Gaze upon this photograph of a plastic crucifix submerged in a jar of urine, reportedly the artist’s own. Piss Christ, the work whose title might as well be a swearword which catapulted Andres Serrano to infamy in the late 1980s, has distressed crowds of easily provoked museum-goers. Since its inception, the piece of art has been vandalized no less than three times before winding up today in Brussels, the red herring in a retrospective highlighting an illustrious career that spans over three decades.
A swift glance at Serrano’s other works, now on display in the Royal Museums of Fine Arts, quickly sheds a light on why Serrano is so often mentioned as one of the founders of contemporary ‘shock art.’ Often situated in the spheres of Christianity, the artist (a Christian himself) twists the Bible’s version of events to strong extremes. Serrano’s Magdelena, for example – in actuality, his Polish housekeeper who happened to be with child at the time the picture was taken – is depicted by showing nothing more than a pregnant belly, suggesting sexual relations took place between this woman of loose morals and the son of God.
Furthermore, the pictures (which have been called religious taunts by some) are hardly the only things in the artist’s oeuvre that elicit consternation. The series christened Bodily Fluids – to which the hallmark Piss Christ belongs – shows exactly that: abstract pictures of an ejaculatory stream, blood, and breast milk. The Morgue captures death on film by showing naked anonymous corpses, including those of children (whose eyes have been covered by a piece of cloth), and The Klan has Ku Klux Klan members staring into the camera from underneath their white, sharply pointed hats.
The History of Sex – a series of which a number of works have been vandalized by prudish protestors who covered the explicit parts with red tape – is also on display in Brussels, though it is behind curtains in a separate room. Its defaced pictures have been hung up unrestored, with the museum taking a stand ‘against barbarism and intolerance… against obscurantism and inhumanity.’
If there’s anything this retrospective of Serrano’s complete oeuvre reveals, it’s that the so-called provocateur is first and foremost trying to bear witness to the world and its inhabitants. ‘I’m not a photographer,’ he adamantly insists. ‘I’m an artist. I just happen to choose a camera.’
Serrano’s pictures are grand in scale, expertly lit, and minutely framed. Even in his new project Denizens of Brussels – a look at the metropolis’ homeless at the request of the MRFAB – he follows every formal photography rule in the book. You’ll find no hat out of place, no dog’s tail peeking out from the side of the frame. While this style might not do much to support claims of vérité, it sure makes for an absorbing picture. Looking at a Serrano photo, whether you spend a couple of minutes or mere seconds, means being swallowed whole by the microcosm of his subject.