Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
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In 1989 Andres Serrano became internationally known after Senator Jesse Helms brought attention to his work. Helms was outraged that NEA government money had gone to a show which exhibited Serrano’s Piss Christ: a photograph of a crucifix submerged in Serrano’s own urine. His subsequent work has included photographs of the trajectory of ejaculated sperm, homeless people and members of the Ku Klux Klan. Serrano’s recent photographs of dead bodies raise questions about death and art, art and provocation. At first sight, these large color cibachrome prints make one wonder how and when and why Serrano made these images. To enlarge on these issues I have asked questions of process and intention. Awkward moments and mutual hostility ensued in the process. I suppose that is the success of Serrano’s work, his ability to provoke. This interview was given in response to that provocation; it was meant to give the spectator someplace to go with their questions.
February 2, 1993
Anna Blume How did you get access to the morgue, to dead bodies?
Andres Serrano A great deal of luck was involved. I had the idea to photograph John and Jane Does many years ago. I found it wasn’t that easy, and then last year, I developed the contacts. I’m a great believer in Providence, and maybe there was a reason I was able to do the work now and not then.
AB Did you need permission from the families of the people that died, or were they all people without contacts?
AS No, they have contacts. My relationship with the people involved is through the pathologist in charge of the morgue, a well-known forensic expert. He gave me authorization to photograph them with the understanding that the people are disguised and not identified.
AB When you say disguised, did you actually place the cloth over the people’s faces?
AB So you chose the red cloth for the man who died of pneumonia and the white cloth for the black man?
AS But it wasn’t a man with a red cloth, it’s a woman. It’s called Infectious Pneumonia, but I call her “The Woman in Red.”
AB That’s a mistake that one would think is hard to make. And yet, not only gender, but race wasn’t obvious. If you die by fire, it changes your skin color. There was one picture of a woman shot by the police. Her race was a question in my mind.
AS You might have thought “The Woman in Red” was a man because she’s a little hairy. The burn victim who was totally black is a white man. There could be a general misconception that there are a lot of pictures of black people in the show. Not so. There are only two black people in the show. The man who has a tattoo is a white man who drowned. As a result of drowning, white skin begins to turn black and blue and red, and in his case, it started to get green and purple.
AB Since color is an issue throughout the show, not just aesthetically, but also racially, and racial issues have shown up in your work before, was this in your mind when you edited for the show, thinking about which bodies to photograph?
AS In a manner of speaking. I photographed these people after the moment of death. I never knew them as human beings. I never knew what languages they spoke, what their religious or political beliefs were, how much money they had, or who they loved. All I know about them is the cause of death. And, as they say, you cannot judge a book by its cover. The woman you referred to as not knowing whether she was actually black, is a bleached blonde, brown-skinned woman. She’s a black woman. But she’s been in the morgue for over two months because she’s a Jane Doe, and as a result, she’s starting to decompose and if you look really closely, there are patches of white skin. I asked the doctor and he confirmed that there is white skin under black skin. A teacher of his once took a very thin slice of skin off a cadaver and showed it to his students and said, “This is the thickness of racism.”
AB What materials did you bring into the morgue? Were they your own backdrops?
AS The second day of shooting, I realized that I only wanted to use a black backdrop, my own flash equipment, a tripod and a Mamiya RB 67 camera.
AB Why did you choose to work with the black backdrop?
AS I wanted them to have a uniformed look. For years people have come to my apartment and said, “Where’s your studio?” But at this stage of my life, the studio is anywhere I make it. The world at large is my studio. And by using a device such as a black background, I’m able to alienate the subject from its environment and put it into a studio context. Also, I find black a very inspirational color, and in the case of the morgue, it seems to suggest a void which is appropriate.
AB Did you actually touch the dead bodies? Did you move them, or did you have assistance?
AS I didn’t touch them too often. They would tell me at the morgue, if a body has not been autopsied, and is a matter of a police investigation, then don’t touch anything. But after the autopsy, you can touch anything you want, just be sure to wear two pairs of gloves. But, I pretty much left the bodies as they were, except to move an occasional arm here or there. I wanted for my hand to be felt as little as possible. Except for putting the blindfolds on those faces, I left everyone as I found them.
AB You covered the eyes of some of the people to preserve anonymity, but the show seems to focus on eyes or orifices or wounds. If you look at each image, your hand is not present in terms of you touching things, but it is very much present in what you chose to photograph.
