at the Museum of Contemporary Art, through February 4
By Fred Camper
The fuss over Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ in the late 80s was so extreme it led me to expect a photo of Serrano urinating on Jesus. The work had been exhibited in at least four venues before Philip Smith wrote a protest letter to a Richmond newspaper, accusing the museum exhibiting it of “promoting…hatred and intolerance.” Soon the Reverend Donald Wildmon and Senator Jesse Helms entered the fray, and Piss Christ became the focus of attacks on “blasphemous” art receiving public funding, however remotely. When I saw the actual work a few years later–it’s also one of the Serrano photographs now on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art–I was surprised to find merely a statue of the crucified Christ submerged in fluid.
The edges of the container are out of the frame–only the title tells us the fluid is pee. Bubbles shoot off in streams around the statue, which is suffused with an unearthly yellow red glow. Because the cross is at a slight angle, Christ’s left arm grows fuzzier toward his hand, which has vanished into the liquid. This effect and the bubbles suggest stress, crisis; and Serrano points out in an orientation video, on view at the museum, that crucifixion is itself horrible. But the mysterious, unreal light also evokes a religious icon; it’s no surprise to learn that Serrano was raised Catholic and first became interested in art while viewing Renaissance paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where he grew up.
Piss Christ, like many of Serrano’s other photos, is certainly seductive, its shifting colors and depth effects drawing the viewer in. But ultimately this beauty rings hollow. The bubbles and light do little more than create mood; like an advertising photo, the image is stunning at first but doesn’t repay multiple viewings. It has neither the complex composition of even a minor Renaissance painting nor the subtly articulated relationship between camera and subject typical of great photographers from Eugene Atget to Lee Friedlander. Dominated by its title–which Serrano admits was intentionally provocative–Piss Christ directs our attention to its subjects, Christianity and urine, without making any clear statement. Part reverential, part provocative, part blasphemous (perhaps), it never succeeds at balancing its multiple impulses. Instead the viewer is left to make of them what he will.
There is, of course, a great tradition of open-ended art that involves the viewer in the creation of meaning. But such works usually focus our perceptions: drawing a frame around some piece of the world, they direct our contemplation. Serrano’s works seem to sprawl. We think about Christ, we think about Christianity, we think about the history of religious painting, we think about crucifixion, we think about urine, we think about bodily fluids, and we don’t know what to think.
John Cage once suggested that art entails “paying attention.” Cage also was one of the first to be impressed by Robert Rauschenberg’s White Paintings in 1951. These entirely white canvases are a good deal more interesting than they sound: one notices the texture of the paint, the light in the gallery, and then the way one’s own thoughts, fantasies, and mental images interfere with the act of looking at a painting on the wall. Serrano too has made an all-white work, Milk. But its title, the lush whiteness of the photographic paper, and its mounting behind glass create an effect almost the opposite of Rauschenberg’s White Paintings. We know we’re looking at–even feel immersed in–a bodily fluid; and its presentation in a frame under glass gives it a theatrical quality, a quality of narcissistic display common in Serrano’s work. It’s as if the photo itself were not the artwork but merely the documentation of some substance–here, milk–event, or performance that is the true object of Serrano’s interest. Because we see no container, as in Piss Christ, the fluid seems to be everywhere. Serrano’s chaotic, uncontrolled photos tend to diffuse the viewer’s attention.
Serrano’s complicated past perhaps helps explain some of his interests. Born in 1950 to a Honduran father he rarely saw and a Cuban mother often hospitalized for psychosis, he studied art in his teens, turning to photography after deciding that he lacked ability as a painter or sculptor. He worked briefly in advertising but abandoned photography when he was 21, then spent years dealing and using drugs before returning to art making; the earliest image in this retrospective is from 1983. He acknowledges that he’s long been a loner–“I am drawn to subjects that border on the unacceptable because I lived an unacceptable life for so long,” he says–but he now wants to make art more accessible: “I’m interested in bridging the gap between art photography and its audience, eliminating a feeling of removal. I like raw and real images.” But could it be that this very “removal”–the artist’s form, a filter, frame, or container for content–is what distinguishes a work of art from raw milk or blood? Wendy Steiner points out in the catalog that blood, milk, and urine–used in two of Serrano’s series–are “fluids requiring containment.” But can one make works of art merely by “breaking” the container?
The solid red Blood is both more impersonal and undifferentiated than the gore of a horror movie and less motivated, and Piss and Blood mingles the two fluids in a pattern that Serrano compares to a lava lamp. As in Piss Christ, the complex color combinations are seductive–but no more than those of a lava lamp. Many critics, including the authors of the catalog essays, call Serrano’s work “beautiful.” Could it be that recent art has so neglected the visual that a photo that looks like a lava lamp now passes for beauty? Or could it be that critics–and artists–have simply forgotten how to see, that the visual static that fills our world has blinded us to the complexities of the Renaissance paintings that fascinated Serrano as a child?
One hint that even artists and critics are seeing less clearly comes in the often informative catalog essay by Robert Hobbs. He says that Serrano’s Ejaculate in Trajectory photos, three of which are included here, “call to mind Brancusi’s Bird in Flight series.” Each photo shows a single white stream–Serrano photographed his own ejaculations–against a black background. Only vaguely similar to Brancusi’s shapes, Serrano’s white bands of ejaculate are fuzzy, full of the chaotic variations you’d expect from an out-of-control flow of fluid. Brancusi, by contrast, polished his arguably phallic “birds” for weeks, and the surfaces of his precisely articulated forms, reflecting the room around them, at once assert their presence and seem to vanish. The perfection of Brancusi’s shapes and surfaces required considerably more labor, intelligence, and care to achieve than Serrano needed to produce his streaks of jism, yet Serrano frames and mounts his squirts as if they were absolutes.
