Interview with Andres Serrano

by David L. Jacobs

Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted in conjunction with the Contemporary Arts Museum retrospective “Andres Serrano: Works 1983-1993” September 30 - November 26, 1995.

DLJ: We should start with PissChrist, since it’s the cause celebre. Obviously the picture has brought you a lot of notoriety. How has it affected your career, both positively and negatively?
Serrano: Well, it put me in a much greater arena as an artist. I attract an audience that sometimes knows, very little about art, but is curious to see my work because they have heard about it. I'm grateful for that. I never wanted to make work that would only appeal in one specific audience—espe­cially an art audience. I prefer to get people from all walks of life and with all kinds of backgrounds to come let see the work. I get a very diverse audience.That's something very positive and real that's happened. And I have made tons of money because of the notoriety— which is fine—but it's not like living on Easy Street. At this point in my life I struggle—everything is a struggle. An artist never knows, no matter who he or she is, established or not—you never know what kind of income you’re gonna have. Its not fixed.
DLJ: Warhol's fifteen minutes of fame—you never know when it’s going to run out.
Serrano: I never know from month to month what kind of income I'm going to draw. I'm in a very privileged position because I'm able to survive off my work, and that's a very fortunate thing. Many artists have to do something else in order to live. So, in that respect, the controversy has helped me a lot.
DLJ: What about the down side? Other artists and photographers sometimes get identified with a few images or a signature style, and it's very difficult to break out into differ­ent kinds of approaches, genres, subjects. Has the fame of Piss Christbecome a barrier?
Serrano: Not for me or for the audience. Initially, people come because they've heard of Piss Christ. There's a lot of people who know of Piss Christ but they don't necessarily know my work, and when they come to a show like this they are able to see a greater range. I've never felt like a "one shot" artist, or locked into Piss Christ. I've always maintained a distance from it. And the audience has reacted very strongly to the later works that have come after Piss Christ such as The Klan, The Nomads, and especially The Morgue series. I think that at this point my reputation for a lot of people is based not on Piss Christ but what has followed.
DLJ: Does the ongoing controversy over Piss Christ surprise you, or the fact that ten years later it remains in the minds of people who want to eliminate the NEA?
Serrano: You know, the controversy when it first broke out surprised and shocked me. But, after I saw the way things were going, I realized that the Piss Christ controversy was sa circus which had nothing to do with me. It had a life of its own and which would go on even without my participation in it. So, initially I said, “Well, it’s going away, it’s going away.” And then something would happen to bring it back again— Jesse Helms wouldn’t let it go, especially during re-election time. Now year’s later, Newt Gingrich is taking up Jesse’s mantle. So, it is something that is not a part of my life at this point. When I hear Piss Christ being brought up again, I feel somewhat removed from it.
DLJ: But of course, it happened again in 1994, when the National Council rescinded a grant that was recommended by the NEA Peer Panel. Were you surprised last year too, or at this point were you expecting controversy?
Serrano: I was surprised that the NEA panel recommended me, and not quite as surprised when the National Council voted to deny me the grant. There were lawyers from different organizations who warned to pursue it. But the NEA has not been really an active part of my life, so, I didn't care to pursue it any further in the legal system.
DLJ: What was the Council’s ratio­nale for the reversal?
Serrano: It was a matter of quality.
DLJ: Which work was presented?
Serrano: The portraits. I really felt like a scapegoat because even though they, denied it was for political reasons, I was sure if any other artist had submitted that work it would not have received the same sort of scrutiny. And the council was well aware that my work was going to come up before­hand, and they had gotten slides of work that had nothing to do with my original application to review when my name came up.
DLJ: When going through your retrospective, Icouldn’t help wondering what all the fuss was about. The images don't seem especially tough.
Serrano: In fact, my work is not all that tough. I wish if were tougher. A lot of times people come to see the shows and they wonder what all the fuss is about.
DLJ: Maybe if Piss Christwas a painting, rendered in acrylics…
Serrano: Yeah, if Piss Chris were a painting, and if Piss Christ had not been titled Piss Christ.
DLJ: Maybe Gatorade Christ. To what degree do these issues revolve around the representational status of the photographic image? The fact that there was a real thing being photographed?
