Born in 1950 in New York, Andres Serrano was raised in a devoutly Catholic neighborhood where religion played a significant part of his growing up. From his first images as an artist, sacred icons and other symbolic elements have been frequenting his tableaux-like photographs. From religious iconography, human subjects, dead animals to more precise elements such as blood (a symbol for passion and violence), urine, milk, semen and later excrement, the artist seeks to convey a sense of dignity to his subjects and to reconcile the sacred and the profane through what Germano Celant termed as “the synthesis of the opposite”, so that “the lower part is in dialogue with the upper part, the human with the divine, the earthbound with the celestial”.

Despite his emphasis that it’s not his intention to shock or offend the public, Serrano’s work is often proved to be far more provocative than he ever intended. His now infamous photograph of a crucifix submerged in urine, titled Piss Christ (1987), was criticized by the Senator Alfonse D’Amato as “obscene art” in the late 1980s (the polemic has ironically earned him fame as a young artist). Twenty years later, the controversy goes on. Last April (2011), when the photograph was shown in Avignon amidst the collection of the French collector and gallery owner, Yvon Lambert, an angry group of fundamentalist Christians marched in to destroy the work with hammers and ice-picks.  

In the interview, Andres Serrano talks about his new series of photography, “Holy Works”, as well as his aesthetics and his religion.

Selina Ting
InitiArt Magazine
Paris, 05 April 2012


On Portraying Holy Works

ST: The new series of photographs – Holy Works was created in 2011. Did the idea of the Holy Works series come to you before or after the incident in Avignon last year?

AS: A little bit after that. The incident was in April 2011 and I started the series in May. I went to Milan for an art fair at that time and started planning for an exhibition in a gallery there. During the trip, I visited a church which is in fact a medieval museum. When I was there, I immediately got the idea of doing a show based on medieval religious painting, but in my own way and I called it “Holy Works”.
By doing so, I was trying to reclaim religious art because religious art was the most important and the only art that existed during the renaissance and before. The greatest painters that we recognize today from that period were those who made religious paintings. In contrast, today, religious art is almost non-existent. As a contemporary artist, I wanted to reclaim religious painting or religious art. At the same time, with the religious images that I have done in the past, it makes perfect sense that I should do this series of work.

ST: Religious art was the main art theme because the Church was dominating at that time. But what is the validity of religious art today? Why do we still need it?

AS: I need it. It’s in my blood. Not only do I like creating religious images, I’m also surrounded by the symbols of the Church in my home. I’m a collector of Medieval and Renaissance objects and works of art, and nearly all of my collection is religious. Even though the Church is no longer the dominating force it once was, that doesn’t mean that religious art can’t make a comeback.

ST: When you did the series The Church in the 1990s, you photographed the people and the architectural space of churches in France, Spain, Italy, etc. It seems that the concern was more on the “here and now”, whereas, the focus of this new series is on the still-life relics and symbolic objects of Christianity…

AS: In The Church, I photographed the people who represent the Church and also the people who worked in the churches. But I also photographed empty churches. For example, the chair in the corridor in Sainte Clothilde Church [Paris], for me, it’s not only about composition or formal aesthetic but a sense of solitude, of emptiness that you can find even in the church. Another image is taken in Sainte Eustache [Paris] with huge ladders that looked like leading you to heaven but they are also ladders to nowhere. Again there is a sense of loneliness. A third image that is close to the idea of religious object is a pair of church doors attached by a chain at the middle. It was the way they locked the doors but for me it signifies a lot of things. It’s like a still life image impregnated with all kinds of meaning and readings. It’s changing the meaning of religion for some people, a kind of restriction, imprisonment, etc. The Church has the power of enlightening an individual, but it also has the power of imprisoning. In a way, I was surprised that I have never thought of doing a body of work that only concentrates on religious images before.

Andres Serrano, (left) The ChurchSainte Clothilde, Paris, 1991, Cibachrome. 156 x 128 cm.
(right) The Church (St. Clotilde II, Paris), La Iglesia, Santa Clotilde in Paris, 1991. Cibachrome. 156 x 128 cm. Courtesy of the artist

ST: Can we say that before coming to religious objects or still life objects, you were more focused on portraitures? Even when you photograph an object, or a corpse, you photographed them as if you were making portraits.

AS: First of all, I want to say that I always use portraiture as a means of seeing the world and of expressing myself. When I did the portraits of the homeless, The Nomads, or the Ku Klux Klan series, I saw them as portraits of individuals and also as symbols and representations of issues and social groups that sometimes clash with each other and with the rest of society. These dynamics have always been present in my work. I studied painting in art school. I have never considered myself a photographer but an artist. For example, in the Bodily Fluid series, I used the fluids like paint to make purely abstract works. They are abstract elements but they are also tangible, real substances. They mean something. I have a monochrome with milk called “Milk” and a red monochrome called “Blood.” When you look at them and you read the titles, you know what you’re looking at. With this series, I was pushing myself to explore photography not as a photographer but as an artist. By abstracting the works, I was doing something that was anti-photography. Photography is about spatial relations, perspective, foreground, background, etc. and I was going against all of that by flattening out the picture plane and eliminating backgrounds, subjects and perspective. I was creating paintings rather than photographs. The works refer to abstract paintings, geometrical paintings, etc. The first image in the Bodily Fluids series was “Milk/Blood,” an image with milk on the left side and blood on the right with a thin line separating the two at the center. This image refers to Mondrian. I was inventing a language for myself which is the language of painting but I adapted it to photography. I always felt that I was exploring or breaking new ground in photography by abstracting the image, very much like a painter does. But it’s still a photograph. That’s why I always see myself as a conceptual artist with a camera rather than as a photographer.

