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Piss Who? A Conversation with Andres Serrano

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The Howard Stern of contemporary art chats with F Newsmagazine

Love him, hate him, or dismiss him as a kook. He’s Andres Serrano, and he has been one of the biggest things in the art world since Van Gogh dress ties. Receiving a significant career boost at the hands of a crucifix in a jar of urine, Serrano has gone on the push more of society’s buttons. Photographing blood and milk, making portraits of the homeless and the KKK, and more recently, photographing parts of dead people in a series called The Morgue.

On April 8, one day after his lecture at SAIC, I had a chance to hang out with the Howard Stern of contemporary art. I was to accompany him through the Art Institute, then take him to lunch, where the interview would commence.

I fully expected (and prepared for) the Andres Serrano I’ve been reading and hearing about: The indifferent, ambiguous art-star. The exploiter/heretic extrodinaire. But what came across was a man of simple tastes and obsessions, living and working in an environment of constant intellectualism, and obscure theoretical conflict. A stranger in a strange land.

C: About the lecture yesterday, what did you think?

S: I liked it. A lot of people showed up and there was a good response

C: I understand that you’re on a lecture tour…

S: Yes, I have five lectures in the month of April, around the country. I didn’t plan it that way but it just happened.

C: Will you be visiting art schools only, or universities?

S: I’ll be going to the University of Kansas at Lawrence, Union College at Sceneckede. Also the Yale school of scared music…or something like that.

C: The responses that you got from the lecture, are those the kind you usually get?

S: They vary, but at the same time, they all seem the same. Its funny, they seem the same and different at the same time.

C: I understand you recently did a lecture in Manchester, England. How was the response there?

S: Pretty tough. But it was good preparation for this here. In Manchester, they wouldn’t let up, they kept being confrontational. But then afterwards, the lady that invited me there said, “They like you. If they didn’t they would of been silent.”

C: It seems that you’ve found a following here at SAIC. I was in the lecture, and I found a great many people who really enjoyed your talk and enjoyed what you were saying about your work. I think a lot of that goes toward your sense of humor, and your straight-forward style of talking. It was never academic or rhetorical.

S: I like to establish the lecture format more as a dialog between myself and the audience. I encourage people to talk to me as I show the slides. You know, I don’t go to too many lectures myself because I don’t like to be bored. I’m bored easily at such things. So I’m aware that I don’t want to bore my audience and myself either

C: Seeing your work and then hearing you talk about it in such a matter-of-fact way just adds another facet on…

S: I try for the work to be pretty accessible. That is to say, to appeal to different audiences for different reasons. And in the same way, I’m a pretty regular guy, and I like to be straightforward, and pretty accessible, and speak in a language people can understand.

C: Do you enjoy talking to students as oppose to say, critics, art collectors, etc… Do you see them responding differently to you?

S: No. Actually, they’re all the same to me. I like them all. I don’t talk to critics though. I don’t know too many critics.

C: Is that rare or common in the art world?

S: I have no idea.

C: Do you read your own reviews?

S: Yeah. I read the reviews even though I don’t read the art journals all the time. A lot of times I glance at them to see who is showing or who’s been written about. I find the language of art sometimes too turgent and dull for me to pursue. But I do read my reviews, good or bad.

C: I have read some of the more unflattering comments. I distinctly remember one that said, “ a food photographer Serrano could have been really interesting.” Can you remove yourself to a point where you don’t get personally hurt by some of the negative reviews?

S: Actually no. I have not been able to master that trick. I take it personally
when they attack me, especially when they attack not only the work, but me personally and they don’t even know me.

C: Why do you think they do that?

S: I have no idea, since I don’t know them. I can’t prescribe what motives they have for doing this sort of thing. Except to say that some people have this notion, idea, that they think they know who I am as an artist. Some of these critics resent my popularity and visibility simply because it’s not due to the fact that they have nurtured and supported me and I have achieved a certain amount of success outside of their control and somehow they feel the need to take me down a peg or two.

C: To put you in your place.

S: Exactly.

C: Do you think critics in the states respond differently than critics over in Europe?

S: In Europe The Morgue series has been spoken of in terms of historical painting. They see the connection to people like Jericho and many other artists who have dealt with death throughout history. In the states the reaction to the series has not been as academic, if you will. They’ve not been able to see it in that way.

C: I took an informal survey after the lecture and you among any other has been voted most interesting if not the best lecturer to date.

S: Well, I’m the only one here right now.

C: That is correct sir, but the track record goes to show people that goes to these things enjoyed your talk.

S: I feel really good about you telling me this.

C: I do, however, remember, some of the question s that were brought up that were in one way or another, almost trivial, if not irrelevant to what you were doing or saying. One that I can recall asked if you used your own urine, why not use your own blood or human milk. Your response was, “ I quickly realized it was not practical to use my own blood.”

S: I take all of those questions seriously though. I never think, “ Well, this is a stupid question, I’m won’t answer it.” I’m pretty much spontaneous with my answers, and I try not to be flippant about it. But I take them all very seriously.

C: It seemed the topic of practicality was brought up a few times. People asked why you didn’t give the homeless more than ten dollars to photograph them in your Nomad series when you would sell the images for thousands of dollars. Your response was that considering you were taking a number of homeless people and you had assistants to pay, that was all you could afford at the time. Also not using your own blood because it just wasn’t practical. Is practicality a factor in your aesthetics?

