Andres Serrano, Uncensored Photographs, Royal Museums of Fine Arts, Brussels. Review by Barbara Lewis.
A denizen is a person, animal or plant that lives in a particular place or region. Photographer Andres Serrano, best known for causing outrage with taboo-breaking images, decided it was le mot juste to describe the homeless people of Brussels he was asked to photograph by the city’s fine arts museum.
The resulting series is part of a major retrospective of three decades of his work on display inside the museum, while in the wider city his Denizens photographs can be seen in some of the public places where those of no fixed abode pass their days and nights.
For a previous study of New York’s street dwellers, Serrano used the word residents, but in Brussels, he said, the homeless (a word he dislikes as a cliche) were different. They were theatrical, crouching on their knees on the uneven cobble stones, clutching children, even babies, and many were travellers. They are also likely to become more numerous as Europe’s migrant crisis fails to subside.
Born to a father from Honduras, a mother brought up in Cuba and himself raised as a Catholic in New York, Serrano has a gift for non-judgemental empathy and an understanding of those who do not necessarily feel they belong where they live.
All of the Brussels denizens he features agreed, for payment, to be photographed and he dignifies them all.
They are striking for their personality and their imploring eyes. Madonna-like, Anna cradles her daughter Maria as she sits before a paper coffee cup-cum begging bowl. Koki Amaaea smiles up from his sleeping bag with what is almost joie de vivre. A few streets away Veronique sleeps next to a big white teddy bear, while Ahmed Osoble takes shelter beneath a piece of cardboard marked bilingually, as is typical in Brussels, Soldes/Solden, Derniers Jours/Laaste Dagen (sales, final days). Laiea and Magaly, a kissing couple, with their dogs Tybel and Volt, are an entire family of denizens, gently parodying the middle class dream of loving parents and obedient children.
Through the lens of Serrano’s Mamiya RB67 camera, we confront what we generally choose not to see.
The need to face every aspect of our humanity is the binding theme as the exhibition takes us back through 30 years of Serrano’s work and sets in context the famous “Piss Christ” (1987), part of his series Immersion that has threatened to overshadow everything else he has done.
For all the protests and, on occasions, violent attacks on his work, Serrano argues that as a Catholic he had no sacrilegious intention. For him it was natural to take a crucifix and immerse it in a mixture of blood and urine as a reminder of the bodily agony of the Crucifixion and then, of course, to photograph it in perfectly judged light.
Physical torment is another leitmotif.
A selection of images from his 1992 collection The Morgue brings us face to face with the bloodied face of a man hacked to death by his wife and of golden children, as if sleeping, but dead from meningitis.
We also stare at the pallid, folded hands of a victim of AIDS, finally at peace, and the death throes of a suicide from rat poison.
The identities of those in the Morgue are concealed by the choice of camera angle or pieces of material – and masks provide another connecting theme.
Serrano decided he wanted to take on the challenge of the masked white supremacist Ku Klux Klan, which he subverts and defuses by persuading a smiling black man to pose in the Klan’s all-white uniform, minus the mask and pointed white hat.
He also presents us with a deathly dark mask in a massive triptych of the notorious Abu Ghraib torture images, including a man draped in a blanket, taken in the jail in Baghdad.
And then, lest we have forgotten, Serrano reminds us there is nothing new about torture. A sinister iron fool’s mask from Hever Castle, England, should make us pity the poor fool who had to endure it. Equally, imagine the horror of wearing a dense black hood excluding all light in solitary confinement for years on end. Serrano met four IRA fighters from the 1970s who underwent this torture and persuaded the now old men to be photographed wearing the impenetrable cagoules one more time as symbols of their martyrdom.
In 21st century Brussels, raw from suicide attacks on March 22 in a different style of terror war, the entire exhibition is particularly resonant, not least for its reminder of New York’s deep trauma on 9/11.
Serrano’s immediate response in a series named America was a photograph entitled Blood on the Flag in which blood trickles down the Stars and Stripes. The rest of the series is the now familiar territory of human portraits to show the diversity of the United States.
A benign-looking homeless man, bare-chested but wearing a Stars and Stripes neckerchief is next to a dancer in a jewelled tutu from the School of American Ballet. Donald Trump meanwhile stares out unsmiling from between a dreadlocked Snoop Dogg and J.B., Pimp, with glinting gold teeth and a heavy gold chain round his neck from which a bull dangles menacingly.
Serrano says he makes no political comment, he merely observes unflinchingly and lets the personality of his models emerge, but it’s hard not to find the juxtaposition telling.
Barbara Lewis © 2016.