(Due to a computer glitch, I lost the end of this interview. My apologies.)
Andres Serrano has been shaking up the art community since nearly the beginning of his career. One of the celebrated and reviled "NEA" artists of the late-80s (including Robert Mapplethorpe and Karen Finley), a reproduction of Serrano's "Piss Christ" was ripped apart on the floor of Congress in the spring of 1989, and Serrano himself was called "a jerk" by Jesse Helms.
Little did anyone consider that "Piss Christ"--a photo of a crucifix immersed in a jar of urine--was in actuality one piece in a beautiful and sublime larger project involving metaphors of Catholicism and the question of how one represents the "body of Christ" in modern times. In the ensuing nine years since the incident, Serrano has continued to work on a powerful ouevre of photos, using bodily fluids as a personal form of symbolism so complex that it rivals Joseph Bueys at times. His latest exhibition, "A History of Sex,"is a series of sexually-graphic representational photos depicting erotic scenes involving dwarves, the elderly, circus mimes and more. The premiere in Holland in 1997 was again mired in controversy when the promotional poster--depicting a woman urinating into a man's mouth--was banned by the courts; the ensuing publicity brought over 90,000 people to the show. The five-month process was captured in not just one but two documentaries, including one edited by Serrano himself that will be released next year.
The Chicago Artists Coalition sent novelist Jason Pettus to speak with Serrano about his new project, his recent lecture at Columbia College, and the headaches involved with being known as the "bad boy" of American art for a decade.
So the first thing I want to ask you I'll put up generally and you can answer it however you want. How tired do you get sometimes talking about everything that happened almost ten years ago, with the NEA and "Piss Christ" and things like that? Is it something you still enjoy talking about, or is it, "Okay, that's done, I'd like to talk about my new show?"
It all depends on the time of day. If I've done a couple of studio visits or just finished a lecture and an interview...it all depends. Sometimes I'll get tired. I was in Australia last year where I had a huge retrospective that was cancelled after two days. There was so much media attention and scrutiny that after ten or fifteen interviews I got tired of saying the same thing. It all depends, you know, it all depends. If I do more than three or four interviews in a day I start to get tired. It's one of those things where it can get tiresome to address the same issues and talk about the same things. I try to find new things to talk about.
Speaking of the Australia show, I noticed in my research that the controversy over your old work still reached over there, still to this day. I've noticed that over the years you've still had to deal with a lot of outcries and public reaction to your old work, as if people were discovering your old work all over again, year by year. Are you happy that new people are discovering your old work, or does it get frustrating sometimes?
Both, you know. In Australia I was really surprised that when I got to the airport I had forty paparazzi and camera people waiting for me there.
Because the Archbishop of Melbourne had gone to court to try to get an injunction against "Piss Christ" being in the retrospective at the National Gallery in Victoria. And so it always amazes me that, yes, these controversies seem to go away and then reappear at the most unexpected times.
It was certainly surprising when I saw it.
It's funny, that very week I had been on the couch with my therapist discussing the fact that I felt like my life was going nowhere, that I had become a forgotten person. [Laughs] And then I go and there's a whole other can of worms being opened up in Australia.
How much of this stuff do you learn about in advance? When you went to Australia, was [the controversy] brand-new information to you when you stepped off the plane?
Yeah, mostly. It was a shock. I'd heard there had been some controversy but I had no idea that the Archbishop had whipped up the local population into such a frenzy.
I noticed that some of the controversies over your older work happened in these small collegetowns where, maybe, just the art center on campus will buy one of your pieces and it will turn into a big ruckus there in town. Do you hear about these things? I was curious to know if you ever hear about them.
I remember something like this happenning in...Alabama, I think.
Burmingham, yeah, where they bought one of my "Pieta"s and then there was a protest from a small faction of students who seemed to think that the money should have gone elsewhere. Yeah, from time to time I hear about that.
Do you get invited to come and discuss the matter?
No. Actually, I'm glad they don't invite me. [Laughs] Actually, I did do a lecture [in Burmingham], but I did it before they bought the piece. A lot of times I don't even know about this stuff unless I'm there.
There's something else that I wanted to ask you about the events of the late 80s/early 90s. You had pretty much the ultimate nightmare of a creative person: you had a body of work and then someone in the very public eye took a single piece out of it and presented it out of context. I think a lot of us who are creative people have a real fear about things like that happening to us. How did you deal with that specific part of everything that happened?
