Monday, September 01, 2008

That Old Brown Magic's Got Me In Its Spell ... Again!

or The Shit Just Keeps on Coming.

I did not expect to return to this theme so soon after discussing Paul McCarthy's inflatable turds, but apparently there is no moratorium on the artistic fascination with feces. As already reported in the Village Voice, in New York Magazine and on Artinfo, artist provocateur Andres Serrano will unveil a show of 66 photographs at Yvon Lambert, first in the New York gallery on September 4, then a week later in Paris. Each photo depicts spoor from a different species, often in extreme close up.

The process started as sort of a family affair, with both Serrano and his pet Dalmatian, Luther, donating to the proceedings, but soon branched out into an international search for the best, or at least the most photogenic, shit. And yes, there will be Bull Shit (from Ecuador), Horse Shit and Chicken Shit on display.

The Biblical story of Noah's Ark mandated gathering two of each and every beast and fowl. Serrano seems to have updated this to the number two of each species. Since his international notoriety began with Piss Christ, a piece decidedly committed to number one, we can detect a definite progression in the concerns of the artist.

The photographs are large, blown up as high as eight feet. They are also available as a book, appropriated titled Andres Serrano: Shit. The images are sometimes backgrounded with a psychedelic sunset motif, like murals on the side of vans, a vernacular familiar from surfer and stoner culture, from comics and other "underground" commercial forms (like tattoo art), a conflation of the kitschy, the mundane and the bombastic. A lowest common denominator strategy also defines the titling of the work, ranging from cheesy to humorous to descriptive. Heroic Shit, Good Shit and Bad Shit, Hieronymous Bosch Shit, even a diptych: Burro Shit I and II.

Self-Portrait Shit (the artist's own)



Heroic Shit (because it resembles the raising of the flag at the Battle of Iwo Jima)


Serrano's work derives a certain affect from its linguistic underpinnings. Photographing a crucifix immersed in a yellowish medium might not have angered Jesse Helms and the religious right nearly as much as the juxtaposition of the words "piss" and "Christ". Words are literal and brook no contradiction. Showing something is often not as offensive as naming it. Witness Alfred Jarry's play, Ubu Roi (1896), where the opening exclamation, "Merde!", cleared a shocked Paris theater and created a succes de scandale. "Shit" is a big part of our language, and Serrano will undoubtedly mine all the universality and notoriety of the word.



One cannot mention shit in art without a passing reference to Piero Manzoni's Artist's Shit (1961), an edition of 90 cans, each labeled in English, French and German, each claiming to contain 30 grams net weight of the artist's freshly produced, preserved and tinned shit. One was sold to a collector for 30 grams of 18-carat gold, a symbolic assertion of the transformative power of the artist, his ability to turn any material into art by the sheer force of his persona. As in the fundamental example of Marcel Duchamp, art is shown to be anything the artist claims it to be, an alchemical conversion of even the most common, debased bodily function into material and aesthetic value via the artist's travail and theoretical insistence. All this is contained in Manzoni's famous gesture.

Whether Serrano's shit explores a similar dialog with issues of production, consumption, marketing, packaging and the embodied nature of artistic labor - well, you decide after seeing the show. Some critics have berated Serrano for pandering, for courting controversy, for pushing easy buttons, for promoting transgression for its own sake, for adopting the outré as a career strategy. He certainly has no problem tweaking his audience into paroxysms of violence, most recently in October 2007, when a gang of right wing vandals, disguised in black masks, stormed through his The History of Sex exhibition in Lund, Sweden and smashed up some of the work with axes and crobars. They even posted a video of the incident on You Tube, with a soundtrack of thundering death metal music.



The work they were responding to is sexually explicit, including the image of a nude woman stroking a stallion's erection. But although Serrano said he was "shocked and horrified" by the incident, he seems to have taken it in stride. It does not seem to have diminished his audacity or his ambition. From the Voice interview:
My ego as an artist says I can make anything look good, even shit. The show is also very basic—in a way, what I'm saying is that we all think we have the best shit. If you want to see some real shit, check out my shit!" he says, beaming. "I got the best shit in town.
Andres Serrano: Shit at Yvon Lambert, 550 West 21st Street. Opening September 4, 2008, 6-8 pm. Book signing on September 5, 3-5 pm. Running through October 4. A moving experience or just the same old shit?

P.S. Gilbert and George also photographed shit and used it in their photo collages, e.g. SHITTY NAKED HUMAN WORLD (1994), A quadripartite picture, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam






and also in their NAKED SHIT PICTURES (1995). Watch the commentator stroll behind the turd and then lean against it. I'd call that interactivity!






Poop and Circumstance



Having now seen the show in NY, there were definite attempts at religiosity and grandeur, of poop and circumstance. Nary a white wall in evidence. In the main room, painted dark, there were 18 large photographs installed, of identical size and framing, and evenly spaced, with the somber intent of a mausoleum. (I was expecting all 66 images from the book. Apparently the others will be on display next week in Paris.) And all alone in a separate room where all the walls were painted dark red was Piss Christ. The gallery, and Serrano, wanted to clearly enunciate his aesthetic progression from number one to number two.




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