AS And as a result, I choose to let the audience see what I want to. This is what an artist does.
AB Were there many, many photographs from which these were edited?
AS There were hundreds of photographs.
AB Did you have a conscious focus on eyes, ears, mouths, wounds: orifices?
AS Not in the beginning. In the beginning, I photographed entire sections of the body. As time went on, I felt that concentrating on a detail could tell me more than the whole. It was a progression going from mid-range to a close range.
AB What did focusing on the details tell you more about?
AS Right now, I want to simplify my art. And focusing on details helps me to reduce everything and make it more elegant and more direct. I don’t think you can be more direct than the photograph of the eye in this show, which is hacked. This man was killed by his wife with about 15 stab wounds all over his body. You can’t see what I saw, but the eye tells you everything.
AB When you say, “Hacked to Death,” it reminds me that the titles are curious. Titles are important in your work, or they have been in the past. “Hacked to Death” implies a violent cutting. At other times you might say, “Knifed to Death,” which has a different connotation. In some cases you say “Burned by Fire,” which is almost Biblical, and the one that’s more clinical is “Burn Victim.” How do you account for variations?
AS It’s just personal. While I have tried to be accurate with the causes of death, they are by no means scientific or medical.
AB They’re not the terms that appeared on the death certificates?
AS No, not necessarily. I think it’s important to be descriptive and poetic at the same time. I don’t take these pictures as a clinician or as a technical photographer working in a lab. Since doing my work, I’ve seen pictures in a book of forensic pathology, and the pictures are hard core, gruesome, very clinical and detached. The lighting is flat, there’s no art involved, just technical representation. My approach is more personal and subjective.
AB What’s somewhat engaging and disturbing about these images is that they’re very seductive. Large cibachromes of particular body parts remind me of the aesthetics of pornography, which also focuses on body parts, usually genitalia. How are these different from pornography?
AS How are they similar? Pornography is meant to titillate and excite in the prurient sense. These are not. I can’t imagine anyone getting horny behind this work. These are not sexual images. They don’t devalue or degrade. There’s a photograph of a rosary around a penis. And given my own background as an artist, I had to take that image. I don’t know who put that crucifix there, but I’ve been told that in a hospital, they will put a rosary around a body once in a while. But, given the nature of the photograph, I don’t know how you could call it sexual.
AB Sexual images don’t necessarily devalue and degrade. But there is a similarity between your work and pornography for me in the way you fragment the body and display these fragments in a seductive and decontextualized way.
AS I would say that you’re referring to maybe a feeling of sensuality, a sensuous surface, in these pictures, but I would disagree that pornography is seductive in the same way my work is. Most pornography is crude and artless. I think you’re confusing pornography with advertising which can be very seductive.
AB Pornography and advertising cross paths in interesting ways and your photographs from the morgue take something from both. They are seductive, but not sensuous. Your images draw us in and they are beautiful at a certain level. You bring us close, very close to details of dead bodies, which sets off an alarm of feeling and thinking, but all this stops on the surface and we are left as voyeurs rather than as witnesses of death. I wonder as I look at the photographs what are you trying to do with this show, what are you doing with dead bodies?
AS The morgue is a secret temple where few people are allowed. Paradoxically, we will all be let in one day. I think you’re upset and confused that I’ve brought you there prematurely. My intention is only to take you to this sacred place. The rest is entirely up to you. I explored this territory with fresh eyes and an open mind. I want the audience to do the same and to see it’s a process of discovery for me too.
AB Discovery of what?
AS Discovery of what I can find there for myself as a human being and as an artist. I don’t particularly set out with an agenda for my work except to make it somewhat aesthetically pleasing and emotionally charged.
AB And these are aesthetically pleasing?
AB What did you discover in making the photographs?
AS I felt that I was very lucky to be able to enter into this private domain, a secret arena that is normally not open for laymen to explore. That was personally gratifying in much the same way as taking portraits of Klanspeople as a man who’s not white, and challenging them to work with me was.
AB You said in an interview with Coco Fusco that your experience with the Piss Christ and the response of the NEA brought you in contact with more people, that had been one of the benefits of the controversy. And in some ways it helped lead to the Klan-homeless people project. Is this part of that development of humanizing your work?
AS I’m at a point now where I’ve been able to enter into all these somewhat closed societies. And for me sometimes, the adventure of getting into these situations is almost, but not quite, as interesting as the work. Because it is an adventure.