I had never had that fear before, since that had never happened to me. With the "Piss Christ" controversy, I never felt like I had any control over the actions of the media or the politicians. That didn't bother me. Or people's perceptions of the work--I've always said that the work is open to interpretation, and even though I don't necessarily want it to be misinterpreted, I understand that people have their own ideas and their own agendas in discussing the work that oftentimes has little to do with what I intended. My biggest fear sometimes, especially in the beginning, was that I would be attacked on a more personal level. By that I mean there was a whole sense of vulnerability about the whole situation. I didn't quite know how to respond.
It's interesting that you bring that up, because it seems like you have talked a lot about the idea that when you're done with your work and present it, the audience has their own interpretations and that's just part of the process of being an artist. But you've also talked about how the charges of being anti-Christian really struck you in a more emotional way. Is this part of the vulnerability you were talking about?
Yeah, sure. When I was first being denounced in Congress by Jesse Helms and others, my friends would try to reassure me by saying, "Oh, don't worry that he's calling you a jerk. He's a jerk." [Laughs] But really, you do take it personally. You feel hurt. Also, at that point you feel very vulnerable. Big powerful important figures are pointing their fingers at you and accusing you of...well, all kinds of things. You wonder how far they'll go to destroy you. Fortunately I realized at the same time that these people were interested in using the work for their own agendas and they really weren't concerned about me.
I was struck by that too when it was going on. And not just from the conservative side either. I thought that a lot of people who were supporting the arts were actually interpreting your work in a way I wasn't so sure about. A view that fitted their agenda well too.
Well, I remember when Ted Potter, the director of the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, called me up. This was the institution that had arranged this award in contemporary art and the competition and exhibition. I received $15,000, and a portion of their budget came from the NEA. Two-thirds of the money came from other sources--John D. Rockefeller Foundation, Equitable Life Insurance Company. But because a portion of their yearly budget came from the NEA, that's how the NEA got involved in this thing. I remember when Ted Potter started telling me about how all these politicians were receiving complaints from their constituents as a result of the American Family Association mounting this huge campaign against the image and against the NEA and sending out 178,000 letters urging their members to write to Congress. [Note: This is the same group who the summer previously had protested The Last Temptation of Christ; it's also the same group who, the summer before that, protested the video to Madonna's Like A Prayer.] So this is like April of 1989, and so Ted says to me, "You know, these politicians are breathing down the NEA's neck and they want an answer from us. They want a rationality to the picture." And he says to me, "Can we say it's a protest against the commercialization of religious values?" [Laughter] And I say, "Ted, it's not language I would normally use..." [Laughter] "...but if you want to state that, go right ahead." Yeah, you're right. People at the beginning scrambled for a way to explain it.
One of the problems I had when I was doing photography in school was that I always felt that the finished photos I put on the wall were the ultimate explanation of what I was trying to say. If I had to write an essay to explain the photo, then I failed with the photo itself. This can be very typical in the visual arts. Later, someone will want you to comment on what the piece was, and you're like, "Well, that's what the piece was about. I can't explain it any better than it explains itself."
You're right, of course. I don't put too much stock into trying to articulate what I'm trying to say. Sometimes I'm confused by what I'm trying to say and I'm just trying to put it out there. [Laughter] What I do is title my work in such a way. That's where the text comes in, and that's where the articulation comes in as for explanation. You know, "Piss Christ." Picture of blood? Fine, call it "Blood." It's in the titles where I try to explain the work, if you can call it that.
I guess that gets into the whole discussion from before of releasing your work to the public and having their own interpretations come in. In my opinion, contemporary photography is one of the most challenging genres of all creative work. It's one of the main areas of the arts where you are inviting people to have different, sometimes conflicting interpretations. You're doing the minimum amount possible of saying, "This is what I'm trying to tell you." And this comes with certain complications. Cindy Sherman has talked about this in interviews.
What'd she say?
She said that when she gets done with a piece and hangs it, she has let go of it. It no longer belongs to her. She can no longer claim any ownership to it.
Does she still get paid?
[Loud laugher] Legally she still owns it! She was just saying that once she gets done with it, whatever history thinks of it or the public is up to them.
