‘It's not something I ever did to be controversial,’ says Andres Serrano of his 1987 photograph Piss Christ, which has become canonical as the foremost example of transgressive art. ‘I just did it to be myself.’
The work, which depicts a crucifix submerged in a glass tank of the artist’s urine, gained notoriety in 1989 after a widespread campaign against its funding by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). On 18 May 1989, US Senator Alphonse D’Amato tore up an image of the photograph on the senate floor, calling it ‘a deplorable, despicable display of vulgarity’. The moment is widely cited as the beginning of the Culture Wars of the 1990s, igniting a national debate on freedom of artistic expression and the public funding of controversial art.
On 30 November, Christie’s 3.0 will debut Piss Christ (Original), the first non-fungible token by Serrano, as part of Next Wave: The Miami Edit. The NFT was produced in collaboration with a/political, an organization dedicated to the support and promotion of artists working within a socio-political framework.
The dynamic video NFT replicates three historic vandalisms of the original 1987 photograph on a yearly cycle. Skilfully applying the time-based mechanisms of digital art, Serrano both archives and transforms the story of his infamous photograph, underscoring its enduring legacy in the history of art and the right to creative expression.
Piss Christ garnered positive attention when it debuted at Stux Gallery in New York City in 1987. It also received a $15,000 award from the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, which was funded in part by the NEA. The photograph went on to be exhibited at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Miller Institute for Contemporary Art in Pittsburgh, before it caught the ire of Methodist minister Reverend Donald Wildmon when it was shown at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond in 1989.
The Founder of the American Family Association, Wildmon sent letters of protest to every member of Congress. Serrano’s work was ultimately wielded by right-wing conservative Christians to justify restrictions on government funding of subversive art. D’Mato’s dramatic desecration of the image in the senate chambers took place in response to Congress and the Supreme Court's ruling that the NEA must take ‘into consideration general standards of decency’ in giving grants.
‘They didn't care that I'm a Christian,’ says Serrano. ‘I’m an artist using the symbols of my faith: the body and blood of Christ.’ For Serrano, the visceral bodily materials employed in the photograph echo the nature of Christ’s suffering. ‘If Piss Christ offends you, then I’ve succeeded — at least in getting you to feel what happened during the crucifixion.’
Since the May 1989 incident in the US Senate, prints of Piss Christ on exhibition have been vandalised on two more occasions. In October 1997, after the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne George Pell’s injunction to remove the work from an exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria was dismissed by Australia’s Supreme Court, the Archbishop urged his followers to protest and conduct candlelight vigils in front of the museum. On 12 October, two teenagers, one armed with a hammer, attacked and destroyed Piss Christ.
Fourteen years later, on 17 April 2011, following a demonstration of some 800 protesters the day before at The Collection Lambert in Avignon, France, where Piss Christ was being shown, a person took a hammer to the work and destroyed it.
Serrano notes that he was drawn to revisit his most controversial work through an NFT because the format allows the artist to ‘destroy’ the work ‘on the three days in history when it was attacked and destroyed by people.’ In this way, the artist reclaims these highly charged reactions — which relate to religious themes of iconoclasm — and brings them into the work itself. ‘You'll see the original, and then all of a sudden it will shatter in three different ways.’
This new iteration of Piss Christ also continues to explore the complex formal questions the drove the 1987 photograph, finding beauty in the unexpected. ‘The bodily fluids were a way to make beautiful photographs,’ he says. ‘No matter what I make, I try to make it beautiful. Because ultimately everything I do is a self-portrait.’
The dynamic video work is an edition of five, each executed in a different colour. The work offered on Christie’s 3.0 is number one in the edition and features the rich sanguine and amber palette of the original photograph. The bubbles in the liquid gently circulate, imbuing the submerged crucifix with a sense of calm that is upended by the violent strikes of the vandalisms.
Throughout Piss Christ’s eventful 35-year life, the work has attracted spirited attention from a wide range of audiences. And Serrano has become nothing short of a cult hero, known for making conversation-generating work through which viewers confront their biases. Still, he’s long been troubled by the word ‘transgressive’ around his practice. ‘As long as my conscience is clean, I don't worry about if something is controversial or transgressive. I just do work that I can stand by.’
The impact of Serrano’s art has reverberated throughout the art world and popular culture. He has exhibited internationally, in spaces ranging from the Cathedral of St. John of the Divine in New York to the Barbican Arts Centre in London. He has also paved the way for ground-breaking works such as Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary (1996). Metallica used two of his bodily fluid photographs for the covers of their albums Load and Reload. He’s even collaborated with the streetwear brand Supreme.
In reimagining his iconic photograph, ‘it made sense to create an NFT, because it’s a piece of history,’ Serrano says. This dynamic new work underscores the enduring relevance of the questions around freedom of expression that Piss Christ provoked 35 years ago, which are more pertinent than ever. ‘Sometimes people want to repurpose history; sometimes they want to rewrite it. It’s important to look at the past, because otherwise we continue to make the same mistakes.’
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