AB The only other picture I’ve ever seen of a person in a morgue was in Jean Marie Simon’s book on Guatemala. She goes into the morgue to identify the body of someone she knows who’s been literally hacked to death. It’s a photograph of a woman who’s been dismembered and it’s very difficult to look at. I trust that Simon’s intention is to witness something. She’s trying to heighten my sensibility about both life and death. And to somehow engage my critical and emotive and human response, and to act on that outrage. I feel that I am brought to the face of often violent deaths in your work. I feel confronted and then left there. It’s very hard for me to trust those images or your intention because of the way they’re photographed.
AS Because you want me to lead you by the hand and make you feel like these are images that you can see in a political or social or feminist way that would fit with your thinking and if I don’t tell you you’re right or point you in that direction, then you feel abandoned.
AB Many religious images or icons seduce or no one will look at them. The project of the church or the project of the artist is in some ways to bring people to their images and I think you do that very well, remarkably well. Some of your earlier work, like the Piss Christ or the Klan photographs are icons. They bring you to them, they keep you there and they engage you in one way or another. They’re very successful that way. With these photographs you provoke my critical mind. But in this case, ultimately, I feel brought to bodily carnage and left there as a gratuitous voyeur. You have raised the stakes in these photographs in a way that is different from your previous work. You are photographing the dead beyond their violation. You have entered the realm of the voyeur and you have brought all of us who look at your work to that same place. It is a difficult terrain which on some levels demands more than the spirit and props of an adventurer.
AS I photographed the morgue no differently than I photographed Piss Christ or the Klan. Perhaps it is easier for you to accept that work because you feel morally superior to it. If you don’t consider yourself a Catholic nor a racist you can appreciate the work from a comfortable distance because you don’t have the same investment or involvement that a Christian or a person of color has. Therefore, your acceptance and understanding of, say, the Klan pictures is very different from someone who has experienced the effects of racial discrimination. I remember when I first started that work, a friend of mine said, “These look so noble, they almost look like recruitment posters for the Klan.” As repugnant as that thought was, I had to grapple with the idea that for some, these hooded figures would appear as heroic knights rather than symbols of hatred and oppression. So as much as I dislike what the Klan stands for, I had to put aside my personal feelings and photograph them in the spirit of tolerance and compassion. I think this surprised a lot of people including the critics who are drawn to the work. But I have always said that I don’t see anything wrong with provocative art and that I look forward to the day when I can make work that will even disturb me. But when you said I’ve brought you to a point and left you there, it makes me think of why some people need religion: They need to know why they live and where they’re going when they die. Those of us who are not sure are left in limbo with no one to comfort us and that can be very frightening. The problem is not that I manipulate but that I don’t manipulate enough. I let you draw your own conclusions.
February 5, 1993
AB You’ve talked about Buñuel as being important to your work.
AS I feel an affinity with Buñuel as well as other artists of Spanish descent who are attracted to violence and passion, whether it’s a passion for living or for dying.
AB There is a great deal of aesthetic violence in many of Buñuel’s films but there’s also an element of subversion. In Goya as well, for that matter.
AS Buñuel deals with religion subversively, he’s completely sacrilegious. And yet, this is the work of a man who holds some religious beliefs, if not all that Catholicism embraces. He obviously has a love/hate relationship with the people and institutions he criticizes. Personally, I am drawn to the aesthetics of the Church but not to the Church itself. But, I don’t go out of my way to criticize the Church because it’s not important for me to crusade. I think you can be subversive just by asking too many questions.
AB Do you feel you’re addressing taboos in the morgue?
AS Some people would like to see this remain hallowed ground, a place where we don’t trespass. The idea of death being opened for scrutiny is very disturbing. Most of us assume we are going to go gently into that good night. What I found when I went to the morgue is that most of these people there died tragic, violent deaths.
AB We are constantly trespassing on death and it upon us. We have so many images of death, especially in the art community—not only the many people who have died and whose bodies we have watched become decimated, but also in newspaper, on television. We’re constantly seeing images of death. How do these differ from those?
AS Some people feel really shocked and outraged that I’ve presented it so directly. These people act like they haven’t seen death before. What you take for granted, others have not taken so lightly. The difference is that those images on television are constantly moving and these are not. My photographs are meant to be seen on the walls of a gallery or museum. They engage the viewer in a dialogue that is difficult to escape. You can turn the pages of a newspaper or flip a channel easier than you can walk out of a gallery. The curious thing is that most people who have seen this work are compelled to stay.