You know, I once had a show in [Sweden] and it was a place where Cindy had shown a few months earlier. A journalist interviewed me who had interviewed Cindy Sherman, and if this is true, I love the quote. She said, "I love what the critics write about my work because it has nothing to do with my work." And they've written a lot about Cindy!
Oh, that reminds me of a side question. You're a New York-based artist, Brooklyn specifically, right?
Yeah. Actually I'm moving into the city soon.
What is the situation like among contemporary artists in New York? How many of the people who have gotten press over the last ten years, that we generally think of nationwide as our contemporary artists, would you say are friends of yours? Or acquaintances? Do you hang out with Cindy Sherman or the Starn brothers or Duane Michaels?
None of them. The people I hang out with are young artists who have not gotten to that point. My peers, I meet them occasionally, but usually in another country.
I met Jeff Koons for the first time in Venice. Laurie Simmons I met once in Italy. A lot of times I don't even see these people around me in New York. Well, I think Cindy Sherman I've met twice at openings. But oftentimes I'm not around contemporary artists. Or at least contemporary artists who are making it. I'm in touch with the ones who haven't made it yet.
But you do have a circle of friends who are visual artists. Just in a different point in their careers than you.
Is this important to you? Do you feel like your work gets better by being friends with these people?
I feel like we have a lot in common and art is one of those. I think my closest friends, some of them are artists and some are not.
And this leads to another question I wanted to ask you. I did most of my research for this article on the Internet, and one of the things I learned was that your work is being used now for heavy-metal album covers, specifically Metallica.
Oh yeah, Metallica! Kirk and Lars from Metallica approached me though the Paula Cooper Gallery a little more than two years ago, and they had seen one of my images in the book Body and Soul. They really liked me and wanted to use it on their cover. They had to convince the other two members of the band who weren't so into art. [Laughter] Kirk and Lars have turned out to be big supporters. I think they both collect my work, and so that was for [the album] Lode. A year later they decide to come out with a new album. Again, because of the consistency of the music they wanted a consistency of cover art, so they again used one of my images, this time from the "Piss and Blood" series. The best part of the second album is that it's called ReLode, you know. I love that title. ReLode. You know, they came to me. Actually, I wish more bands would think about using my work or [commissioning me to] shoot new covers for their albums.
How much of your work would you like to see break into the popular culture? I know Barbara Kruger did a lot of work on billboards and matchbooks and album covers and posters.
Even though I think my work would translate well into a billboard or album cover, it's not often that I get asked to do these things. I wish I'd be asked to do more. I always like it when people decide to use work I created for myself, for their own purposes. For instance, there's this award-winning graphic designer who used one of my "Morgue" images a few years ago--a close-up of a bloodied eye--as the cover of a new version of the New Testament with Richard Mattimore, a noted biblical scholar.
That's certainly an interesting new context for your work.
Yeah, it was great. It wasn't a bestseller, I don't think. [Laughter] I went to look for the book one day at one of the big bookstores in Manhattan, and I was surprised to see 50 or 60 New Testaments. I didn't know there were so many Bibles to choose from! Yeah, I like that when people use my work in a mainstream context. Also I've started doing something this year that hasn't been so exciting for me so far but hopefully will be. I've started doing some commercial work, mostly editorial work for magazines and other venues outside the art world.
Photos of people being interviewed, or fashion shoots?
Not too much fashion. Mostly editorial photos, like an article on music I did for a magazine called Beat. There's a Japanese magazine for which I contribute a celebrity photo each month. I photograph people like Marilyn Manson, John Waters, Ru Paul, you know. Unfortunately, getting these damn celebrities is very difficult sometimes. [Laughter] You have to go through PR sometimes and it's a very difficult process.
How do you think of those shoots once you've gotten the green light and are ready to do the shoot? To bring up Cindy Sherman again, she's said that she wants her fashion shoots to match the vision of what she's been doing in her recent fine-art work. Do you do that too?
