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Interview with Andres Serrano: Mining the seamy side for all it’s worth

After sacrilege and violent death the artist whom the moral majority (minority?) love to hate, is now into explicit sex

Nearly a decade after it was originally exhibited and then used by conservatives in the American government in their fight to reduce federal arts funding (The Art Newspaper No. 17, April 1992, p.1), Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ” still causes controversy. Last autumn, “The History of Andres Serrano”, a retrospective at the National Gallery of Virginia in Melbourne, Australia, was cancelled by the museum’s director after a print of “Piss Christ” was destroyed by angry Christian protesters.

Serrano has continued to provoke in the years since “Piss Christ”, a Crucifix upended in a glass of yellow liquid, presumably urine, launched him into instant fame. He has exhibited photos of dead bodies in the city morgue, masked members of the Ku Klux Klan, and in his latest series, “The History of Sex”, he explores graphic erotic material.

Serrano’s apartment in Brooklyn, not far from where he grew up, could appear as a setting in an Anne Rice novel. His home is filled with baroque wooden statues of saints, red velvet curtains, hanging censers and chandeliers, as well as human brains floating in vats, and stuffed animals.

A large print from his latest series hangs above his fireplace. The image shows a male and female clown engaged in an explicit sexual act. The work seems both blatantly decadent and oddly stiff and stylised.

Now in his late forties, Serrano dresses all in black and has a sensitive, perhaps somewhat tortured, face. He is remarkably unguarded and straightforward, whether speaking about his work or his life. Serrano overcame a tough, underprivileged childhood and a lengthy struggle with heroin addiction before finding himself as an artist. This month, his work can be seen at London’s Photology Gallery until 17 July.

I understand you were very upset about the closing of your retrospective at the Victoria Museum in Melbourne, Australia. What happened?

It started with the Archbishop of Melbourne. He went to court to get an injunction to stop “Piss Christ” from being in the show. I didn’t know that this would be such a big deal over there, but when I arrived at the airport there were forty paparazzi waiting for me. They had Christian protesters at the museum every day, and the first day the show opened, someone took the photo off the wall, threw it on the floor, and stomped on it. I went in and inspected it, and I found that the image itself was okay. On the second day of the show, two kids, around sixteen or seventeen years old, went in with a sledgehammer and destroyed the picture. After that, Timothy Potts, the director of the gallery, cancelled the show.

Why couldn’t they have hired a guard to watch over the picture?

I thought they should have had more than one guard. It’s one thing if you don’t want to do the show. But if you do it, then you should defend and protect the work at all costs. The director was in over his head and didn’t know how to deal with it. He felt he couldn’t protect the staff and museum if the exhibit continued.

How long did you stay in Australia?

I was there for three weeks. My photo was in the paper so much that I was recognised everywhere I went. People would come up to me and apologise on behalf of Melbourne. They said that they hadn’t known there was such a Christian fringe element in the country. Now I’m still waiting for the insurance money—$65,000. The picture was undervalued. The photograph they showed was an exhibition print—not for sale. It was mine.

Are you surprised that “Piss Christ” is still such a lightning rod for public sentiment?

Sure. In America it’s no longer an issue; it’s been exhibited everywhere.

How did the controversy over “Piss Christ” affect your work as an artist in its aftermath?

It made me a so-called controversial artist, a provocative artist. It affected me in that it empowered me. I realised I could do the work I felt it necessary to do and take the heat. It gave me a greater sense of commitment to my ideas and convictions. I realised that even if the whole world turned upside down, I could continue to make the art I needed to make.

Is it possible that because of the controversy, your later work became less formally concerned and more content-driven, because you had seen the incredible power that provocative content can have in the world?

My work has always been very instinctive. One photograph or series leads to the next.

The work of yours that I personally liked the most was the “Nomads” series, portraits of homeless people. How did that come about?

I did that show because of my admiration for Edward Curtis and his portraits of Native Americans. That, for me, was very satisfying work. It was connecting with people you normally don’t connect with, the invisible people, people who are just like you but have gone through very harsh circumstances.

After that, I began to think of masks—that if someone wore a mask, they would make an unusual subject. Then I thought of the Klan. I went to Atlanta and met with Klan members. Sometimes I felt from them a general hostility—they would make racist or anti-Semitic comments—but not on a personal level. It was scary, but the scariest part, for me, was the possibility that they wouldn’t let me photograph them.

It is interesting that they let you photograph them despite your obvious ethnic background. Your father is Honduran and your mother is Cuban. Do they also still live in Brooklyn?

