"Art should provoke people to think if nothing else. Even when I'm not trying to provoke you, I want you to respond."
- Andres Serrano -
As part of my study at the Foto-academie in Amsterdam, I was asked to give a presentation about Andres Serrano, a world-famous photographer. During my research I found out that he lived in New York and by coincidence I was going to go there soon. That is where I met him and even now, many years later, I look back at this meeting full of inspiration and kindness. That is why I would like to talk about what makes him so special!
I myself am a seeker in the world, sometimes kicking up a storm, sometimes rebellious, hoping that people will start thinking and that together we can make the world a safer and more pleasant place. I also recognize this in the photography of Andres Serrano, I see him as someone who is not afraid to avoid confrontation but is always gentle in nature.
Who is Andres Serrano?
Andres Serrano is a remarkable photographer who identifies himself as an artist rather than a photographer. In general, it is normal to interpret art from your own perspective, but Andres tries to steer your interpretation in a specific direction with his titles. A good example of this, which we will discuss later, is a work of art entitled "Piss Christ".
For his projects, Andres Serrano often uses rather unusual elements and objects, such as dead bodies, excrement, religious icons or body fluids. This of course is linked to special subjects in his photography that are not discussed every day at the coffee table.
Family Background and upbringing
Andres Serrano was born on August 15, 1950 in Manhattan, New York. As an only child he grew up with his Cuban mother and his Honduran father.
Youth Andres Serrano was raised by his mother in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. His father left when he was still young and returned to Honduras. As a result, he grew up with his mother who was a strict Roman Catholic. Part of his upbringing therefore included various Catholic ceremonies such as taking Holy Communion when he was eight and confirmation when he was twelve. His religious upbringing had a great influence on his later career as a photographer.
When he was 15 (in 1965) Andres Serrano dropped out of high school to pursue his dream of becoming an artist. From 1967 to 1969, he studied sculpture and painting at the Brooklyn Museum Art School.
Andres Serrano's career as an artist really began when he was 28.He started as an assistant art director at an advertising agency, which introduced him to photography. About five years later, he quit his job to go freelance.
He started making an art exhibition in the East Village. Andres made his solo exhibition there at the Leonard Perlson Gallery in 1985. Afterwards, around 1986 or1987, he moved to Stux Gallery in New York. This was also the first gallery where Piss Christ was exhibited. The work of art which would later become one of his best-known works and with which Andres Serrano achieved great fame in the 1990s.
His concepts are simply transgressive and he does not avoid confronting people with his sometimes provocative photos.The fact that his work is experienced as provocative is partly due to the remarkable subjects and objects he uses to create his images, and partly to the choice of titles for these works of art.
The confrontational effect that his works of art had on the public often meant that people could not look beyond the controversy. This while the quality of his work is often incredibly high.
My favorite projects
Piss Christ (1987)
From his collection 'Immersions,' Piss Christ was the work of art that brought Andres Serrano great fame and attention. Immersions is a series of photographs of religious figures immersed in bodily fluids such as blood, urine and breast milk.
Piss Christ is a unique photograph of the crucified Christ that appears to be immersed in a liquid. Partly due to the choice of the title, the image acquired an additional meaning that made it even more controversial. The title helps to describe Piss Christ as a picture of the crucifix immersed in urine, which is rumoured to be the urine of Andres Serrano. However, Andres explained the piece as "the way Christ died". The blood came out of him, but also the piss and shit.
Its fame came, of course, from its shocking effect in society. The artwork was awarded a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Later, in 1989, a group of US senators criticised the NEA for funding Piss Christ. This was primarily because the work was considered a sign of blasphemy and filth, which had been paid for with taxpayers' money.
Although this work gained notoriety, it also led to many hate mails, threats and the loss of other grants. Later on, the artwork would be vandalised in several international museums, which again brought a lot of attention. It was therefore not surprising that Piss Christ was sold in 1999 for 277,000 dollars.
The Klan (1990)
In the 1990s Andres Serrano decided to challenge himself even further. He wanted to portray the Ku Klux Klan with his artistic skill. He did this by taking pictures of some members of the Klan. With a dark background, Andres photographed the members in their formal clothing, with the only visible part being their eyes.In the series The Klan we see his use of intense light and uncomplicated photography.
In the series The Klan, we see his use of intense light and uncomplicated photography with a somewhat fashion-like style.
Andres Serrano and the Ku Klux Klan represented people at the extreme ends of similarity. This also makes the work cry out for a kind of provocation, but he sees it more as a confrontation, which was successful.He saw it as his job to magnify the beautiful side of this hate-spreading group.
Objects of Desire (1992)
Objects of Desire is a series of 12 photos of firearms. In this series Andres decided to look danger in the face and show it to the world. The title is influenced by the 1977 film 'That Obscure Object Of Desire'. In the series, you see photos of different weapon parts against contrasting backgrounds. The series embodied gun collectors he encountered in New Orleans. They saw weapons as works of art and Serrano decided to illustrate that belief through his art. Objects of Desire is therefore a collection of clean-cut photographs that would make you love guns if you never did.
The Morgue (1992)
The images in this series are tragic. Serrano makes us look at death through clear, large colour photographs of corpses. These photographs have an emotional impact on the viewer and often give them a feeling of nothingness after death. The series shows us images that are usually exclusive to the medics who care for the deceased. For example, the series includes corpses with stab wounds, bloated flesh, discoloured skin, and burnt body parts. Furthermore, he gave each photo a title with the cause of death. This results in images with titles such as 'Hacked to death', 'Homocide', 'Ratpoison Suicide', 'Infectious Pneumonia', etc.
In 2007 Andres made a collection that he described as 'owning his shit'. He started by photographing his own excrement by asking his girlfriend to dig a hole for 'Deep Shit'. He then set about taking stunning photos of animal excrement, totalling 66 photos. Not only did he take these pictures but he also gave them all their own names like Heroic Shit, Bull shit, Strange Shit, Scary Shit and others which are still quite witty.
The title of 1 of his most recent works is 'Infamous.' This series does not lack for provocation. He recalls the history of racism in America with bold colour photographs of vile collectibles. These artefacts include a 1994 Malcolm X toy figure, canned goods, a receipt from slavery, rag dolls, a tattered American flag, and much more. Andres tries to make clear that although racism is a thing of the past, it is still widespread.
Both in his early work and now, Andres continues to produce seductive works of art that evoke unease and offence in some and a sense of artistic freedom in others.
Want to see more of his work? Click here Andres Serrano.