I try. For me it's the best when I have a commercial assignment that coincides with my own interests as a personal artist. I mean, for the celebrity portraits I use a painted backdrop and depending on how I feel about the person, whether I have a specific idea for them...I mean, like Elton John. I have a really good idea for his portrait if he'll ever get around to agreeing to it. [Laughter] I recently ran into him at the Museum of Modern Art. I've been trying to get Elton because, first of all, he's one of my collectors. He's bought work of mine over the years through agents here in the States. I had heard he was trying to buy something recently, so I got a fax number for Elton but there was no response. So I was at MoMA recently and I realized that guy in front of me was Elton! [Laughter] So I was like, "Elton! It's Andres Serrano! Did you get my fax?" He said yeah and said he couldn't do it this time but when he got back in January or February. And I know that Elton does not like to get photographed, that he's very shy about that. I don't know if he was blowing me off or if he will pose for me, but I have a very specific idea about his shoot. Sometimes I have ideas and sometimes I don't. Sometimes it's just a matter of shooting this person in front of me. It's always best when you can incorporate what you do as an artist into the commercial work as well.
It's always a big discussion among photographers, because photography, more than most other type of visual art, does have so many different applications--journalism, magazines, candid photos of your family. I mean, that's what the [Columbia College] show [that you're speaking at tonight] is all about, these different types of things that photography does. I think a lot of photographers think about this.
Although I wouldn't mind shooting some photos of bands, album covers, I think using some of my existing work could also be quite striking. I think a band could get a lot of attention by using one of my Klan pictures on the cover.
[Laughter] Yeah, I think so too. Now let's go the other way. Are there things in the popular culture that affect the type of photographs you do?
Sure, but I'd say subconsciously. Like with the sex pictures, at first I thought, "I want to call this show 'A History of Sex.' I want to reference historical images and sexual images and all that." I thought I'd look at a lot of images, both current and old. And at the end I realized that it was all inside of me. I didn't need to make specific references--I can just draw upon me instinctivly.
Have an inherent idea of what you want to say, but not based consciously on the references you've seen. And that also works, if I could add my own opinion, on the theme of religion and Catholicism in your work. You talk quite a bit in interviews on the fact that you don't consider yourself very religious, that you haven't been to church since your communion. Yet you yourself feel like your work is heavily influenced by religion, but in a way that you can't really point to and say "I'm trying to say this or that."
Well, more specifically by religious art. As far as belief, I may think about God from time to time, but I'm much more in tune with the aesthetic of the Catholic church. I like to collect antiques and one of the biggest things I buy is religious artifacts--wood carvings, furniture that's come from churches over the years. 16th, 17th, 18th century, very Catholic, very Christian. I'm attracted to religion but I think as far as religious belief, I'm more drawn to the aesthetics of religion and not necessarily the dogma.
Is this something you've studied or were raised with, religious paintings?
Yeah. I was raised a Catholic. My first recollection of art is from eleven or twelve. I started going to the Metropolitan Museum on my own, you know, and that's where I became familiar with a lot of the religious paintings.
One of the new things that struck me about the new work...and by the way, I don't know what year this exhibition originally came out.
"A History of Sex" was started in 1995, finished in 1996, and shown in 1997.
I've only seen eight images from the show, on the Internet. The thing that struck me about the photos was that I immediately thought of the Mona Lisa when I saw them. When I stopped and thought about it, I realized it was because--and you've talked about this before--these backgrounds. They're outdoors, they're a little surreal in their naturality. There's been a lot of discussion in the past about the background of the Mona Lisa and how important that is to that time period. I think you're really capturing a sense of old religious art in these pieces, even with the incredibly shocking subject matter. Or let's just say it's the type of work that wasn't being done centuries ago.
This woman in particular. [Pointing to a photo of a woman in full-frontal nudity] There's a certain sense of serenity, the way the light hits her. It reminds me of a Reneissance painting, the way the light caresses the figure, the way everyone seems to be in a dreamlike state, the surreal environment. You know, definitely. I specifically wanted to make this body of work timeless and ageless.
Not to mention that the colors in the photographs themselves reflect an old painting. They look faded, not like some of the abstracts from early in your career, these shocking bright red photos in front of you. These are almost a muted color, reflecting these paintings from hundreds of years ago. It's something I really enjoyed and picked up on ten seconds after seeing the photos. It was like, "Wow, these are really great." Another interviewer compared this new body of work to David Lynch and I thought that was really appropriate. You've said that you're a fan of David Lynch.
I'm a fan of Blue Velvet. David's done a lot of work and sometimes it escapes me. I couldn't follow Twin Peaks for the hell of it. [Laughter] I would say that Blue Velvet, for me, is really important. Just like Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction is quintessential Taratino and after that I don't really know. Those are definitely the films that have personally stirred something inside me.
