Andres Serrano is still best known for the controversy surrounding his 1987 photograph Piss Christ, which depicts a crucifix submerged in a clear vat of urine. The fact that he’d received funding from the National Endowment for the Arts sparked outrage from religious groups, bringing the US Senate down on the NEA. Serrano’s profile was significantly raised, and he remains as fearless as ever in tackling such subjects as the Ku Klux Klan, the homeless, bodies in the morgue—and currently, torture. Readying for a show of his “Torture” photos at Chelsea’s Jack Shainman Gallery, Serrano met with Time Out New York to discuss his latest work and the event that minted his career.
What was the effect of the Piss Christ brouhaha on you personally?
It was both positive and negative. Obviously, it made my name, but it made me feel bad that so many people were purposefully misinterpreting my work for their own agendas. They made me a poster boy for something I’m not, which is anti-Christian or anti-Catholic. I was born and raised a Catholic and I’ve been a Christian all of my life. Even now, I’m still being called blasphemous.
How do you move on from something like that?
One thing I learned is that I could take the heat if I stayed in the kitchen. I felt empowered by standing up for myself, doing my work and taking it all in stride.
And now you’re on to the topic of torture.
I actually started toying with that more than a decade ago, during an assignment for The New York Times Magazine in 2005. I did some Abu Ghraib–type hooded figures for them, but I didn’t revisit the idea until I was approached in 2015 by a London organization called a/political, which was founded by a collector named Andrei Tretyakov. He asked me if there were any projects that a/political could help me with, and I immediately mentioned the torture images.
How did you go about making the series?
I spent three months in Europe going to former concentration camps, prisons, memorial sites and torture museums before winding up at a place called the Foundry in the south of France. It’s an old, abandoned munitions factory run as an artists’ residency. When I arrived, there was decades of dirt and rubbish all over. It looked exactly like the sort of black site where torture would be conducted. So I created all the scenarios for the images there.
After all your research, why do you think people torture other people?
For some, it’s their job and they like doing it. It’s human nature to want to dominate, subjugate and humiliate another human being. But there’s all kinds of torture. The rich torture the poor by making sure they stay poor. A lot of torture goes on and it’s not always physical or visible.
Andres Serrano’s “Torture” series is on view at Jack Shainman Gallery Thu 28–Nov 4 (212-645-1701, jackshainman.com).