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Sacred and profane in the photography of Andres Serrano

If it was perfectly plausible in the 19th century to keep photographs of deceased loved ones, the same cannot be said for today. One artist who has measured himself against the relationship between art and death is Andres Serrano. Of Honduran and Afro-Cuban descent, he studied art at the Brooklyn Museum and Art School from 1967 to 1969. Known for his representations at the limits of morality, Serrano often confronts religion, death and corporality in all its definitions.

Andres Serrano, The morgue, rat poison suicide II 1992

Serrano’s photographic works are considered macabre by the public, the artist himself is regarded as an individual who does not respect life and who prefers to exhibit images of bodies immortalised in excruciating conditions, but the photographer does not consider his work shocking. It is the gruesome and violent detail that gives the photograph its beauty. Serrano is seen as violating the intimacy of the deceased and the family who are supposed to mourn their loved one, but isn’t mourning someone meant to ensure that the memory of the departed lasts forever? Isn’t this what Serrano does, making a body eternal? Thanks to this photographic genius, what is still considered repulsive and obscene in the contemporary age is aestheticized, a non-living body with marks on its skin that inspire fear and disgust.

In 1987 he created Piss Christ, a red and yellow photograph of a plastic crucifix submerged in the artist’s urine. The work debuted at the Stux Gallery in New York and then toured as part of the Awards in the Visual Arts 7 exhibition, for which the artist received a $15,000 grant. Controversy ensued.

Andres Serrano, Piss Christ,1987

Twenty-five years later, the work has not ceased to cause controversy. In 1997, during a retrospective at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, the photograph was removed from the wall and kicked. In 2011, in France, it was permanently damaged by Catholic fundamentalists who took a hammer to it. And in 2012, a group of New York Christians staged a protest against the image in front of the Edward Tyler Nahem Gallery, where it was on display.

The photo was greeted with indignation and disgust, but it was never Serrano’s intention to stir up controversy, the artist insists: “My work is often deliberately misunderstood or abused, particularly by the conservative right and religious people. Those who take issue with my work generally have a political agenda. It is more comfortable for them to ignore the reasons behind my work and turn my work into a political battleground”.

Andres Serrano, Klansman, Great Titan of the Invisible Empire III (The Klan), 1990

Then came a project in which he photographed members of the Ku Klux Klan, the notorious secret organisation made up of white American Protestants from the South who perpetrate violence against people of colour, Jews, immigrants, gays and lesbians and other minorities. “I wanted to make different portraits. And I thought about what it would be like if the subjects wore a mask. The Klan immediately came to mind.” The portraits of the masked Klansmen give you goose bumps. The subjects are seated and display a sense of confidence. In one of the images, a Klansman fixes his eyes on the viewer with confidence, in another he turns menacingly towards us. The white masks covering the subjects’ faces glow against the black background and one might think that Serrano is glorifying these people.

Serrano’s work often deals with provocative topics such as sex, poverty, religion, violence and death, but despite people’s prejudices, the artist claims to have several less controversial interests. For example, last Easter he did a feature for The New York Times Magazine on the Angora rabbit. “It was a great success. I would love to photograph bunnies and kittens, but nobody expects that of me. Because of who I am and my reputation, anything I do is seen in a sinister way, even if it wasn’t meant to be.”

Giovanni Troìa

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