There's a number of photographers who are contemporaries of yours who are exploring the same issues, this line between realism and surrealism and how they combine in one photo. I think there's a whole new direction that photography is taking these days. We've finally taken it for granted that photography does not necessarily express the objective truth just because it's a photograph. Now that that's finally been established, I think there's a whole school of photographers right now, you yourself being in that school, who's exploring how far you can now push that concept. Where do the lines blur [in a photograph] between reality and the surreal? I think it's a very exciting time for photography. I like a lot of stuff that I see. Now, you shot this new show all in Europe?
Yeah. I started this work in Rome. In fact, this image [pointing to a bound and gagged priest] and this image [pointing to an older woman with shaved head] were both shot in Rome. In 1995 I went to [a large European bienneal show] and brought some assistants because I knew after the show we could go to Rome and stay in a friend's apartment. At least I knew I had a place in Rome. So that's where I started "A History of Sex." And after four or five months we got five or six images done and I went back to the States, and then in May of 1996 I had to go to Kyoto for some business there. I shot one image for the show called "Bondage in Kyoto." And then I was about to have a show at the Groeninger Museum in Holland and Mark Wilson, the curator of the show, a man from America that I've known for over ten years, said to me as he was preparing to mount this huge retrospective of my work, "You know, Andres, it would be nice while you were in Holland if you could do some shooting here to add to this show." And I said to him, "Well, that's nice to offer, Mark, but my new work is all sexual images so I can't go to Holland to do [that] right now." And he says, "Well, why not shoot in Amsterdam?" and I said, [smacking forehead] "Oh, of course! What am I thinking?"
[Laughing loudly] "Duh, of course!"
Yes! I was thinking...the Dutch, you know? But there's an instance where I was already on one track and then here's this person saying "You can do that here." Otherwise I don't know where I would've gone, because the people in Holland were really open to a lot of the ideas I was suggesting. The images from Rome, not all but some, have a softer quality, and it was when I got to Amsterdam that I realized that I needed to go for broke. With a title like "A History of Sex," I felt like I had to do both hard and soft images. So it was in Amsterdam that I concentrated on making the most difficult images, including this one [pointing to a naked woman holding a horse's erect penis in her fist].
You've talked in other interviews about how you got people to pose for these different images, but I was hoping you'd go into a little more detail here. Was part of the process of getting people to pose for this project having them know that you had a body of work? That it would be presented in a certain way and not in, say, a more lurid way? That it would be showing in a big show at a museum?
Well, we knew it was going to be a big show but none of us could have guessed how big it turned out to be. I recruited a lot of these people through mutual contacts. One time I went through a modeling agency. Another time I got a couple of people who work in the clubs, promoting clubs and parties, fetish parties and S&M parties in Amsterdam, and I went to those parties because I knew there were people there very open with their sexuality and probably would not be opposed to posing for me. Basically, I ended up getting my models from all kinds of places, but there was always some kind of presentation that had to be made beforehand. I was with Michael, my assistant, sometimes with Mark Wilson, the curator, sometimes with another assistant. Sometimes there were yet more people there with cameras. There were actually two films being made about me at the same time. My assistant was making a film and someone else too. So we'd make a pitch to a prospective model and then we'd decide. We'd show them [books of my earlier work] and we'd tell them it was for a museum show. Now, one time I had a woman say to me, "I don't mean to offend you, but I've never heard of you." [Laughter] And I laughed and said, "That's fine. There's a lot of people who have never heard of me." And I said, "But by the time this show is over and I've left Holland, if you still haven't heard of me then I will have failed." I never saw that woman again--don't even know who she was now. But my work became very controversial in Holland, due to the fact that the poster used for the show was called "Leo's Fantasy" and is a picture of a woman pissing into a man's mouth. That's the image the museum wanted to use to promote the show.
Wasn't there a petition signed by churches and schools regarding that poster?
Yeah, a lawyer representing a few churches and schools went to court to try to get an injunction against this poster being used. The judge allowed the poster to be put up, but then it never did go up because the prosecutors threatened to arrest and charge any [private businesses who displayed the poster]. In the end the poster accomplished what it set out to do, in that it advertised the show perfectly.
Copyright 1999, Jason Pettus. All rights reserved.