New York City-based artist Andres Serrano became notorious for his unconventional work with corpses, feces and bodily fluids. But his most famous work was Piss Christ, which he created in 1989. The piece, a photograph of a plastic crucifix submerged in the artist’s urine, quickly became the subject of great controversy, which is still going on today.
Serrano is in Jerusalem as a guest of the International Program at the Musrara School of Art, giving master classes, as well as holding a small exhibition of his works entitled “This Is Not America.”
The program invites important artists to the Holy City to give master classes and exhibit their work.
“When the artists return home, they exhibit the art they have created in Jerusalem,” says program director Avi Sabbag.
“I don’t like to travel except for work,” says Serrano. “That is one of the reasons I had never come here before and one of the reasons I haven’t been to a lot of places. But I am very grateful for the opportunity to not only visit Jerusalem and Israel but also to do some work here.”
Serrano says that he started his “serious work” almost 30 years ago. A high school dropout, he went to the Brooklyn Museum Art School in the 1960s, where he studied painting and sculpture before choosing photography “because of a girlfriend who owned a camera.”
“But I always saw myself as an artist using a camera rather than a photographer,” he says. “I have always seen myself as a conceptual artist, and I was inspired by the master of masters, Marcel Duchamp. Anything can be art – even photography.”
Serrano uses a 25-year-old Mamiya RB67, a camera he has used for years.
He prefers to shoot film.
“I always liked film, but I like it especially now in an age of computers and technology and digital cameras. It makes it kind of special when you are doing something that not everybody else is doing,” he says. “I don’t like to manipulate my work in any way.
Even when the images are created in a studio and they appear to be something other than reality, they always are reality because when you see the photograph, it is what I saw when I looked through the lens. If there are any special effects or lighting or backdrops or props or anything out of the ordinary, it was there when I took the picture.”
Are you tired of talking about ‘Piss Christ’?
Needless to say, I moved on from it long ago. I can understand why people are furious, but I should really feel flattered and proud that 25 years after I did the work, it still provokes debate and interest. I was a teenager when I had read that James Joyce´s Ulysses had been banned in the US. It was Illegal to import that book. And it was illegal to read Henry Miller’s works. It’s really remarkable that these works have since become part of the establishment. There is something about Piss Christ that, as mainstream as it has become, it still has the power of the taboo, of the forbidden.
How did your exhibition “SHIT” come about?
The idea of working with excrement was very repulsive to me. So when I decided to do the show, I felt it was appropriate because it made sense for me to push my own buttons. But once I accepted that I was going to do the work, I figured out a way to do it that was very clinical, very detached, to put up with the smells and the sights. As an artist, you feel that sometimes you are a part-time investigator, part-time researcher and part-time scientist. There is always a clinical detachment to what you photograph. When I photographed the Klu Klux Klan and they were talking to me about n**gers, Jew and queers, I had to put up a barrier in the distance and not let that affect me, not react. And they were appreciative because once they got that out of their system, they were able to treat me in a normal way and pose for me.
It was the same way as with the dead people I photographed in my work MORGUE. I look at it from an aesthetic perspective; I can see the compositions that work for me. I don’t have the emotional impact and baggage that other people have when it comes to my work.
Will there be a series of works inspired by Israel? I hope so. I would like my statement on Jerusalem to be full of contradictions, power and intensity.
The mini-retrospective “This Is Not America” is on display from March 7 through May 13 at the Musrara School of Art in Jerusalem.
The writer is a graduate of Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London and curator at Marrache Fine Art Jerusalem.