Here is a documentary video on Andres Serrano with the artist discussing his work in its religious and cultural context.
Sister Wendy and Bill Moyers part 6 Piss Christ is a controversial photograph by American photographer Andres Serrano. It depicts a small plastic crucifix submerged in a glass of the artist's urine.
While artists in the later half of the twentieth century may have merely pushed the boundaries of what could be accepted as art, photographer Andres Serrano bulldozed them. Best known for "Fluid Abstractions," his series of large color photographs depicting religious icons submerged in bodily fluids, Serrano first gained the attention of both the art world and conservative politicians in 1988 with an exhibition held in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
The most well known photograph from the exhibit is of a crucifix submerged in a container of liquid. While a basic description is accurate, it does not address the purely aesthetic qualities of the photograph. Appearing murky, like underwater photography, the edges of the crucifix are softened as bubbles swirl up through the glowing liquid and cascade off the figure's hands like an effervescent waterfall. A shaft of brilliant red light streams through the glass container illuminating the figure dramatically and casting an almost golden hue. The large color photograph is cropped preventing the viewer from recognizing the type of vessel used to contain the object and surrounding liquid while the brilliant shades of crimson light filtered through glass create a mesmerizing illusion similar to the stained glass windows of a church.
The title of this work is "Piss Christ." Undoubtedly the title itself is both shocking and repellent, however, to observe the photograph without first knowing its title allows one to appreciate the pure aesthetics of light and color. So why then if the photograph were so visually appealing would an artist choose such a vulgar and offensive title? Many have pondered this question since the work was first exhibited, but the artist defends his work as an honest and reverential treatment of the image. Besides, the title is descriptive; it is a crucifix (Christ) submerged in a container filled with urine (piss).
Born in 1950, Serrano was raised in a strict Hispanic Catholic family in Brooklyn, New York. He explains that his intention is not to cheapen the icon, but rather to "personalize and redefine his relationship with Christ while questioning the whole notion of what is acceptable and unacceptable," Over the years, he collected vast amounts of religious materials, many of which were used in the "Fluid Abstractions" series. Serrano suggests "the church is obsessed with the body and blood of Christ. The nuns taught us we weren't supposed to worship symbols because it's only a representation. I'm not destroying icons, I create new ones."
In addition to "Piss Christ," the series of photographs depicts cheap dime-store quality religious objects and miniaturized plastic replicas of religious masterworks such as Michelangelo's "Pieta" submerged in various bodily fluids such as milk, blood, water, semen and urine. Each of the "Immersions" is luminous and almost monochromatic to emphasize the inherent color of liquid used.
While many artists before Serrano had used religious imagery and icons in their artwork as a means of questioning the roles of religion in contemporary society, none had presented them in a fashion that offended so many. Although art critics viewed his works positively, in the wake of the Mapplethorpe controversy, the subject matter proved too raw for the general public. At a time when issues of censorship dominated headlines and senate hearings, parties on both sides of the fence debated the purpose of the Constitution's First Amendment, and why tax dollars should be allotted to organizations such as the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Members of conservative right wing religious groups continue to cite the art of Serrano in defense of their efforts to suppress what many believe to be constutionally protected artists' freedom of expression. Interestingly enough, many people throughout the country were outraged by the photographs without ever having seen them.
While Serrano moved away from religious imagery as the subject for his photographs he remained close to the controversy that spawned his career. Throughout the 90's, he created series of works based on challenging and politically charged themes, such as death, homelessness, racism, and sex. Although many artists have approached these subjects in their work, none have delivered them with such a direct kick to the stomach as Serrano.
In "The Klan" series he created large color photographic portraits of actual Ku Klux Klan members. Since portraiture is traditionally considered as a means of elevating the status of a subject, many missed the irony in his selection of subject. In the same year he photographed numerous homeless people throughout the city of New York. The "Nomads" series could be viewed as a conceptual juxtaposition to "The Klan" series although many misunderstood the purpose of making beautiful photographs of people so ravaged by life on the street.
In 1992, Serrano embarked on a disturbing series of richly composed color photographs of recently deceased corpses at the morgue. Each titled for the causes of death; the photographs are tragic, yet each conveys a sleep-like tranquility that is both beautiful and unsettling. "The Morgue and Objects of Desire" works are reminiscent of Italian Renaissance paintings by Caravaggio with the figures illuminated to severely contrast to the deep black background. Again, to read the title before studying the photograph prevents viewers from appreciating the technical proficiency and astounding quality of Serrano's craft.
Again, Serrano courted controversy with "A History of Sex" photographed between 1995-96. Traveling throughout the world, he chose subjects that aren't ordinarily thought of in sexual terms, such as the elderly and disabled. While many of these works are graphic and often coarse, they are nevertheless honest depictions of one of life's most necessary and contentious subjects. Not surprisingly, many considered this series to be pornographic.
While you may not be amused or in any way attracted to the work of Andres Serrano, his works nevertheless address important social issues affecting our culture. While many dismiss his work as shock art, or accuse him of choosing his volatile subject matter in a deliberate attempt to gain attention, he is still considered one of the most important photographers of the 1980's and 1990's.
Andres Serrano continues to live and work in Brooklyn, New York.
Page author: A.E.