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Art, Obscenity, and Controversy

Photographer Andres Serrano lectures at BU today

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Photographer Andres Serrano became a sensation in the late 1980s when his image “Piss Christ,” a photograph of a crucifix submerged in the artist’s own urine, gained national attention. The controversy, which made its way to the floor of the Senate in 1989, put Serrano in the middle of a debate on public funding and freedom of speech. Since then, he has gone on to capture portraits of New York City’s homeless, provide haunting depictions of Ku Klux Klan members, take blunt, sexual photographs for A History of Andres Serrano: A History of Sex, portray death in the Morgue series, and in a recent collection called America, take more than 100 portraits of both famous and ordinary Americans. With its moments of controversy and confrontation, Serrano’s work continues to be provocative.

Boston University’s Photographic Resource Center brings Serrano to campus on Thursday, April 26, to talk about his work and share his expertise. The 7 p.m. lecture will be held at the Photonics Center Auditorium.

BU Today
talked to Serrano about his views on freedom of speech and the digitalization of photography.

BU Today: How do you think freedom of speech fits in with art?
It’s related. Freedom of speech is a double-edged sword, as Don Imus has learned. You can say what you want, but you might be punished for it. I think that’s the bottom line. If you’re willing to take the risk and you feel strongly about it, you need to do what you have to do. In my case, I’ve always felt like what I’ve done, what I do, it comes natural to me, so I’m not trying to be something else.

Some of your work makes people feel uncomfortable, like “Piss Christ,” for example. Do you strive for that?
“Piss Christ” was politicized by politicians and the religious right, who made it part of their agenda, and so they incited people who might not have reacted to it otherwise. It’s often been said that the only really offensive thing about “Piss Christ,” if you can call it offensive since I didn’t mean to offend, is the title itself. It’s not the image.

But do you try to create an uncomfortable quality to help your audience think outside of the box?
Not at all. I try to do work that’s direct and that has some sort of resonance with the audience. In other words, if I did work that was not layered in some way, that could not be interpreted in more than one way, if I just made pretty pictures, I would feel pretty decadent, because it would only be decoration.

Do you think you push at the boundaries of what we think of as art?
I try to push myself and the audience, meaning that I try to make it new. Otherwise, it’s not interesting — even though in the course of art history, it’s hard to be original because so many artists have come before us. I do try to push the envelope at times, not always, intentionally because I have to make it interesting for me and my audience.

You don’t use any special effects with your photography. How do you feel about photography becoming more digitalized?
My problem with digital photography sometimes is when I look at magazines and I just see a lot of heavy retouching and I see a lot of special effects that I know are digital, it loses its impact for me, and on a personal level, I can’t relate to those images. That’s one of the reasons why I shoot straightforward film, because I want a certain amount of directness and realism attached to the photographs.

And it sounds like intimacy, as well.
Absolutely. First and foremost, that’s what I strive to do — to establish that intimacy with the audience.

Would you ever dabble in digital photography?

I would under extreme circumstances. For instance, I have a friend from New Orleans, a young artist by the name of Blake Boyd, who during Katrina snuck back in there. He called me and said it was an incredible sight and if I had interest in coming down, he would show me around. I wanted to go down to capture the moments, but not as an artist. I wanted to go down as a photojournalist, in which case I would have used digital photography. Other than that, I don’t have interest in doing digital.

Do you feel that “Piss Christ” is a seminal work for you?

Not for me. “Piss Christ” was never a particularly striking image. “Madonna and Child (II)” — I prefer that image myself, compositionally and formally. Because of what happened, “Piss Christ” has a special place in my heart, but if not for the controversy, I don’t think that image would have stood out to me in any way.

What images do stand out for you?

I have favorites from different series. For instance “Leo’s Fantasy,” an image of a woman [urinating] into a man’s mouth, is one of my favorites from A History of Sex. I thought it was a great image, but what really made it one of my favorites was that the Groninger Museum in Holland, which is where the photograph was first exhibited, chose that image as a poster, and in doing so, it became very controversial. In the Morgue, I’ve always like “Infectious Pneumonia,” which is a picture of a woman with a red cloth across her face. One of my favorite Klan images is called “Klanswoman,” and it’s a close-up of an eye.

Andres Serrano will lecture at Boston University on Thursday, April 26, at 7 p.m. in the Photonics Center Auditorium, Room 206, 8 St. Mary’s St. Admission is $15, $10 for PRC members, $5 for full-time students, and free to students of the PRC’s institutional member schools, including Boston University.

Nicole Laskowski can be reached at nicolel@bu.edu.