Serrano: Absolutely. A real thing— even when it's in absolute lie. Even when it's subtly fabricated—like when I do it or Joel-Peter Wilkin or Cindy Sherman—it seems real to the audi­ence. It's hard not to respond in a more visceral way than you would with a painting.
DLJ: The photograph are beautiful on a formal level. But isn't there a problem with what Sontag called "The Beauty Treatment" when it is applied to he grotesque or the appal­ling? I think, for example, of the photograph of the My Lai Massacre that appeared on the cover of Life magazine: in 1968 a beautiful colored photograph. elegantly composed of mangled bodies. Giventhe subject matter, do some of your photographs risk being overly aestheticized? Dothe formal elements diminish the subject matter, the content?
Serrano; No, they're not overly aestheticized. It amazes me that people call me such a perfectionist when it comes to lighting and that my tech­nique is so aestheticized—in reality my lights are very, very simple. It’s not like I went into The Morgue, it's not like I look these people from the morgue and took them into a fancy, super duper studio with $50,000 lights like Annie Leibowitz.
DLJ: Well, you don't need fancy lighting for them to be aestheticized.
Serrano: They're not fashion shots, they're nm beauty shots—they're an, and I try to light it well and I try to do a good job. They're nor over aestheticized at all. It's just that some people feel uncomfortable because they're not the sort of morgue shots that you would see in a book of forensic pathology or the My Lai picture or Eddie Adams' shot of the execution. That's one approach to death, and there are others. Mine is one of many.
DLJ: Your approach lends heavily toward the abstract, both in the formal sense, and in that you've abstracted parts from larger wholes. Burnt to Death III is a tightly selected slice (pardon the expression) from the whole. The effect, at least to my eyes, is one of abstraction that verges on aesthetlcitation of the subject.
Serrano: [Look,I don't know what you expect.] In the morgue series, I initially was photographing people from a greater distance so that you could see, if not the entire body then three-quarters or half the body. Then I started to zero in on my subjects, realizing that sometimes you could tell more about the whole from a detail. I did with The Morgue what I often do with a lot of my subjects: monumentalize them, make them big­ger than life, even more than in The Klan images.
I'm also looking at composition. I'm looking for abstraction and repre­sentation in my composition. Yes, you can get so dose up to someone: that the image becomes very abstracted, such as the inside of the man's rib cage in Burnt to Death III where it's only red. The organs have been cleaned away and if you look at it, it's a lot of red. It’s like little objects floating in space almost- It's a very abstract image until you know what it is.
DLJ: Right And I couldn't know what this image was unless yon explained it to me.
Serrano: You know, I did some images like that—super close ups of organs and body parts—but when I did the show, I decided to do them more representationally. I chose to go the other route—to be able to not only inform the audience, but to be able to hit the audience over the head with what they were looking at…
DLJ: I would have no idea what this image was if you had not just explained it to me. but, people walk­ing into the exhibit don't have you sitting there explaining it far them. What are they to make of this?
Serrano: I'd say you would have to figure out what part of the body this is. But, it's true. I don't want in make art that needs a text. I have the titles. That's enough informa­tion. You don't need to know, nec­essarily, that The Nomads, the homeless portraits that I took, were inspired by Edward Curtis’s photographs of Native Americans... So, that's why most of the images in The Morgue are not like Burnt to Death III. This is very atypical. In most of them it is very easy to establish what they are. For me, this is an abstract image. Ab­straction is one of the tools of, if not photography, certainly painting and art, and I have always referred to myself as an artist rather than a photographer. So, besides my interest in representation, I have also always been interested in abstraction. So this piece for mc may function purely as abstraction.
DLJ: Is that true of much of your work?
Serrano: To an extent.
DLJ: The same dynamic is at work in an image like this as Death by Drowning 2. I'm very drawn to this image because of the ambiguity in it—it becomes so many different things to me.
Serrano: Not only that—a lot of times, people don't know what they're looking at, not because they're ignorant but because the camera lies. If I were to ask you, you would probably say this was a black man. This was not a black man. This was a white man who drowned. And, as a result of being in the water for several days, his skin started to turn black and purple and green and blue. But, that sort of information is not in the photograph, I have to tell you. But, it's not important. You can appreciate it as a human being, black or white.
