Cultivating a taste for death

Andres Serrano takes an unflinching look at the dark heart of the American dream. By Adrian Searle
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The Independent Culture
Andres Serrano has aimed his camera into the maw of a loaded Colt 45. He's looked into the black holes of a Klansman's hood and stared death in the face. A catalogue of Serrano's work has been ripped up in Congress. He's had Jesse Helms and the American Family Association on his tail and he's hung out with cardinals and subway bums. A one-time street-dealing junkie and a winner of major public awards, the Honduran-Cuban, Brooklyn- born artist is tailor-made for the American Dream and its nightmare of guns and godless, blaspheming anarchy.

An exhibition of Serrano's work opened this weekend in Edinburgh, his first show in Britain since 1991. The arguments which gravitated around his work at that time largely concerned his infamous Piss Christ, a 1987 photograph which shows a crucifix immersed in the artist's month-stale urine. "I like to make pleasing pictures," the artist told Simon Watney in an interview, "but with an edge." He has also remarked that he is drawn to unacceptable images because he lived an unacceptable life for so long. Piss Christ was offensive to many Americans, causing a furore in Congress and a fine for the National Endowment of the Arts, which had indirectly funded him, but, distasteful though it was, the artist's international status depended on the fuss: no wee-wee, no Serrano.

Serrano's image of Christ crucified, drowning in urine, did not prevent him from gaining access to various nuncios, Catholic priests and nuns for a later series of portraits. Nor did the fact that he'd also photographed his sister as the Virgin Mary, cradling a dead carp, in a mock pieta, and, in Heaven and Hell, cast the radical Jewish artist Leon Golub as a smirking, berobed Cardinal, posing with a naked woman whose hands were tied above her head, blood smeared down her naked breasts and belly. Serrano convinced the Catholic hierarchy (in Europe at least) he was OK, just as he convinced an "Imperial Wizard" and a "Great Titan of The Invisible Empire" in the Ku Klux Klan to allow him to photograph them. For a dark- skinned Hispanic, this was some feat. Serrano shows the Klan almost as they'd like to see themselves: threatening, in their ridiculous bed-sheet robes and conical hoods. While the painter Philip Guston depicted the Klan as stupid, clunking, evil and mindless, Serrano photographed them impassively, their eyes peeking out of the badly-stitched eyeholes of their pointy headgear. Later, a high-ranking Klansman called him up at dead of night - "Andres," a voice whispered, "you done good."

Judging from the public acclaim afforded his current touring retrospective in the US, and the fact that one is forever bumping into the artist's photographs in prestigious group shows, Andres Serrano has done very good indeed. His large, glossy, high production-value photographic prints with their alarming subject matter - everything from a jet of the artist's own sperm, caught in its ejaculatory flight, to a mutilated corpse in a morgue - have been compared to Olivero Toscani's campaigns for Benetton, and criticised on much the same grounds - for their prurience, their banal shock-effects, their absence of moral critique. They have also been attacked for their subjugation of everything to aesthetic appeal, to an ad-man's slick and glamorous ideal of beauty.

In 1992 Serrano spent three months photographing the passing trade in an unnamed public morgue "somewhere in America or France". Entitled The Morgue, the series has been cropping-up in exhibitions around the world, and some photographs from it are on show in his current exhibition at the Portfolio Gallery in Edinburgh, alongside his emblematic pictures of details of guns and recent photographs taken in Bucharest. These pictures of corpses fit well with current curatorial concerns with corporeality and the ills of our age. His close-ups and blow-ups drag us too close to death for comfort, depicting not only the victims of fatal illnesses, but also death by knifings, drownings, suicide and fire. Even the titles are chilling: Hacked to Death, Rat Poison Suicide, Knifed to Death, Infectious Pneumonia, Fatal Meningitis. He lingers on the details. The bloated lips and weird pallor of the drowned woman, whose slack mouth seems about to speak. Arms raised in rigor mortis from a rat poison suicide: stark, raking light on a pale skin against lush blackness, picking out the goosebumps which cover her body, the frizz of erect hair down her forearms. A man's face in profile, half covered by a red cloth, an improvised blindfold to preserve his anonymity. The hands of a knife victim, fingers stained with fingerprinter's ink, raw flesh between the splits on the skin of the wrists where the knife went in.

Serrano's photographs look as calculated and staged as advertising shots, too vivid and composed for violent reality. But death is grim, even in Cibachrome. The knife-victim's hands have been framed individually and hung next to one another, to recall Michelangelo's Creation of Adam; the camera, looking up over the prow of a dead man's chin, turns an anonymous black corpse into a close-up resemblent of Mantegna's Christ, dead, on his back.

But as much as Serrano wishes to echo the high art of the Renaissance, he lives in a modern world, where death comes packaged in TV shoot-outs, where the real-life miseries of the world endlessly unfold through the hours of the evening schedules, sandwiched between the ketchup and catheter dramas of ER and the ad breaks.

We prefer unconscious images from the real world to come to us gritty, grainy and in black and white, or jerky, hand-held, and edited down to a fragment. But such images are not necessarily any the less prurient, less mediated or less composed: they might signal the cameraman's disgust, but it is also an aesthetic signal, a flag waved in the name of objectivity, of the heat of the moment, the terrifying glimpse of the mean kill. We are told, somehow, that the witness on the spot would rather have been elsewhere. Serrano's camera, on the other hand, stills the forever stilled, and dwells on it too long. And invites us to dwell on it too long, too avidly, showing us the gleam of light on dried blood, hair in a dead man's nostril, the patina on a drowned woman's shoulder.

The great museums are awash with gore, littered with corpses, crucifixions, depositions, decapitations, tortures, firing squads, rapes, bludgeonings and butcherings - art has always been obsessed with death and defilement. The massacres in the Louvre; St Lawrence, kebabbed on his griddle; Goya's Disasters of War; Titian's Marsyus, flayed alive. We're inured to their horror, so long as it remains far enough away, so long as it doesn't touch our lives. But the point of all these images has been to hold us in front of them, not to make us turn away. He makes us look, in the manner of our times.

Portfolio Gallery, Edinburgh, until 2 Sept (0131-220 1911)