By BEN SLOAT
Andres Serrano is an artist who came to national acclaim in the early 1990s with his controversial photographs appropriating religious imagery. At the time he was famously labeled by conservative Senator Jesse Helms as “not an artist, but a jerk.” Since that period, Serrano has made a number of photographic series on subjects as diverse as the Ku Klux Klan, homeless people in New York City, corpses in the morgue, and his most recent book “America”, a series of portraits reflecting numerous characters in the country’s diversity.
Serrano sat down recently with Big Red writer Ben Sloat before his talk at the Photographic Resource Center.
BRS: There’s a lot of photography that’s about the vernacular, the ordinary, the everyday. What strikes me about your work is that it’s about mythology and the extraordinary, about the big questions of existence and spirituality and sex and religion. How do you describe what your focused on?
AS: I think of my work as being very straightforward and direct and simple. People read a lot more into it than I intend sometimes, and it’s okay, the work should be open to interpretation. At the same time, my motivation is a lot simpler than people assume it to be. I don’t have strategies, the work is not intellectual. It has a social conscious, but it’s not meant to be intellectual.
BRS: Are people assuming it’s intellectual work?
AS: They read all kinds of things into it. Some of it might be intentional, some of it might be unconscious. For instance, some of the “Bodily Fluids” series, especially the “Ejaculates,” have been seen in the context of AIDS , and at the time I did them, in 1989, my AIDS awareness was very small. It was not meant as a reference, even though it was a big issue at the time. Like many artists, sometimes it’s unconscious, you hit the nail on the head of society’s pulse, but you do that naturally, without having to think about it.
BRS: I saw that “Ejaculates” series as a means, maybe a different and intimate means, of projecting oneself onto the world.
AS: I think it’s even simpler than that! I was doing milk, blood, piss pictures, I ran out of fluids! The next one I could think of was ejaculate. Immediately after this series I did “Red River”, which is a series of close-ups of menstrual pads, provided by my wife at the time. I had done the “Ejaculates” about male sexuality, male reproduction, and I wanted to do something completely out of my understanding or scope of reference. The previous series was very man, very macho type of work to do, so I wanted to explore a side of female sexuality that I had no knowledge of.
I feel get drawn to things I should have more knowledge about, or be more familiar with, such as the Klan. My desire to photograph the Klan from the perspective of a man of color. If I were a white man, the subject would not have the same interest to me, and the work could be read differently.
BRS: It seems like the Klan, in the way you’ve shown them, becomes part of our cultural visual aesthetic, like an icon, in a strange way. Do you see part of the American identity as being constructed by these iconic visuals?
AS: I often think we have to create new icons, all the time. Maybe that’s the way religion plays out these days. We don’t wait to be given icons, we make our own. Like celebrities in our culture, they’re gods, they’re untouchable.
BRS: But what do you think is the fascination with these icons? With people needing these heroes, this superhuman presence in their lives?
AS: I think it’s because people are basically sheep. They need to follow someone. They need to look up to someone on a personal level, or on a bigger level. They need a daddy figure.
BRS: But how does the aesthetic then replace the religious? Does celebrity culture replace organized religion in some way?
AS: Yeah, maybe. The celebrities are the new saints!
BRS: Do you find your art as means to create rather than reflect on culture?
AS: Oh, definitely. I think I’ve created my own world, my own language, visual vernacular. Hopefully I’ve niched out my own territory for myself in the history of art.
BRS: You’ve said before that a work of yours is a “Serrano.” What does that mean?
AS: It means that it’s something identify me and my work with. Years ago when I had done the “Klan” or even before that, when I had done the series “Nomads,” a series of portraits of homeless people. I was having a conversation with a friend and was just wondering out loud, if anyone would buy a picture of a Klansman, it was just idle curiosity. And my friend said to me, “They’re not buying photos of homeless people, or photos of the Klan, they’re collecting Serranos.”
It was the first time it occurred to me, and he was right, that no matter what I do, there’s going to be someone who’s going to buy it.
BRS: Do you then see your work as a filter for things that people ordinarily wouldn’t want to look at?
AS: I make it acceptable to buy it, to put it up. Sex pictures, everything.
BRS: How do you look at that Klansman when it’s up in your house?
AS: I don’t see it, I can’t see it. I don’t respond to it the way others do. One time, the cable man came over, a black man. He sees a picture of a Klansman in my home. You know, I don’t know how he sees it. I stop seeing the work for what it is, it becomes part of your body, you don’t notice it after a while.
BRS: But how about when this cable guy came over?
AS: Yes, it makes me pause for a minute “how does this guy see it?” and that’s the thing also, I create work, bodies of work, it goes out into the world. People are looking at it and discussing it, but I’m no longer thinking about it, I’m thinking about other things. I’m thinking about money and girls and things like that! I’m not thinking about how the work has a repercussion in the world. Often that happens, I make the work, then it goes and has a life of its own.
BRS: Do you think that art can be political? I often think that art is too important for politics.
AS: I don’t of my work as political. I don’t affiliate myself with any movement, the left or the right, I don’t trust either of them. I try to keep my distance, but when you say your work is political art, you limit your audience and you put its meaning on the table. It’s important to be more mysterious. I think of my work as having a social conscious, but it’s not necessarily something I need to talk about. I let you read how you need to read it.
BRS: I’m also interested in your process, some work is almost a documentary, others are based on your own imagination.
AS: Sometimes I come up with a title for the body of work, like the “History of Sex” or the “Interpretation of Dreams.” They’re kind of like umbrellas. I use Freud as a way to justify what I came up with. In a way the creative process is sort of like dream interpretation. At the time that you’re having your dream, you have no control over them. Later, on the therapist’s couch, you can relax and think about what it means, free associate, whatever you need to do to figure it out.
The “Interpretation of Dreams” is kind of like that, I did it first, then I thought about them later. I’m a big believer in “Shoot First, Ask Questions Later.”
BRS: Some of the work, like the “Morgue” series, is incredibly beautiful, yet tragic at the same time. How do you reconcile the two?
AS: Art makes it very clear that you can have both at the same time. Isn’t a lot of Shakespeare like that? It reflects my idea of what an artist should be. If I made just pretty pictures I think that would be decorative and I would feel kind of…decadent. I have no problems with work that is not confrontational, I mean that’s okay, but there is a certain element of my work that needs to a little bit provocative.
BRS: What does that do? Does it make people think differently about the world?
AS: It makes them think differently about the work. Some of my biggest detractors are secretly disappointed with work of mine which is not confrontational or provocative, like with my “America” series. I feel that there are people in the art world, saying they’re not edgy enough, “What, they’re just portraits?”
I think there’s a double standard. There’s a lot artists and photographers, Richard Avedon, Annie Liebovitz, Cindy Sherman, Nan Goldin, making portraits, that’s all they do, but nobody’s telling them. “What, they’re just portraits? Give us more”
It seems in my case, they need more, but I do my work according to what I need to express at the time, there’s a time for provocation and there’s a time for quieter work.
BRS: Some of the controversies around your work seem to be around ownership: Politicians claiming ownership over what art is, Institutions claiming ownership over religious icons, members in the art world claiming ownership of what your work should be.
AS: I thought it was especially bizarre when I was accused of anti-Christian bigotry and as a Christian, as an artist, I feel I have a complete right to use those symbols of the Church, the symbols of my faith. I don’t understand that sense of ownership over symbols and beliefs, I think these things are out there for us to use, especially if it’s a part of you.
Image by the author.