Printed large, the Ejaculate in Trajectory photos monumentalize the artist’s seed. They should perhaps be seen in the context of a recent subtradition among male art students, that of the photographed or filmed self-portrait while masturbating. But even on these terms Serrano comes up short: the typical artist in this genre takes more risks than Serrano does by revealing his own body, allowing the viewer to take his measure and possibly reject him. Serrano’s stream has no visible origin or stopping point; it’s contextless, as if eternal.
Serrano’s work exemplifies a truly lamentable trend. The artist finds some simple, often nearly effortless way–a “realistic” photograph, an artless performance, a badly made painting–to depict his concerns, and assumes that because he’s pictured his passions, or his come, the viewer will be interested. Often described as the return of content, it can be so named only by someone who thinks that abstract painting is devoid of content or that Edward Weston’s “formalist” photos have nothing to say about the landscapes, vegetables, and nudes they picture. In this vein, Steiner describes Serrano’s works in the catalog as “an object lesson in the failures of formalism.” But I see “content” ranging out of control here, bursting out of the frames, evidencing no intelligence, giving the viewer no direction.
Which is not to say that Serrano’s serious, engaging work is not worth seeing. Certainly he takes on topical subjects: the catalog points out the relevance of his bodily-fluid images to the age of AIDS and of urine testing for drugs. Another of his series focuses on the timely subject of the Ku Klux Klan. Hobbs describes the daring required of this photographer of part-African descent who got Klan members to pose for him, and Steiner points out the way Serrano subverts the “invincibility” of the “abstract, geometrical” Klan uniforms by revealing defects in their stitching or “the hint of a rosy ear glimpsed through a gap in a hood.” But the figures as pictured are still monumental, seductive, overwhelming; I wasn’t surprised to read that the Klan was apparently pleased with the photos. Hobbs praises Serrano’s “refusal to take sides,” but do we really need ambiguous depictions of symbols of hatred and murder? It’s not as if Serrano had articulated some balance between attraction and repulsion; his fashion-photography approach doesn’t allow any position at all.
The same can be said of his series on homeless people, Nomads. Leaving aside the presumption of dealing with the homeless in a single series, as if they were all part of the same tribe (what would the art world say if someone mounted a series on “lesbians” or “Latinos”?), these pictures at once glorify and commodify their subjects. Serrano removes them from their surroundings, obliterating the park or subway station where he found them with a studio backdrop he carried with him. Shooting from below eye level he again monumentalizes these figures, but as in the Klan images his approach also makes us aware of their personal oddities: shabby clothing, unshaven faces, unusual mannerisms. These “nomads” are presented three ways at once: with the loving eye of a humanist, the exploitive vision of a fashion photographer, and the impersonal gaze of a social scientist. Serrano never weaves together these contradictory approaches; they remain unblended, a record of the artist’s indecision or confusion. When I read that Serrano paid each subject ten dollars in return for posing and signing a model release, I longed to see a Hans Haacke artwork analyzing the series–a wall chart, perhaps, comparing the fee each model received with the profits Serrano earned from the sale of prints.
Steiner writes that Serrano’s photographs “subvert all forms of control in order to admit the fearsome disorder of meaning.” Nowhere is this more evident than in his Morgue series, in which each photo is helpfully titled with the subject’s cause of death. Looking at the gouges in the wrists of The Morgue (Knifed to Death) I and II, one thinks of the violent attack that killed the subject, whose wrists are all that we see. Looking at the exposed raw flesh and bits of burned clothing in The Morgue (Burnt to Death III) one thinks of–need I go on? Don’t we know enough about this kind of imagination from the drone of television news?
In a way, these are Serrano’s best works: their titles project them radically out of their frames, into the real world, much more than the planes of milk and streams of semen do. But is this world any different from the one offered by the mass media? Serrano compels us to confront the way people die–but today’s movies are even more graphic. Written texts might have provided a context and deeper understanding, perhaps describing the events that led to the knife fight or the suicide; but all such context is absent. The lush reds of Burnt to Death III are as beautiful as the colors in Serrano’s other images, and the arms frozen in rigor mortis in The Morgue (Rat Poison Suicide) are as theatrical as any of the garments in the Klansmen series. But what does this beauty and theatricality tell us? Only that Serrano is attracted to death and wants us to be too. To hope to raise such an attraction to art, the artist must work on the level of Brancusi, not the lava lamp.
Serrano’s defenders laud his ability to test limits, to engage taboos and confront death. But he’s far from the first artist to give us film from the morgue. More than 20 years ago two avant-garde filmmakers, then friends, shot separate films in an autopsy room. Stan Brakhage’s The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes is a poetic “documentary” in which horrific images–at one point we see a face being lifted off a skull–are constantly balanced by his almost musical choreography of forms and light. Hollis Frampton in his two-part Magellan: At the Gates of Death organizes images of body parts into repetitive rhythmic patterns whose seemingly endless cycles form a powerful contrast with the fragments of decaying flesh. Both films seek to understand these glimpses of death, to integrate them with the artist’s psyche, with the flow of life. The power of the artist’s imagination becomes a model for the viewer of one way of dealing with death. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but that’s what I think art is supposed to do: raise its subjects above their original raw and chaotic states; provide a model for seeing and thinking; render the world more, not less, comprehensible.