Legendary American artist and photographer Andres Serrano in conversation with Antoine Schafroth on symbolism and its perceptions.
Some of your early works discuss human secretion and religion. Can you talk about the influences that make you engage with this practice in your career and what concepts are present using human secretion as an aesthetic tool?
I didn’t discuss it, I did it. I prefer to make art then talk about it. My biggest influence came from Marcel Duchamp who taught me, and everyone else, that anything, including a photograph, could be a work of art. That’s why I don’t like for people to call me a photographer. I think in terms of art, not photography. I’ve always thought outside the box. In 1961, Piero Manzoni made 90 small cans and called it Artist Shit. No one’s ever dared to open one of those cans to see if it’s real shit or bullshit. You can make art out of anything. One day an artist is going to make art out of air but you’re going to have to look real hard to see it.
Religion is a recurrent topic in your work; what is your relationship with it? Do you consider devotional objects as engaging with a compelling aesthetic dimension? How do you consider this kind of object in your practice and outside of your practice?
I’m a good Catholic boy. I made my Holy Communion at eight and my Confirmation at twelve when I became a “soldier of God”. That’s what the nun told us. Before the 17th century, dating back to the Byzantine, Middle Ages and Renaissance, the only art that mattered was religious art. I belong to that tradition of the Christian aesthetic. I’m also a collector of Renaissance and Medieval furniture and works of art and everything, including the furniture, is ecclesiastic.
You demonstrate a remarkable ability to show what most of the world tries to hide or keep secret. Where is it coming from?
It’s coming from the guy I see in the mirror. I’ve seen him all my life and know him pretty well but sometimes he surprises me with what he comes up with.
While looking at your website, I was surprised by one of your series of works “Cycads”. It is, maybe, the only one which is not engaging directly with human experiences. What can you tell us about it?
“The Cycads” were done as an assignment for the New York Times Magazine. I spent a whole day in the hot sun at Fairchild Botanical Gardens in Florida photographing these plants. Cycads are among the oldest plants on Earth dating back 325 million years. I took a lot of pictures that day. A dealer in Italy saw them and asked me to make them an edition.
Do you consider subversion as a topic or as a result?
If you define subversion as an attempt to overthrow a government, political system or status quo then call me subversive. Life would be boring if we all thought the same thoughts, followed the same rules and spoke the same words. I grew up in the Sixties which was a time of upheaval, cultural, political, musical and artistic revolution. A lot of people lived and died fighting for things we take for granted today. The one thing that many people were the most against was conformity.
What are you working on at the moment?
That’s hard to say. I’ve been reading a lot.