driving past the tangled mess of blood and steel of a car crash. we are compelled to stare at the unnamed corpses in these photographs with a morbid fascination.
ln Rat Poison Suicide. we see the torso of a woman in rigor mortis. Serrano’s lens carefully focuses on the tiny goose-bumps on her arms, and the intricate patterns of her white lace