AB Earlier, you said that focusing in on detail tells you more and allows for more elegance. Do you see the detail as a clear articulation?
AS As artists mature, they start to leave things out of their pictures. The work becomes simpler, more refined, more finished. Certainly, that is what I am striving for at this stage of my development. This desire to say as much as possible with an economy of visual tools.
AB Details, especially in regard to the body, make me think of the Host in Christian dogma. There is transubstantiation, meaning that the Host goes from inert matter to being the life or the body of Christ. It’s a deeply felt mystery and is based on a part becoming the whole. Since a lot of your work in the past has been based on Christian iconography, and these images are about death in a very real way, is there something about the notion of transubstantiation in them?
AS Well, I won’t say that I believe in a soul. But, I do believe that I’ve captured an essence, a humanity in these people. For me, these are not mere corpses. They are not inanimate, lifeless objects. There is a sense of life, a spirituality that I get from them. This is an important point for me. There is life after death, in a way.
AB Working with these people who have often died violent deaths, do you come into a relationship with them emotionally? Was there a conflict between encountering their “humanity,” as you say, and maintaining their anonymity?
AS My relationship with the people that I photograph often begins after my work is finished. While I am shooting, I am more concerned with mechanical questions rather than metaphysical ones. I think we can encounter their humanity while maintaining their anonymity.
AB There is a question of ethics involved with these photos. Did you struggle with that at all?
AS There was never any moral dilemma for me as to whether or not I should photograph these people. There is a fine line between exploration and exploitation and I have always been prepared to walk it and in doing so, put myself on the line. Life would be boring and art would be dead if we didn’t take risks. If it was a matter of choosing whether or not I should explore this subject matter, or respect privacy and not do it, I never once thought that I should not do it.
AB Do you want to upset people?
AS No, not intentionally. I think more people feel moved by this work than upset. But, that’s what happens when you do work that is emotionally provocative, it polarizes people on both sides of the fence.
AB Do you think your own background as a man of color affects your decision to go into places that are difficult to access and then come back out as Andres Serrano?
AS I’d be a liar if I said that I don’t get satisfaction out of being able to do the things that I do.
AB In the midst of all this I wonder did this project change your relationship to death?
AS In a way, it’s made me more at ease with the idea of dying.
AB How so?
AS It ain’t so bad. I remember when I photographed the guy who had been hacked to death, a doctor at the morgue looked at him and said, “Poor bastard, at least he won’t suffer anymore.” A lot of us fear death because we envision this horrible, unimaginable end to our existence. We dread it. When you deal with something on a day to day basis you learn to fear it less. You demystify your fears and it becomes easier to overcome them.
AB Historically, in the fourth century, there was a trade in relics, parts of people who had died usually violently. They were highly coveted. From the point of view of the populace at the time, it was thought that those fragments somehow had a healing function. Though your images do have a shock value, do you hope that they have some sort of healing power as well?
AS I’ve spent time with friends who have had recent deaths in their families and they seemed to see the work in a way that other people may not be able to. It has a special meaning for them. It is part of a healing process, coming to grips with the loss of a loved one.
AB For me, the photograph that was the most interesting was the image of the hands with the ink marks where fingerprints had been taken. There is something animated about it. Could you talk about what you learned about this individual? Why you chose to photograph him in that way?
AS These are probably the hands of a criminal. He’s been fingerprinted by the police and when I photographed him, the hands were actually going in the opposite direction. I inverted the images because I wanted to make the reference to Michelangelo’s painting of God reaching out to Adam. So, they assume a religious persona and gesture. I like him reaching out in death because maybe he couldn’t do it when he was alive.
AB The woman who has died of infectious pneumonia, her prominent nose, saturated red cloth on her forehead, has the aesthetic look of a painting. How did you make compositional decisions?
AS For me, she is the most beautiful woman in the show. I initially found her very repulsive. She had died of AIDS, her hair was very thin. Her throat was enlarged. For a few days I avoided photographing her. At some point, there were no new subjects, I had a choice of either photographing this woman or some of the maggot infested bodies in the freezer. So, I did decide to look at her again, and I had to discover a way to make her beautiful, and I think I’ve succeeded. She is a painting. A Bellini.
AB Do you have a sense of where you’re going to go, what this has given you and where you are going to take it?
AS (laughter) I do and I don’t. I have no easy answers for you.
Anna Blume teaches art history at the New School for Social Research and is currently writing a book on the cult of saints and images in response to death.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.