At the same time, the Maison Européenne de la Photographie is dedicating a solo show to the artist and featuring several of his most emblematic series, only a few months after a retrospective exhibition held by the Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium in 2016.
Born in New York in 1950, Andres Serrano has developed both provocative and fascinating work. The artist tackles fundamental issues such as politics and society through series like The Klan (1990), Nomads (1990), America (2002), Cuba (2012), Resident of New York (2014), and Denizens of Brussels (2015); religion, with Immersions (1987-1990), The Church (1991), Holy Works (2011), Jerusalem (2014); living beings (Bodily Fluids, in 1990), sex (History of Sex, in 1995-1996) and death (The Morgue, in 1992).
Andres Serrano’s approach is based on showing us the world as we made it in order to raise consciousness about our time. For more than 30 years, he has been capturing the spirit of our era and the contradictions of our society by looking at it with a critical, sometime ironic, but lenient eye.
For this show, Andres Serrano presents sixteen artworks from the Torture series, a project he started in 2005 after being commissioned by the New York Times to illustrate an article entitled « What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Torture ». Written by Joseph Lelyveld, the article looked back at Abu Ghraib’s scandal for which American soldiers were accused of human rights violation based on the overwhelming evidence of photographs showing Iraqis prisoners undergoing torture.
It was only ten years after, in 2015, that the a/political organization offered the artist a partnership to continue the Torture series. Andres Serrano then travelled to fifteen cities in nine European countries such as United Kingdom, France, Austria and Germany in order to deepen his research and collect more images.
He first conceived this series as “a show and a touristic attraction” by photographing various historical objects related to torture and turning medieval masks into artworks as we can see in the exhibition (Fool’s Mask IV, Hever Castle, England - Fool’s Mask and Flesh Gourge, Hever Castle, England - Fool’s Mask III, Hever Castle, England). These masks have the appearance of frozen face expressions, all at once raw, synthetic and perfectly expressive embodiments of torture. Paradoxically, these instruments of torture seem as terrifying and hideous as they are fascinating and unique. The known or imagined function of these objects only adds to their sensational dimension. They disturb us by incarnating the tortures they evoke and embody. “I chose to turn disturbing objects into beautiful ones”, commented the artist about his work.
It was at the “Fonderie”, a cultural space opened by a/political near Toulouse in 2013, that Andres Serrano staged this photographic series referencing several techniques and devices of torture through times. A large number of people volunteered and physically challenged themselves to experience torture for his photographs. Andres Serrano was surprised to discover: “In doing this work, I realized that it’s easy to torture people when you have power over them. My models were willing participants but real torture victims have no choice.” Through his committed approach, the artist questions the aestheticizing representation of violence through staging.
Thanks’ to the Waging Peace NGO, Andres Serrano entered in contact with «Fatima», a victim of torture, whose portrait is showcased in this exhibition. Suspecting of helping rebels in Darfur, this Sudanese woman was imprisoned and tortured by the police. The work Fatima, was Imprisoned and Tortured in Sudan expresses Fatima’s silent screaming, the mute and smothered suffering hidden under her veil.
In Ireland, Andres Serrano photographed four men accused to having ties to IRA (Irish Republican Army): «The Hooded Men ». In the 1970’s, Kevin Hannaway, Francie McGiugan, Patrick Mcnally, and Brian Turley were imprisoned by British authorities. They underwent specific torture and questioning treatments such as deprivation of sleep, water and food, exposure to noise or almost constant blinding under a hood. These four men survived and agreed to pose for Andres Serrano, wearing hoods again upon the artist’s request.
While tortured people had their identity denied, photography captures their silence and tells their History. By hiding the victim’s faces, Andres Serrano creates non-portraits where pain peaks through the covering of bodies, hence revealing the wound of torture.
With these works, Andres Serrano represents the many aspects of torture such as touristic fascination, torture as practiced in concentration camps, and torture as the ultimate punishment. This series led Andres Serrano to take up the role of both torturer and victim: the artistic experience he invites us in is representative of this ambivalence. Torture is a reality: forbidden by the Geneva Convention of 1949, nearly eighty-one countries still practice it.