EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH CUBAN-AMERICAN SHOCK ARTIST ANDRES SERRANO: HOW TO PISS PEOPLE OFF WITHOUT EVEN TRYING

LEGENDARY LATINO-AMERICAN ARTIST (AND NEW YORK NATIVE), ANDRES SERRANO HAS BEEN KNOWN FOR HIS BEAUTIFUL, YET SUBVERSIVE PHOTOGRAPHS FOR DECADES.  HE HAS CAPTURED GORGEOUS & MOVING IMAGES OF CORPSES, THE HOMELESS, AND EVEN THE KLU KLUX KLAN.  HE HAS WORKED WITH BODILY FLUIDS THAT MOST ARTISTS WOULD SHY AWAY FROM.  OVER THE YEARS HIS WORK HAS BEEN CRITICIZED, ATTACKED & EVEN VANDALIZED — MOST RECENTLY IN FRANCE, WHERE SEVERAL OF SERRANO’S PHOTOGRAPHS ARE BEING EXHIBITED.  TWO PHOTOS, INCLUDING PERHAPS HIS MOST FAMOUS WORK, PISS CHRIST, WERE ATTACKED BY A YOUNG CHRISTIAN GROUP.
DIRTY CAUGHT UP WITH ANDRES, ONE OF THE GREATEST ARTISTS OF OUR TIMES, TO TALK ABOUT CONTENT, CRITICISM, AND WHY PEOPLE VIEW HIS WORK AS SO BEING CONTROVERSIAL.  AS IT HAPPENS, THE GROUNDBREAKING ARTIST WAS NEVER AIMING TO SHOCK AT ALL.
TEXT Paul Bruno

 

 

DIRTY: WHERE IN NYC WERE YOU BORN?

ANDRES SERRANO: I was born in Manhattan.

 

D: DO YOU SPEAK SPANISH?  WAS IT YOUR FIRST LANGUAGE?

AS: Yes. My mother was born in Key West, but was raised in Cuba. Consequently, she didn’t speak much English and I had to learn Spanish at an early age.

 

D: WHEN DID YOU FIRST START SHOOTING?  WHAT DID THE EARLIEST ANDRES SERRANO WORK LOOK LIKE?

AS: I studied painting and sculpture at The Brooklyn Museum Art School. My earliest works were paintings and sculptures. After art school, I decided to use a camera instead of a paint brush. My first photographs are black and white tableau images, and later, street portraits in color.

 

D: WHAT WAS YOUR EXPERIENCE AT THE BROOKLYN MUSEUM SCHOOL LIKE?

AS: The time I attended The Brooklyn Museum Art School was a great. I was seventeen and it was the late sixties. It was a time of change, of discovery, experimentation and exploration, not only for me, but for the whole country if not the world. It was one of the best times of my life.

 

D: HAVE YOU ALWAYS BEEN DRAWN TO WHAT SOME MIGHT CONSIDER DARK, MORBID OR — OUR FAVORITE ADJECTIVE — DIRTY?

AS: I’ve been attracted to a lot of subjects, some darker than others. Although I’ve photographed the dead (“The Morgue”), the homeless (“Nomads”), the “Klan” and the difficult, (“Shit”) I’ve also photographed plants (“Cycads”), religion (“The Church”), people (“America”), and sex (“A History of Sex”) as well as the (“Ejaculates In Trajectory”).

 

D: DO YOU DO YOUR OWN CASTING?

AS: Yes, except for the “Cycads” which was done as an assignment for The New York Times Magazine. Cycads are the oldest plants on the planet, after ferns. I was sent by The Times down to Florida to photograph them at the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden. Although it was not a subject I would have thought of, I found a way to make the work my own.

 

D: BODILY FLUIDS HAVE FOUND THEIR WAY INTO SEVERAL BODIES OF YOUR WORK — URINE, SEMEN, BLOOD, SOMETIMES PLACENTA, EVEN FEMALE MILK — WHAT DO THESE REPRESENT FOR YOU?  WHAT IS THEIR PLACE WITHIN YOUR WORK?

AS: At the time I did the fluid works I was investigating and exploring abstraction in photography and the use of bodily fluids as if it were paint. You don’t put a moral judgement on paint and I certainly didn’t judge the fluids or put any emphasis on them except as life’s vital fluids. At first, I used the fluids in an abstract way mimicking action painting among other types of abstraction. I also did three monochrome photographs,”Blood” “Piss” and “Milk.” Later, I did what became known as the “Immersions” whereby I immersed certain objects, including a crucifix, in the fluids.

 



 

D: MANY PEOPLE TOOK PERSONAL OFFENSE TO ONE SPECIFIC IMAGE FROM THAT SERIES!  THE NATURE OF YOUR WORK HAS GARNERED A GOOD DEAL OF PROTEST — HAVE PEOPLE ALWAYS RESPONDED THIS WAY TO YOUR WORK?

AS: The image that caused the most controversy, “Piss Christ,” has saddled me with a reputation, not always warranted, as a controversial or provocative artist. After that, my work was seen in only one way by some. However much of the uproar over “Piss Christ” has been over its title which was not meant to be offensive but merely descriptive. As a Christian, and as an artist, I’ve always felt I had the right to use the symbols of the Church, and of my faith. Interestingly enough, The Roman Catholic Church has never denounced me over “Piss Christ.” In fact, ten years ago, when I had an exhibition in a church in Rome, a Monsignor at the Vatican told the Italian newspaper, La Stampa, that I was “a transgressive artist but not a blasphemous artist.”

 

D: IS SHOCK VALUE SOMETHING YOU AIM TO ACHIEVE IN YOUR WORK?