I’m not in touch with my parents. My father went back to Honduras when I was an infant. The last time I visited him I was sixteen years old. Two years ago I heard from a cousin that he was still alive, and we exchanged letters. I haven’t seen my mother for six or seven years. When I was young she would have these psychotic episodes where she had to be hospitalised. She used to be a seamstress, a factory worker, and we lived in a building that my grandmother owned, not unlike this one. My life got convoluted and crazy enough that I had to stop seeing her. I cut off my ties with my mother. For all I know, she could be dead. I have no idea. The way I feel now, our real family is the people we embrace and love rather than those we are tied to by blood.

Is it true that you were once a heroin addict?

I was a junkie through the early 1970s, from 1971 to 1977. It was a period that I needed to go through—something that I had to explore—and while I was a junkie I put my art work on hold. I knew that I couldn’t serve two masters at once.

The way you talk about that period, it sounds almost positive.

I’m not judgmental when it comes to that period of my life. It would be hypocritical to denounce it. I started experimenting with drugs in the late 1960s—pot, LSD—when it seemed that the whole world was experimenting with drugs. I got too much into it and it got out of my control. I stopped when I was about twenty-eight. I felt myself pushing thirty. I always believed that I was destined to be an artist, and in order to get back into art I had to quit drugs.

You were brought up Catholic, and your house is filled with Catholic imagery. Do you still go to church?

I still go to church, but more for aesthetic reasons than spiritual ones. I don’t have to go to church to find spirituality.

It is interesting for me to talk to you, partly because you are someone I’ve seen out in the New York scene for so many years, at nightclubs and restaurants, without ever having had a conversation with you.

I came into the picture—the night life scene—kind of late. I never went to Studio 54. I never met Warhol. I never met Basquiat. I never met Mapplethorpe, but I’ve spent a lot of years going to clubs off and on.

What is it about the club scene that particularly attracts you?

I like to listen to music, loud music, especially at night. I like being in crowds, large crowds, with people that I don’t have to talk to. My friend Snooky and I have spent many nights at places where you hardly ever talk to anyone. It’s nice to just be around people and see what’s going on. Whenever I travel I try to go to clubs in different cities to see what the night life is like. It is a good barometer of what the people are like. I’ve investigated all kinds of clubs—some very strange clubs.

How long were you working on your last series, “The History of Sex”?

It’s taken me a while to do it. I went to Holland for four months last year, and to Rome for three months the year before that. Sometimes my work is channelled by circumstances beyond my control.

A curator I know in Holland asked me to come and make some work about the Netherlands. I told him I couldn’t because I was making sex pictures. He said, “If you are making sex pictures why don’t you come to Amsterdam”. I would say those five months were probably the happiest time of my life—except for the time I went to art school.

At first the only idea I had was the title of the show. With some of the images, I couldn’t get exactly what I wanted. This photo is of two Dutch clowns. The image was originally supposed to be called “Two Clowns Fucking,” but they didn’t want to do it. They knew each other, but not that intimately. In a way I wish I could have done more, but that will have to be left for the future. Some things I never got to, like two women together, stuff like that.

What were your personal and psychological reasons for wanting to do this show?

I wanted to explore sexual images—sexuality, fantasy, desire. I see these photographs as portraits really, portraits with a sexual twist. We Americans are much more uptight about sex and sexual imagery than the Europeans. It’s normal to see the female body on TV there.

It didn’t matter to you if the subjects weren’t actually involved with each other? Like the two clowns? Didn’t that mean the results would look kind of alienated?

My interest is aesthetic first and foremost. It wasn’t necessary to capture the passion of an erotic encounter. The illusion is good enough.

Perhaps you preferred them to be dispassionate?

Not really. I would have opted for hot and heavy fucking, but no one really got into it. These people are not porn actors. Porn actors would be more comfortable making love before the camera.

The people in the photographs look very carefully posed. Did you base the compositions on other paintings or works of art?

When I conceived of the show I wanted it to be about the history of art as well. I thought I would do some research—specific research into paintings from the Renaissance. But in the end when it came time to do the work I never looked at anything. I realised that my references didn’t have to be so specific. Somehow I had absorbed a lot. I don’t know yet what my next series will be, but I know whatever I do will be related to the “History of Sex”.

It seems to me that a lot of straight male artists reach a certain point in their career and then start to make art with an explicit sexual content. Why do you think that is?

Maybe some artists feel more comfortable with erotic material later on in life. I’m forty-seven years old. Sexuality has always been very important to me. I’ve looked at sexual imagery and dirty pictures since I was twelve years old. This is a body of work that’s been inside of me for many years. It had to come out.

Andres Serrano (until 17 July), Photology Gallery, 24 Litchfield Street, London W1 Tel: +44 (0)171 836 8600