ARTS: AGENT PROVOCATEUR

First Andres Serrano immersed a crucifix in urine, then he took pictures of corpses in a morgue. Now the artist has photographed bodies that are not only alive, but positively throbbing. These images are, he tells Dennis Lim, nothing less than 'A History of Sex'
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The Independent Culture
IN 1987, Andres Serrano dipped a plastic crucifix in a beaker of his own urine, and photographed it. He called the image Piss Christ. Two years later, in front of television cameras, an outraged Republican leader ripped the picture on the Senate floor. In an instant, an innocuous Brooklyn artist became the bad boy of the American art world.

The tag has stuck, with good reason. Cynics argue that Serrano has worked hard at keeping it, but that's a gross over-simplification of what continues to be a fascinating career. Piss Christ remains Serrano's most ingenious, ambiguous, and resonant synthesis of the sacred and the profane: a close- up crucifix bathed in a warm, ethereal glow, it seems a reverential image - until you read the title. But the years since have seen a steady parade of photographic provocations - more bodily fluids (most memorably, spurts of the artist's own semen), masked Klansmen, loaded weapons, and, in "The Morgue", fresh corpses. With Serrano, it's difficult, perhaps pointless, to separate the artist from the shock tactician, or the invariably arresting work from the loud controversy that invariably surrounds it.

Serrano's latest show, "A History of Sex"- which arrives in London this week - includes some of his most blatant photographs to date. Often, the power of Serrano's pictures accrues outside the frame, in the mind of the beholder. With these new portraits, though, what you see is essentially what you get. And you get quite an eyeful. These huge, strikingly posed sexual tableaux are anything but abstract. There's no actual fucking on display (just one fisting shot), but what's here is, in almost every instance, unmistakeably in-your-face and programmed to shock. Some are solo nudes. Others feature decidedly lewd couplings - the most bizarre involving a woman and a horse.

Serrano, who turns 48 this year, is clearly an old hand when it comes to being interviewed. Few artists have been so frequently subjected to interrogation, and his experience shows - in conversation, he's friendly, obliging, canny, a little glib. Welcoming me to his home in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, he suggests a quick tour of the apartment. It's an imaginatively furnished pad - velvet drapes and chandeliers, mounted animal heads and pickled human brains, countless crucifixes affixed to the bathroom walls. Serrano the artist is, to some people, blasphemous; Serrano the interior decorator is, without a doubt, obsessively ecclesiastical - a bishop's throne here, a stained-glass window there. "I'm really drawn to this Catholic aesthetic," he says. "I'm not sure if it comes from some spiritual foundation."

Serrano seems reluctant to delve too deeply into any of his impulses, preferring to leave his instincts untarnished by analysis. Asked what inspired "A History of Sex", he replies: "The question isn't really why I did it, but why it took me so long. I knew that I wanted to address sex more overtly than I had in the past, but I didn't quite know how. The first thing that came to me was the title, which I felt was a good umbrella, something that would allow me to explore related and unrelated sexual fantasies and situations."

Typically for Serrano, though, the pictures represent yet another opportunity to subvert conventional notions of portraiture. "For a lot of people," he says, "erotic photography consists of black-and-white nudes, the kinds that have almost become cliches. I wanted to have some pleasing and seductive sexual images that weren't too loaded - like the young girl whose hair is blowing in the wind, the one that looks like a Botticelli - but to address sex without being sexually provocative or graphic would have been a cop-out. If some people consider sexual images in themselves provocative, then I suppose they are, but I felt like I had to give equal weight to all kinds of sexual behaviour without making any judgements."

He shot most of the sex pictures in Rome, Budapest and around Holland. In search of models, he stopped people on the street, and in clubs and restaurants. He also turned to an Amsterdam-based agency that specialises in fetish parties and to Xaveria Hollander, the Dutch writer and ex-prostitute known as the Happy Hooker, who he says put him in touch with "at least four of the models", including the two who figure in Serrano's favourite image - a woman straddling a man and urinating into his mouth.

The picture was selected as the poster image for Serrano's 1997 retrospective at the Groninger Museum in the Netherlands. Religious groups protested and the museum was forced to back down. "Thanks to the controversy," he notes, "93,000 people went to the show." Last October, the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne cancelled a Serrano exhibition after vandals took a hammer to Piss Christ. Again, the artist looked on the bright side. "Because of all the publicity," he says, "I think I really did become a household name in Australia - a lot more people knew about my work than would ever have seen the show. I'm sorry that the director of the gallery didn't have the courage to defend and protect the work as he should have."

Serrano makes no bones about his populist leanings. "I don't like to make art about art," he says. "I don't like to talk down to the audience or make my work convoluted and elitist." He says that it's "a desire to take beautiful pictures" that continues to motivate him. "I wish I could say there are deep psychological reasons, but there aren't. There's nothing troubling me that I feel I have to get out. My problem is, if I am making statements, I don't know what kind of statements they are. I've always thought of the creative process as something similar to dream interpretation. When you're having a dream, you have no control over it. Later, you can analyse the dream, free-associate with it, figure out what it means. It's the same thing with my work. When I'm doing it, I really don't think about what's motivating me or where it's going. The work is loaded and layered, but it's not always in my nature to want to explore those layers - verbally, at least. Sometimes, quite frankly, the explanations are beyond me."

Proceeding effortlessly from religion to death to sex, Serrano knows the costs involved in tackling taboos as an artist (even if, with characteristic aplomb and more than a hint of artfulness, he insists, "I don't think of my subjects as taboos"). He sums up his predicament thus: "People criticise me for being provocative in the first place and then when I'm not provocative enough, they're disappointed." Collectors still love him, but Serrano's difficult relationship with the American critical establishment seems to have soured further in recent years. (When "A History of Sex" opened in America last year, the New York Times began its review with the sniffy declaration: "Andres Ser-rano's 15 minutes are up.") "I'm not one of the artists who've been championed and nurtured by these critics," says Serrano, "and I feel there is resentment for my popularity, since it's outside their control." What resentment there is probably has much to do with how Serrano came to prominence - adopted as a poster boy for free expression when the tireless arch-enemy of the arts Jesse Helms called him "a jerk" in the Senate. The artist concedes that Helms may have boosted his career, but adds, "I think I also helped him get re-elected. We were partners in crime - sometimes you have to shake hands with the devil."

Currently between shows, Serrano says he's keeping all possibilities open. 'I've always wanted to direct movies,' he says, apparently undaunted by the less-than-successful directorial efforts of art-world denizens like Cindy Sherman, Robert Longo and David Salle. Prompted for favourite films, he cites the cinematic influences evident in his work - Bunuel and Fellini - and more recent film-brat staples like Blue Velvet and Reservoir Dogs. For now, he claims he's eager to work in the commercial arena. "A lot of commercial photographers try to be artists, and I'm doing the opposite. I know I'm an artist; now I want to get my images out of the art world and into the real world." He has a commission from a Japanese magazine for a series of celebrity portraits; the day before we met, he had shot the first one, of director John Waters. He seems to relish the simplicity of the assignment. "In the past, I tried to monumentalise what I photographed, to make it bigger than life," he says. "In shooting these celebrities, I feel they're already bigger than life - I just try to light them well."

! Photology, WC2 (0171 836 8600), Thurs to 17 July.

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