DLJ: American culture is such a bizarre conglomerate of taboos and violence: the old dance of eros and thanatos. You get in big trouble if you do a Piss Christor if you try to represent sexuality on a television screen, and yet the most egre­gious forms of violence are routinely seen in the media.
Serrano: I just find that this society is a lot more prudish about things like seat and death than Europe. I found that my work has been appreciated in Europe and seen in a different light than here. All you have to do is watch TV and you see naked women, you see breasts, you see a greater accep­tance of the body than in the States. I have had many shows of The Morgue in France, Italy, and most recently in Scotland, m Montreal. And yet, "The Morgue" has been seen in its entirety only once in the U.S., at the Paula Cooper Gallery, and now we have a few pictures in this retrospective.
DLJ: I confess to having problems with The Nomadsseries, the portraits of the homeless, because they decontextualize the subject, much like Irving Penn did in Worlds in a Small Roomand Avedon in In the American West.They both set their subjects up against neutral backgrounds in portable studios and shot them as if for the pages of Vogue. Why do you adopt something like this strategy in The Nomad?
Serrano: Everyone has probably gone into a studio at one time or another and had their picture taken. That series was inspired by Edward Curtis, who had a traveling studio in his covered wagon, and who photographed these people because he wanted to document what he called a vanishing race. The Penn and Avedon work I know, and I like it. The only difference is that since Penn did his work we’ve seen many fashion photographs where women were placed alongside native tribes and native peoples, and I think if you were to do that with the homeless it would he seen as very insensitive.
DLJ: Why is that?
Serrano: If you were to lake homeless people and use them as backdrop material and put beautiful while women, dressed in luscious outfits for Vogue magazine, that would be insen­sitive. Penn’s photographs have evolved into that. What Avedon did was quite good, but he was photographing mostly white Americans, lower to middle class—working class, sometimes lower, I simply wanted to give a face and a name to the invisible poor—the people we see every day on the way to the subway.
In the streets, that we really don't see—that we have to, for whatever reason, block out. And, so, like I said before—everyone else has their picture taken in the studio at one lime or another, so why can’t the homeless be seen in that context, too? And, ulti­mately, the real aim was to do what I felt were portraits that did them jus­tice. For me, isolating them in a stu­dio-like content was the way that I wanted to go about doing it.
DLJ: You mentioned Curtis as an influence. From a historical point of view this is a troublesome influence, both because Curtis manipulated his subjects in some serious ways, and because what emerged was a romanticized mythology that anthro­pologists, historians and Native Americans have vigorously questioned.
Serrano: But, I don't think of Curtis as being an anthropologist, documen­tary photographer, or a photojournalist.He does the same thing Joel-Peter Wilkin and Cindy Sherman do, the same thing I do. He’s just a post mod­ernist taking photographs, fabrications of Native Americans in costumes in a way that most photo artists do now. They just construct a new reality, I don't think of Curtis as a documentary photographer, 1 think of him as an artist. All I know is that when I was a kid growing up, the only images that I ever saw of Native Americans were on TV, and they were seen as savages that had to be completely exterminated for their own good and for the good of the White man I infinitely prefer to embrace Curtis’s vision rather than that one.
DLJ: But, isn't there an element of ethics that is problematic with what Curtis did with the Indians and per­haps what you are doing with some of your subjects? Issues of human appropriation, of using people toward questionable ends?
Serrano: No. That's the nature of photography—it's all manipulation. Even the photojournalist manipulates and controls what he photographs. And, in the end, it's what he or she edits.
DLJ: True, there are degrees of manip­ulation. But some photographers are more manipulative than others.
Serrano: Curtis made his sitters look good, and what's wrong with that?
DLJ: That's what you're doing with the homeless?
Serrano: Exactly.
DLJ: So, I come in off the street, kind of like I come in and look at some of The Morgueseries, and what do you want me to get from those pictures of The Nomads.
Serrano: I would like for people to respond, hopefully in a positive way. But mostly, to just respond. That's always been my intent—to not only get the audience in there, but to get the audience to react. The reaction is entirely up to them.
David L Jacobs is chair of the University of Houston Art Department. He co-curated “Ralph-Eugene Meatyard: An American Visionary,” and contributed to its catalog.