Suffering can be beautiful. Or it can be made beautiful, anyway. American photographer Andres Serrano has long experimented in the thorny territory of aestheticizing violence. His latest series, Torture, on view this month at the French photography festival Rencontres d'Arles, is no exception. Spanning still lifes of medieval torture instruments and portraits of contemporary human rights abuse victims, Serrano's four dozen photos formally exalt systematized savagery, asking the gaze to linger a while longer on repulsive subject matter.
The exhibition, presented by the Paris gallery Collection Lambert and the socially conscious arts organization a/political, finds real victims of harrowing violence reenacting their horrors as well as subjects who volunteered to stage scenarios from the dark ages.
The series includes a portrait of a woman, pseudonymously named Fatima, who was imprisoned, tortured, and raped multiple times by the Sudanese Security Forces when living in Khartoum. Her ordeal was magnified when she escaped to the UK and was then detained all over again in the Yarl's Wood Immigration Removal Center. Serrano also photographed the "Hooded Men," IRA suspects who were subjected to "the five techniques"— wall-standing, hooding, subjection to noise, deprivation of sleep, and deprivation of food and drink—by the British military in the 1970s. Other photos find volunteers staging old-world punishments. In one photo, a woman with a lower back tattoo sits on a wooden horse designed to gruesomely split the body in two, weights tied to her ankles.
Many of the photos in Torture were staged in the dungeon-like Foundry, a 19th-century armament manufacturing plant in Maubourguet, France, which a/political converted into an experimental arts space in 2015. Others depict sites of real-life atrocities that Serrano visited including a Stasi prison in East Berlin and a Nazi concentration camp in Mauthausen, Austria. The range of time periods, victims, and locations Serrano chose to photograph feels somewhat arbitrary, flattening diverse incidents into a universal experience of torture. However, the series with its broad strokes also works to suggest rationalized violence is inherent to human societies. Serrano is infamous for capturing disturbing subjects with a startling reverence. In 1987, the artist stirred up controversy with Piss Christ, an image of a crucifix in a glass of his urine. Over the years, he's photographed bodies burned by fire and knifed to death in Morgue (1992) and excrement of all kinds, including his own, in Shit (2008). He's documented homeless New Yorkers as well as the Ku Klux Klan. The Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium currently has a retrospective of Serrano's work, "Uncensored Photographs," on view until late August.
In 2013, VICE followed him to Cuba to capture the island's people. This time around, we caught up with Serrano over the phone to talk about torture, power, and a legacy of controversy.
VICE: How did you approach photographing your subjects like the infamous Hooded Men?
Andres Serrano: The Hooded Men are these Irish men who had been detained by the British authorities—pretty much enslaved—and they were dressed in hoods the entire time of their captivity for several years. Now they have a lawsuit against the British government thanks to Amal Clooney, a civil human rights lawyer. She's championing their cause.
When it was time for me to photograph them, I chose not to photograph them in a normal way—that is to say not take conventional portraits, but rather to take portraits of them as the Hooded Men with black hoods over their heads. I think they were very surprised by my request. I don't think they expected it. I think there were trepidations that there was a sense of déjà vu, and not only the fear of going back in time to that place, but also the fact that it triggered memories for them. But I would say that, in the end, they were OK with it. They had to take a deep breath first. I was very grateful and happy that they did it.
"Torture almost seems to be a part of the human condition." —Andres Serrano
In many of these images, you're using props and locations that seem ahistorical—sort of generically old-time-y. It feels like it could be any era. Is there an implication that it's inevitable for us to inflict violence on each other?
Torture almost seems to be a part of the human condition. Every war has tortured victims; every century has had its share of atrocities. We're talking medieval times, we're talking the witch trials, we're talking the Inquisition, we're talking the Crusades. And, beyond torture, you have exploitation and humiliation. In so many ways, people are being tortured, even if not literally, they're still being tortured. But right now people want to change oppression and to change poverty. Worldwide, there is a revolution against the status quo, because the status quo makes prisoners out of us all. Torture is a specific thing. It can be a physical thing, or it can be mental. But there is a kind of strife that is always going to be among us, especially when we have the ruling class, and then everyone else.
Were the models you photographed in pain during the sessions?
Even though these are reenactments, there was a great deal of physical discomfort in holding these positions. Even though it was make-believe, there was a level of torture.
Doing this project, I discovered that people torture people when they have power over them. The models did exactly what I asked them to do. Imagine if they weren't volunteers, and if they would have no choice but to do what the torturer wanted them to do? Torture goes beyond the physical pain. It's also the humiliation that the victim will do anything you ask of them.
This project and much of your other work has a political dimension to it, but I listened to an earlier interview where you said you preferred the term "act of conscience" to describing your work as political because political art usually seems like propaganda.
I don't see myself as a champion of a cause or an artist with an agenda. I'm not trying to save the world. I just see myself as the child in the story of the emperor's new clothes. The child is the only one who can say the emperor has no clothes.
We're conditioned to not look at certain things. It's too much of an overload to look because we'll feel bad about everything, so we choose to ignore them. I come along and say, "Hey, look at this." I feel like what I do is state the obvious.
I know that you're a Christian, and a lot of your projects are concerned with highlighting the suffering of your fellow man.
I am a Christian. Sometimes I'm a misunderstood Christian, but I am a Christian. I'm also an artist. It's not like you can say, "he's a good guy," or "he's a bad guy." Maybe you're a bit of both. But I would say that my work does have a sense of humanity in it. I'm concerned with the same things that the pope is concerned about—opening a dialogue with Cuba, the problem of homelessness. It's my dream that Pope Francis would meet with me, and give me his blessing, and maybe give me a commission to do work for the church the way that religious artists have worked for the church in the past.
I try to make connections to religious artists of the past like Hieronymus Bosch. Even Luis Buñuel I would consider a religious artist. He's got the ambivalent and contradictory feelings about Catholicism. That shows, rightfully, that the church is still in you.
"There is a certain aesthetic that I have to live up to. I choose to make beautiful objects, even if they're about things that make you uncomfortable." —Andres Serrano
Even formally, there's a reverential quality to how you frame your subjects that perhaps connects you more to those religious artists of the past than to contemporary artists of today.
A lot of times, contemporary art right now is intellectual, and it's cold. It's not political; it's not social. It's art about nothing. My art is about something, and it's not cold, because I'm not a cold person. Quite frankly, I don't understand a lot of art, so it makes sense to me that maybe some people don't understand my work as well.
It seems some of your early work was controversial to conservative people who were easily offended. But also over the years, it seems like your critics have changed. There have been intellectuals that take issue with the way your work makes suffering beautiful. When you approach a subject, do you want to make it look beautiful?
That's a notion that is dismissed in art nowadays. People don't want to make it beautiful. But I do believe that there is a certain aesthetic that I have to live up to. I choose to make beautiful objects, even if they're about things that make you uncomfortable. If my work didn't have that urge, that duality, the contrast between the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly, it would just be making pretty pictures. It would be decorative work, and nobody would want it from me.
People expect me to be provocative or controversial, and if I'm not, they're disappointed, and they don't write about me. One thing that makes me feel bad is that in the past twenty-five years, I've had about fifteen major museum shows in Europe, and I've only had one big show in America. In America, I'm known as "Andres Serrano, the controversial artist." Where as in Europe, I'm just known as "Andres Serrano, the artist." In America, I'm just known for Piss Christ.
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*The original headline of this article implied that Serrano's photographs made torture "beautiful and disturbing." The headline has been updated.