AS: Absolutely not. I’ve done a lot of work, “Budapest” for instance, that was not particularly shocking. The problem is not what I do but how it’s perceived. The same work in someone else’s hands would not be subjected to the same scrutiny or criticism. Some critics hate my work because they feel it’s provocation for the sake of provocation. It’s not, but even if it was, who cares?

 

D: WHY DO YOU THINK PEOPLE REACT THE WAY THEY DO TO YOUR IMAGES?

AS: People have strong reactions to my work. They can either love it or hate it. I think the work has the power to both please or displease, but sometimes the reactions it gets says more about the people who are reacting than about the work itself. The “Shit” show for instance, outraged a lot of people who never even saw the work. All they knew was that it was by Andres Serrano and that was enough to make them mad.

Never mind that the images are abstract and sometimes quite seductive, it couldn’t be good; there had to be some sinister or devious intent behind it. In that sense, the reaction is not to the work but to the artist.

The “Piss Christ” controversy erupted in May of 1989 when it was denounced in Congress by Jesse Helms, Alfonse D’Amato and others as the result of a campaign spearheaded by Donald Wildmon and The American Family Association. It had been shown a few months earlier in a traveling exhibition for the winners of The Awards in The Visual Arts competition. A month after “Piss Christ” was criticized in Congress, the Corcoran Gallery in Washington D. C. cancelled their Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition hoping to avoid controversy, thereby igniting “The Cultural Wars” instead. As a result of “Piss Christ” I have been branded as a “controversial artist” ever since.

 

D: IN 2007, SEVERAL OF YOUR PHOTOGRAPHS WERE VANDALIZED AT A GALLERY IN SWEDEN, BY A GROUP BELIEVED TO BE NAZI ORGANIZATION?

AS: The attack occurred at the Kulturen Museum in Lund, Sweden. I had visited the town of Lund and thought that it looked like something out of Harry Potter. Therefore, it came as a shock to me that there were Neo-Nazis there and that they were so profoundly taken by my work.

 

D: EVEN JUST RECENTLY IN FRANCE, ON PALM SUNDAY, YOUR FAMED PISS CHRIST WAS SMASHED AND SLASHED BY A YOUNG CHRISTIAN GROUP!  HOW DID YOU REACT WHEN YOU HEARD THE NEWS?

AS: I was shocked when I heard the news. The photograph has been around for more than twenty years and has been shown in France many times, most recently in an exhibition in Paris at the Pompidou two years ago.

 



 

D: IS THE PIECE SALVAGEABLE?  WAS IT SLASHED COMPLETELY?  WILL YOU PRINT ANOTHER?

AS: The piece cannot be repaired but it can be reprinted. However, the Collection Lambert has decided to leave the damaged work on display.

 

D: WHAT WOULD YOU SAY TO THE VANDALS?

AS: I have nothing to say to the vandals because they are interested in hearing anything I have to say. However, I was born and raised a Catholic and have been a Christian all my life.

 

D: WHEN IT COMES TO SUBJECT MATTER IN YOUR PHOTOGRAPHS, IS ANYTHING OFF LIMITS?

AS: Many things, that’s why I haven’t done them.

 

D: WHAT DOES YOUR FAMILY THINK OF YOUR ARTWORK?

AS: My family consists of my daughter, my girlfriend and those close to me. They like my work, that’s why they’re my family. My granddaughter went to my “Shit” show at Yvon Lambert Gallery when she was only 10 days old. She’s 2 and a half now so she still hasn’t told me what she thought of it.

 

D: WHAT ARE YOU SHOOTING NOW?  ANY NEW BODIES OF WORK IN PROGRESS?

AS: I’ve done a new body of work which I haven’t shown yet. I’m also working on another project unrelated to art which I hope to complete soon.

 

D: IN 2010 YOU RELEASED YOUR FIRST ALBUM VENGEANCE IS MINE UNDER THE PSEUDONYM BRUTUS FAUST — WHAT BROUGHT ABOUT THE SHIFT TO MUSIC AS A CREATIVE OUTLET?  HAS MUSIC ALWAYS BEEN AN ASPIRATION OF YOURS?

AS: I wanted to be a singer when I was young but became an artist instead. Although I did not revisit the idea of singing until three years ago when I started taking vocal lessons, music has always meant a lot to me.
I’ve never been moved much by art, but by film and music instead.

 

D: ANY PLANS FOR A SECOND ALBUM?

AS: Steve Messina, the producer of my album and the founder of Blow Up Hollywood, the band backing me, wants us to do another album. I know he wants us to do mostly original songs so we’ll have to write some. At some point we’ll do a follow up album but first I want to perform the songs from the first album in concert.

 

 

D: WHO’S WORK INSPIRES YOU?

AS: When I was young my influences were Marcel Duchamp, Picasso, Luis Bunuel and Federico Fellini, among others. Now I’m inspired by people like Clint Eastwood, people older than me who are still going strong.

 

D: WOULD CONSIDER YOURSELF A TRUE LEO?

AS: Yes, Leos can be both selfish and generous, kind and unkind, and most of all, bigger than life.

 

D: DO YOU WATCH ANY TELEVISION?

AS: I watch a lot of television but it’s selective watching. There are many popular shows that I’ve never seen. Instead, I watch news and current events programs like “The Rachel Maddow Show” and “Anderson Cooper,” comedies like “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “Eastbound and Down” and black and white TV. I still watch “The Andy Griffith Show.” Recently, I’ve been Netflixing Charlie Chan movies from the 1940’s starting Sidney Toler and Mantan Moreland. Even though he was playing Black Hollywood stereotypes, Mantan’s comedic genius steals the show.

 

D: WHAT DOES THE WORD DIRTY MEAN TO YOU?

AS: Two things: something that needs washing and something kinky and appealing. Which one are you?

 

 

ANDRESSERRANO.ORG

 

 

 






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