S: No, actually. I did go out and spend $140.00 a night for about 20, 25 trips, until I ran out of money. I never think in terms of like, is it feasible? Is it practical? I think if I have a vision, an idea, usually I pursue it to it’s final end. When I first mentioned I was going to do the Klan pictures, the people that were representing me at the time said they didn’t want me to go down there. That I would go hurt. So I had to promise that I wouldn’t go down there. Then three weeks later I went anyway and started with the work. My biggest fear is that I will come home empty handed, and not be able to do the things I want to do. You can’t be practical sometimes about art. You just have to follow your dream, or obsession.

C: Is shock value an aesthetic quality to you, or do you even see it as shock value?

S: I don’t see it as shock value. I see myself interested in things that may be problematic for certain people. Subjects matter that is not necessarily traditional, that even borders on the unacceptable. As far as my representation of those things, It’s pretty traditional. It’s aestheticized, It’s made in a way that is beautiful, accessible, even seductive. There is no doubt my work is seductive. It does have a sensuous appeal of some sort. But at the same time I am photographing thing that may not be that popular or acceptable.

C: Let’s talk a little about the our tour through the Art Institute. What did you like?

S: I liked some of the Magritte’s. Especially the ones that were less familiar, as well as the ones that are very well known. I was impressed at how good of a painter is was.

C: I saw you took a liking to the medieval armors.

S: Yeah, I liked them a lot. To me they looked very futuristic and very Hollywood. I spent a lot of time in Europe, and I’m always going to flea markets and antique stores, so I’m surrounded in my own home by old things, except my phone and TV.

(At this point the food arrives. I take a patty melt and Serrano enjoys a healthy chicken salad sandwich. Tasty!)

C: Sorry about the weather.

S: Isn’t it typical?

C: It goes in and out a lot. Somehow I never get used to it. Guess New York is a bit like this, isn’t it?

S: Yeah it is. How was it Tuesday?

C: It was alright. A bit windy but tolerable.

S: Been to New York?

C: No, I’m a spring chicken around here. Still learning my stuff

S: (wow) Around here or around the states?

C: I come from Omaha, Nebraska.

S: Were you born there?

C: No, I was born in Hong Kong

S: (wow) Were you raised in Omaha?

C: Yes, I came to the US in ‘81

S: How old were you?

C: Nine

S: (wow)

C: A real big change.

S: How was it living in Omaha?

C: It a small suburban city, around 500,000 in population.

S: Insurance town?

C: Yeah, Mutual of Omaha, corn, beef, stuff like that. Not real exciting. Just really mellow.

S: Too mellow?

C: Oh man, you can’t get mellower. I love my town, but Andres, don’t ever go there.

S: Hope there are no schools there that want me.

C: How’s life in Brooklyn?

S: Alright. I don’t spend much time there so life is good.

C: Doing a lot of traveling?

S: I spend a lot of time in Europe so when I go home, I just do my errands, take care of business, go out to clubs, turn on the TV and sleep. Sometimes I don’t even watch the TV, I just go to sleep. The sound of the TV is reassuring.

C: I do that too. Once I left the TV on and drifted to sleep. I woke up in the middle of the night screaming because of channel on the TV went off and all I heard was static.

S: (wow) Maybe unconcisiously, as a child, you have to turn off the television at a certain hour to go to bed and you wait for the day when as an adult you can turn on the TV al night and not even watch it, just have it on.

C: That’s rebellion right there!

S: Yeah, I guess that’s being an adult.

C: I’m going to throw some names out. Tell me what you think of them. Robert Mapplethorpe.

S: I use to think his pictures were a little too pretty, too safe. But the whole NEA controversy proved that they were dangerous. I respect him as a very capable photographer. I see him more as the photographer’s photographer. And I thing he was very good at his craft. He’s a good craftsman. But if I was going to buy a piece, I think I would buy other things before buying a Mapplethorpe.

C: Jeff Koons.

S: Jeff Koons does some tacky looking stuff sometimes. I don’t. I’d like to think that my work isn’t coming from that sensibility. He serves a function as “the bad boy of the art world”. As long as he doesn’t get too obnoxious with his megalomania, then he’s okay in my book.

C: Joel Peter Witkin.

S: I like some of his work, but I feel some of it is too academic, too distant for the viewer. It’s funny, Witkin had a question for me once. But instead of trying to reach me, he called my dealer and apparently got the answer.

C: Are you pretty much in own world when you do your art or do you gauge what other people are doing?

S: No. Once an a while when I become aware of someone doing something I was interested in doing, I won’t do it.

C: Who do you look at in the contemporary art world?

S: People I know who invite me to their openings or when I am aware of a show, then I’ll go. That’s about it.

C: So even in the contemporary art world, you’re pretty much an outsider.

S: I try to keep a distance, you know. Fortunately I have a gallery that can promote, negotiate, and they’re good at it. So good sometimes they arrange things that they don’t even tell me. Sometimes I feel like connecting with individuals, but I feel I don’t need to hustle anymore. The career has a course of its own now. It can survive without me.

C: Leave it on cruise control?

S: Yeah.

C: I know in the lecture you didn’t want to discuss what you were doing now. But where do you see yourself going?

S: Probably in a more mellow direction. Then after that I’ll get wild again.

C: It comes in cycles…See yourself getting out of photography?

S: No, not yet. Movies, if they’d offer me a budget, and let me direct. And maybe even do a little acting. I’ve always believed that a second rate actor is better known than a first rate artist.

C: Any directors you like?

S: Lynch. I liked Blue Velvet a lot. I didn’t like Twin Peaks, the Movie because it was too removed for me, too arty. I also like Scorese. I recently rented Goodfellas and it was great.

C: Any idea what kind of movies you’d want to make?

S: Yeah…movies that make money, but with an edge. (smile)

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