When the artist Andres Serrano had doubts about his latest project, he asked God for direction. “Just before I started to make these pictures, I had a moment of panic: What if I can’t find beauty, diversity? What if they don’t look good?” The first photograph he took was a self-portrait of his own poop, and when the film came back from the lab, “I realized I saw a face—actually a face—in it! A sign.”
You remember Serrano, the fellow who made the famous Piss Christ in 1989, which featured a crucifix submerged in urine, prompting an apoplectic Jesse Helms to lead the fight to end government funding for such projects and to declare: “Serrano is not an artist. He is a jerk.”
Now, the genial renegade is back, fulfilling his desire to do, in his words, “something that would provoke even me”—namely, shooting 66 different piles of doo-doo dumped by as many animals, blown up to eight feet high and ready to hang on the walls of the Yvon Lambert Gallery beginning September 4.
Serrano, who is wearing a Blackpool Bombers T-shirt, a humongous rhinestone-studded belt, and a pair of artfully molting, pointy $1,000 Gianni Barbato boots—real shit-kickers—is telling me about his latest creations in his East Village home, a once-normal-looking residence transformed by votive candles, chandeliers, ecclesiastical statuary, and the replacement of every inch of sheetrock with limestone into a sort of medieval crypt.
“I always said I wouldn’t work with children and sex, and I wouldn’t work with shit, so when I came up with this idea [which dawned on him, to the best of his recollection, during the nude wrestling scene in Borat], I had to put myself in a special place. I had to prepare myself mentally—it was a scientific and aesthetic investigation.”
Serrano used his own caca for the first picture; for the second, he recruited Luther, the Dalmatian who is sitting at his feet as we talk. A benevolent God once again intervened. “I saw a dog face in the dog shit! Then I became less nervous. As I started to make the work, I felt a close affinity with Goya and the work he did at the end of life—the underworld creatures. I too started to see figures and creatures in this work.”
It’s not as easy to photograph animal waste as you might think. In fact, it’s illegal to swipe the stuff from a New York City zoo for your own delectation. Serrano went all the way to Ecuador to scoop up what he was after.
“Bullshit had to be included in the show in New York, but the bull was in Ecuador. We drove from Quito up north to a huge estate. I don’t like to talk about my work in advance. When we got there, I said, ‘I want to go where the bulls are, but I didn’t come here to photograph the animals—I came here to photograph the animals’ shit.’ First, people said: ‘Are you crazy?’ But when they saw I was not only crazy but also serious, from then on everyone accepted it and was very supportive.
“The worst part is the smell of certain animals. I would have a mask on for those occasions. The human is the worst, and then dog—but we pick up dog shit every day in New York! I would look at it from all angles. Sometimes I wore a glove; sometimes it had things in it—debris and garbage—and that became part of the picture, too.”
Unlike some artists who offer one-word answers no matter how much you poke and prod, Serrano loves to talk. He has given each of his 66 images titles—”Not all literal; sometimes symbolic, sometimes funny”—that are an integral part of the work. “This show is very conceptual,” he says. “I realized how ingrained the word shit is in the English language. My work is all about language.” (And of course, when you think about it, how much of the power of Piss Christ was derived from its title?)
Serrano gets up from the old wooden chair he’s perched on and opens a book on the refectory table. “It’s time I show you the work,” he says, lovingly opening the pages of a tome he plans to sell in conjunction with the exhibition.
“We start with Bull Shit. I see a bull here, resting against the moon—it’s like a child seeing things in shadows on the wall. Here’s Good Shit and Bad Shit—see, no difference!”
Next comes an almost hypnotic litany: Strange Shit and Scary Shit, Wolf Shit (“You see the leaves. I didn’t put these little things in them—I looked for the best, but I didn’t create it as much as discover it”), Jaguar Shit (“This is one of my favorites—I see a face, a head”), Horse Shit, and Chicken Shit (“When I scooped it up and put it on a table, there was a chicken feather in it”).
If it’s possible, for just a minute, to forget what you’re looking at, maybe that’s because “shooting so close up, it becomes monumental—bigger than life. It’s so small, but when I make it so big, you lose all sense of what it is. Many people are quite surprised at the beauty and seductive quality of the work. After a while, it just becomes abstractions.”
Still, when it comes to certain subject matter, 66 is a lot of images. “Heroic Shit is one of my favorites—it looks like the raising of the flag in Iwo Jima. Hieronymous Bosch Shit—I know this is a winner! It looks like a bird, like a Bosch creature. Burro Shit I and II—it’s a diptych.”
Aren’t you glad you are not Serrano’s significant other? For Deep Shit, he asked his girlfriend to dig a hole for him. “She was a little squeamish, but you get used to working with shit fast. I have the hard part—I have to go in there and work with piss and shit. For the audience, it’s a very clean experience—just an aesthetic pleasure.”
I lift my gaze to admire Serrano’s interior décor—maybe I just want a break from examining 66 mounds of manure—and ask him about the wooden Corpus Christi looming from the wall and the severed head of John the Baptist two inches from my hand. “I’m a collector, mostly period stuff—15th to 17th century, mostly religious. I like to get objects when I travel. I feel like a conqueror. Every century you go back, it costs more! But once you’ve got real Gothic, you don’t want neo-Gothic. I didn’t do fake shit either. I thought about getting some at a novelty store, but I didn’t do that.”
Serrano says he thinks he was born to do this work. “I just saw Batman—Ledger is a true anarchist. I would say that I’m one of them, too—a true anarchist doesn’t give a fuck. I’m very lucky that I create work that finds collectors. I think this is great work—it’s not only beautiful, it’s unprecedented.
“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.”