The US artist Andres Serrano is due to show some of his most controversial works, including Piss Christ (1987) and Black Supper (1990), in an exhibition opening this week at the Station Museum of Contemporary Art in Houston, Texas (3 June-8 October). The incendiary display also includes Serrano’s portrait of Donald Trump, which is part of the America photographic series (2002-04), and his Torture series (2015) which shows volunteers being degraded and shackled.
Piss Christ, a photograph of a crucifix plunged into a vat of urine, could prove potent against the backdrop of Trump’s America and his pledge to abolish the National Endowment for the Arts. (NEA). The image was at the centre of the so-called culture wars in the 1980s when conservative politicians and religious groups bitterly denounced the work after it was shown at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in 1989.
In 2015, Serrano said: “The Republican senators Alphonse D’Amato and Jesse Helms… led the ensuing fight to try to defund the NEA—a seemingly perennial effort renewed by Capitol Hill Republicans since the Reagan years. It marked the beginning of what has since become known in the United States as the culture wars.”
Some commentators believe that the issue could re-ignite. Adrian Ellis, the founder of the New York- and London-based firm AEA Consulting, told us it is highly likely that the US will experience “a fairly brutal culture war. Culture is of course already thoroughly ‘instrumentalised’; but now it’s being weaponised.
“This happens in periods of deep social polarisation. Nazi Germany, obviously; but we had a more recent preview in the chapter of culture wars in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the NEA became the chosen battlefield between knowing, canny adversaries. It seems inevitable that culture expression will, willingly or unwillingly, be drawn into the vortex of contemporary non-consensual politics.”
The Houston show also includes Serrano’s disturbing Torture images featuring more than 40 volunteers being persecuted, with the US artist assuming the role of torturer. The series was initiated and produced by a/political, a London-based non-profit that collaborates with “socio-political” artists. The photographs were taken at the Foundry, a space run by a/political in the south-western French town of Maubourguet. The images were shown at the Collection Lambert in Avignon last year.
“A vast number of people visited the Foundry through word of mouth, including local labourers and factory workers. They offered their bodies for experimentation, almost unconditionally. It was fascinating to witness the dynamic between the torturer and tortured,” Becky Haghpanah-Shirwan, the director of a/political, told us. Trump told ABC News in January that he believes the torture technique known as waterboarding “absolutely” works.