Andres Serrano, Milk/ Blood from Bodily Fluid series, 1986. Cibachrome print, 40 x 60in. Courtesy of the artist

In the Holy Works series, I was doing something new for me, i.e., I was trying to invent the language of the silhouette. The lighting arrangement of these pictures is very different from the other series. The subjects or the figures were not given light, only the background was illuminated, therefore creating what Germano Celant recently recalled the “sublime shadows”, I called them “silhouettes”. It’s the idea of playing with abstraction and representation.

Andres Serrano, (left) Pieta, 2011, Cibachrome, silicone, plexiglass, wood frame, 101.6cm x 82.55 cm. (right), The Klan, Klansman, 2007. C-Print. 152.4 cm x 125.73cm. Courtesy of the artist.

Interpretation and Provocation

ST: How do you see the danger of easy and sometimes hasty interpretation or over-interpretation of your work? Do you think that there is a distance between the conceptual aspect and the visual results in your work that engendered much controversy?

AS: I always say that my works are open to interpretation. Sometimes I know what I mean and other times I am less clear. I don’t really care what I intend because creativity is an act of the imagination and it doesn’t need explanation. I don’t feel the need to defend my work because an artist should be articulate only when he or she feels the need to express themselves. Otherwise, the artist should withdraw and let the work speak for itself. One thing I have learnt over the years is that people have their own interpretations, they see different things. I remember when I did the portraits of the Klan, my assistant commented that “these portraits look like recruitment posters for the Klan”. I was definitely taken aback by his comment. It was not my intent to glorify the Klan but when I shoot my subjects, I monumentalize them and make them bigger than life. No matter who or what I photograph, I try to make the strongest image possible.

…everyone thinks their shit is the best shit. And I was saying, if you want some shit, I’ve got the best shit in town!

– Andres Serrano

ST: In several occasions you insisted that it’s not your intention to be provocative or to profane the sacred. But the construction of the images requires time from an audience to say “I agree or disagree with you”. Such gap often ended up in contradictory readings…

AS: There’s a standard that people judge me by expecting me to be provocative, controversial, and if I am not, they are disappointed. Both my supporters and my critics seem to be disappointed when I am not especially provocative. But I don’t feel the need to be provocative or controversial all the time. Once in a while, I do things that are interesting to me and that are confusing enough that people don’t know what kind of signal I am sending or what I mean by these works.
As an artist, I have two motivations. One is to create and break new ground. The other is to explore something that I am curious about. Sometimes, I know very little of the subject I photograph. When I photographed the KKK, someone asked me if I knew a lot about the KKK. It was the same in The Morgue series. The man in charge of the morgue asked me if I had ever seen dead people before. I said, “no, not really”. I approach my work and my subjects both from the inside and the outside. Sometimes, I only have a few moments with my subject, and in those few moments, I try to capture their soul. A couple of years ago, I took some nude portraits. I photographed more than 100 people and I would say 80% of models I didn’t know. I only met them after my assistant took their Polaroids. That’s when my relationship with the person begins, when I am in front of them, behind the camera and ready to shoot. It’s at that moment I try to learn everything I can about them – who they are, what they feel and what they think.

ST: As an artist, what are you searching for? When you are in front of the subject, what are you looking for? What you are trying to communicate to your audience? For example, in the new series, what do you want to know about these particular subjects?

AS: There is only one thing that I am looking for – Beauty. I want to make an image as beautiful as possible. When I did the Shit show, I wanted to take beautiful pictures of shit. They are very abstract but also conceptual in the sense that the language of shit is also present in the titles. There is Good Shit, Bad Shit, Holy Shit, Bullshit, etc. It was a conceptual play on words, because there was no difference between Good Shit and Bad Shit, because they were both bullshit, meaning they were the same shit from a bull but photographed from different angles against different backdrops.  I was making a statement: everyone thinks their shit is the best shit. And I was saying, if you want some shit, I’ve got the best shit in town!

Andres Serrano, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, February 3 – March 28, 2009; Yvon Lambert, London, exhibition views, © Andres Serrano, Courtesy of the artist and Yvon Lambert Paris, New York

ST: Is it easier to make beautiful things beautiful or something ugly beautiful?

AS: I think there are lots of people in the world– artists or photographers – who are very good at making beautiful things beautiful. I like to photograph beautiful things, but I also like to photograph difficult things.
I’ve been doing one thing all my life, just one thing – I’ve been photographing people or things in my studio. I only change the background and the subject in front of me. Yet the images are radically different because of the ideas driving the work.

