Most known for his controversial ‘Piss Christ’
I didn’t know what to expect going to ‘Andres Serrano Uncensored photographs’ at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium in Brussels. To the public at large including myself, Serrano is most known for his controversial Piss Christ (1987), a crucifix submerged in urine from his series Immersions.
I was plunged into Serrano’s universe
Unexpectedly, I found myself fully immersed in Serrano’s universe for two full hours: the retrospective had me mesmerised. I went from series to series, from religion to death, including Serrano’s new series Denizens of Brussels (2015), which are portraits of Brussels’ homeless. Serrano called them “Denizens”, which refers to a person, animal, or plant that lives or is found in a particular place.
An artist who uses photography
Serrano (born in 1950 in New York) doesn’t see himself as a photographer per se but as an artist who uses photography. He studied painting at the Brooklyn Museum of Art School in 1967-69; but is self-taught in photography. There is aesthetic beauty and constant references to art history, even in The Morgue (1992) and History of Sex series (1995-96).
Empathy even in ‘The Morgue’ and ‘History of Sex’ series
The Morgue is a series of portraits of dead people; the title of each one is the cause of death. The History of Sex series was realised in dark rooms, and based on fetishists meetings in Rome and Amsterdam. It was vandalised in 2007. Although his pictures can occasionally deceive, for instance, in White Nigger, he photographed his white Jewish friend made up as a black person, Serrano demonstrates an empathy for his sitters in his photographs.
Interpretation of Dreams (White Nigger), 2001. Courtesy of Nathalie Obadia
Some provocation, but justified, in my view
The artist is Christian and dismissed accusations of provocation. I believe there is some intended provocation in his works, but think it is justified in its revelation of the nature of humanity. Serrano shows what humanity is capable of, going as far as showing its bodily fluids – right back to basics. He pushed boundaries in 2007 with the Shit series, in fact provoking his own self.
One of those exhibitions that stay with you
During the exhibition, I felt sad, intrigued and disturbed, catching sight of what I didn’t want to look at and encountering all facets of humanity, while being fascinated by the inherent beauty of Serrano’s photographs. ‘Andres Serrano Uncensored photographs’ may be one of those exhibitions you never forget. It runs at Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium until 21 August 2016.