Culture Justice MDIA3010_18 MDIA3010Proj1 MDIA3010Tue12.00

Confronting Visions


1196 words


According to Andres Serrano the depiction of the world is meant to be an uncomfortable sacrament, just don’t call this artist provocateur a photographer, reports STEPHEN HILL



Having depicted everything from morgue bodies, the Klu Klux Klan to a crucifix in urine, veteran visual artist Andre Serrano has turned his attention to depicting the discomforting reality of the many people living without shelter.


In Sydney on a six-day trip Serrano discussed his work at a UNSW Centre for Ideas “Art of the Homeless” forum with some of his images currently displayed at UNSW Galleries as part of the “In Your Dreams” series.


“I’ve never seen myself as a photographer. I’ve always seen myself as an artist with a camera,” said the sixty-seven year old who prefers to be described as a conceptual artist.


Serrano’s work is known for its confronting nature, often focusing on unusual and macabre subjects, which has seen him exhibited around the world.


“I feel I learned everything I know about art and photography from Marcel Duchamp,” said Serrano, referencing an artist that turned the art world upside down by exhibiting a toilet-bowl in a Paris art gallery.


Serrano’s disruptive artistic practice similarly would see him garner media attention in the late eighties when his work PissChrist was accused of mocking the religious sensibilities of conservative Christians.


“This would result in my work being denounced in Congress and in the US Senate,” said Serrano.


The controversy would be part of a broader social push by cultural conservatives to take on the exhibitors of modern art with a series of high-profile obscenity trials, and would result in reproductions of Serrano’s work being destroyed in France, Sweden and in Australia nine-years later when it was displayed at the National Gallery of Victoria.


“PissChrist was very controversial because the Archbishop of Melbourne George Pell denounced me and tried to get an injunction against Piss Christ. He didn’t succeed, but because of all the commotion stirred up in people, Piss Christ was attacked and after two days of exhibition the show was cancelled.


“By the way I understand Archbishop Pell is in a bit of trouble on another front but I won’t go into that,” said Serrano.


Following the controversy in the US in the 90s Serrano produced his first series of pictures of the homeless, Nomads.


“In these studio portraits, you don’t see any dirty subway, you don’t see any environment,” said Serrano


Twenty years later with income inequality becoming more pronounced globally and observing an increased number of homeless people in various cities the visual artist embarked on three new series of works on homelessness. These would include the Sign of the Times in which he would purchase and display the signs deployed by the homeless that offer a brief narrative of their life, the Residents of New York Series, whose success triggered the follow-up the Denizens of Brussels.


In the Residents project, Serrano would photograph his subjects without a studio backstop, producing works that could be blown up in size as posters and placed on billboards for subway commuters to observe.


“It is funny because you’d walk down those corridors on your way to your train and there they were and then you would go outside the station and you would see the actually homeless right there,” said Serrano.


This has led to the organisation that funded the program More Art commissioning further images of the homeless to further increase public awareness of their plight.


According to Serrano he preferred the name residents instead of homeless: “because these people are residents of the city even if they live on the streets.


“You know, residents, denizens, poor people, I could have done this in Paris, New Orleans, Sydney,” said Serrano.


In these projects, Serrano says he was inspired by the work of Edwin Curtis who depicted the Native Americans at the turn of the 20th century and Dorothea Lange who chronicled the individual dignity of those most affected by the Great Depression.


Serrano observed in the European locations “street begging is more theatrical, in Paris and Brussels you see them on their knees praying, you see them with babies.


“I’m not a crusader, so I do it as an artist I just want to identify with these people, recognise them and create works of art around them.


“Whatever you think of the homeless, I try to imagine when I was young and sold drugs on the street. I was a drug addict in my early twenties, but I was never homeless. And I was always doing something, and to do nothing that is a hard life,” said Serrano.


Sydney University Lecturer Dr. Donna West-Brett said Serrano’s recent series: “unveils the tension between the beautiful image and the uncomfortable subject matter, poignantly rendering visible [the homeless] who remain largely unseen and unacknowledged in society.”


According to the visual-arts lecturer Serrano’s ability to use the photographical medium “as a beautifully cruel lens, focusing on the often abject qualities of the human condition” explains his international appeal.


“While he is infamous for his Piss Chris photograph in 1987 his work has consistently studied the darker side of existence. His work has the ability to peel back the layers of the subject to reveal their interiority, their pain, anxiety, beauty and difference, with exquisitely produced photographs, striking for their deeply saturated colour.” said West-Brett.


At the Centre of Ideas event Serrano joked that when he had taken images of uplifting subjects like puppies and babies, art buyers and galleries balked because of the lack of provocative content.


When asked about why he photographed the Klu Klux Klan, the part-Honduran, part-Cuban second-generation American said he wanted to photograph “someone with a mask on, the antithesis of a portrait.”


“Where a portrait usually identifies someone facially, their character, their soul, they show something about that person. Whereas a mask shows nothing.


“It’s funny because when I first started to do that work, my assistant said to me, these almost look like recruitment posters for the clan. And I thought that bothered me for a moment, but then I thought you know people should see what they want to see there, it’s not up to me to tell them how to view these pictures,” said Serrano


The self-taught artist (when it comes to using a camera) that dropped out of school to study painting and sculpture at age seventeen, has recently shifted his attention to the Asian continent with a “Made in China” series giving him a vehicle to document working-class people in Beijing.


“I dress them in this dress that looks ceremonial, it looks regal, but they are really wearing traditional robes for men and women. And it’s not really a costume, because people buy these outfits and keep them and they cost a lot of money.”


“I’m thinking about doing something else this year, but I’ve got to tell you, I get tired of taking pictures sometimes, and I’ll tell you why, because a lot of people inside and outside the art-world, but particularly inside the art world call me a photographer, and I hate that. So sometimes it makes me want to stop taking pictures and do something else.”




Captions photo#1 (Sign of the Times: Sign of a Homeless Vietnam Vet)

Captions photo#2  (The Residents of NY on a Subway Billboard)

Caption photo#3 (Serrano on Piss Christ: “It wasn’t a glass, it was a big tank of piss”)

Caption: Mug-shut (“I’m an artist with a camera”)


NOTE – The paragraphs on taking the photos the KKK could be deployed as a side-box, if it is affected the flow of the article.


Edit-points for Audio-clips – no Audacity in Library computers. Will head to 2SER and patch these up


“Hill: Your most famous work is an image of a crucifix with a concoction nof

Serrano: It wasn’t a glass it was a big tank of pass.


Serrano: PissChrist was very controversial because the Archbishop of Melbourne George Pell denounced me and tried to get an injunction against Piss Christ. He didn’t succeed, but because of all the commotion stirred up in people, Piss Christ was attacked and after two days of exhibition the show was cancelled.


“By the way I understand Archbishop Pell is in a bit of trouble on another front but I won’t go into that,” said Serrano.


“Hill: Also among the photographic subjects you have taken are members of the Klu Klux Klan. Now in regards to the ethics of representation how do you go about depicting them, do you worry that you are whitewashing their prejudice.

Serrano: No

Hill: Do you still treat them as individual subjects.” (etc.)