ST: Do the new series of Holy Works trying to be less provocative?

AS: It all depends on the eyes of the beholder. For instant, the title of one work, a diptych, is called “Two Christs”. I typed the word “Christs”, and spellcheck tells me the word is misspelled. Google also asks if you mean “Christ”. In other words, the concept of more than one Christ does not exist. In my two photographs, it’s the same statue of Christ but the image is reversed as if they are crisscrossing each other. I thought that these two Christs have their own cross to bear and maybe there are hundreds of Christs going on in the same way. The idea of course is unacceptable for Christianity, but for an artist everything is possible.
Another thing I looked up was the penis of Christ which is always covered in most depictions of Christ. In “Sacramentum”, I gave Christ a penis. It’s a medieval statue of Jesus Christ I have at home. I made a clay sculpture of Christ’s penis and added it to the statue and photographed it. Some Christians don’t want to think of God as a sexual being with a penis. I have never really seen it in religious paintings. But if Jesus is the son of God and I believe He is, not only does He have a penis, He has a magnificent penis because God would give His only son a great penis.

Andres Serrano, Sacramentum: Sacred Shadows, installation view. March 2 – May 5, 2012, Galerie Nathalie Obadia, Brussels. Courtesy of the artist and the Galerie Nathalie Obadia.

ST: Then the title Holy Works becomes ambiguous… as much as the “Holy Shit” piece which portraits the excrement of a priest.

AS: I am a Christian artist, but it doesn’t mean I have to make works for the Church. When Michelangelo worked for the Church, he put his own ideas into his work. I want to create for the Vatican and I hope the Pope will give me his blessing. But I am not a tool of the church or anybody else. As an artist, I need to be free to create. The church, especially the Church in Rome recognizes that they can’t put restrictions on art and artists. The most criticism I’ve received has not been from the Church or from Rome but from Christian fundamentalists in America.

ST: What does the word “Holy” stand for you?

AS: “Holy” means something related to religion, faith, the Church, God, Jesus and all the saints and everyone else who is part of the biblical story of religion.

ST: Does the word carry any mental weight on people who pronounce it, hear it or write it?

AS: I think “Holy” implies an elevation above physical things. It’s more spiritual and uplifting.

ST: You are a Christian because you were raised Christian or because you have a faith for Christianity?

AS: I am a Christian because I was raised as a Catholic. It’s the only religion I know and it’s the only religion I can relate to. But it feels very strange to mention Jesus Christ because it’s a relationship that I have with God that I don’t really discuss it with anyone. There was a time when I felt guilty about praying, because the only time when I prayed to God was when I wanted something. But now I realize you can pray to give thanks. My relationship with God is one of celebration and gratefulness.

My relationship with God is one of
celebration and gratefulness.

ST: Is it only when talking about art that you have to make it explicit that you are a Christian?

AS: Exactly. I am a Christian but I don’t have the need to talk about my religion, with Christian or non-Christian. I think the best religion is the religion that you keep for yourself. People who read and quote the bible all the time are very strange.

ST: Thank you very much!

Andres Serrano
Sacramentum: Sacred Shadows
02 March 2 – 05 May 2012
Galerie Nathalie Obadia (Brussels)

About Andres Serrano
Born in 1950 in New York, lives and works in New York.
Studied in Brooklyn Museum Art School, NY in 1967 – 1969

Personal exhibitions (selected since 2005)

Andres Serrano in front of his new series Holy Works, 2011(From left: Ecce Homo, Sacramentum, The Nail), Cibachrome, silicone, plexiglass, wood frame, each 101.6 cm x 82.55cm. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Nathalie Obadia. Photographed by Selina Ting, © initiArt Magazine.

Andres Serrano. Sacramentum: Sacred Shadows, Galerie Nathalie Obadia, Brussels

Holy Works, Galleria Pack, Milan

The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Yvon Lambert, London, England

Shit, Yvon Lambert, New York, NY
Shit, Yvon Lambert, Paris, France

A History of Sex, Kulturen, Lund, Sweden
The Morgue Part II, Yvon Lambert, Paris, France
El Dit a La Nafra, Centre Cultural METROPOLITÀ, L’Hospitalet, Spain

En Las Fronteras Villa Croce Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Genes, Italy
Photographie Sehen … Nusser & Baumgart Contemporary, Munich, Germany
Andrés Serrano: Selected works, Walter Otero Gallery, San Juan
Beautiful Suffering – Photography and the Traffic in Pain, Williams College Museum of Art, Williamstown, MA
Dark Places, Santa Monica Museum of Art, Santa Monica, CA
ARTIUM, Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain
PAC, Milan, Italy
Andres Serrano – La Part Maudite, Collection Lambert en Avignon, Avignon, France
Andres Serrano – Baroque, Gimpel Fils, London, England

Des Américains, Yvon Lambert, Paris, France
The Americans, Ugo Ferrati, Roma, Italy
Andres Serrano – Retrospective, Moscow House of Photography, Moscow, Russia
Andres Serrano – America, Galería Juana de Aizpuru, Madrid, Spain

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