Andrés Serrano

Creative Time Report, New York

By Claire Breukel | April 30, 2014

Previously heralded as the world’s most infamous contemporary artist – his highly contentious photographic work Piss Christ, 1987 pictured a crucifix bathed in his urine –a mature Andrés Serrano now proffers social consciousness.

Andrés Serrano

Over the past months Serrano has sought out homeless people living in New York City offering them $20 for their hand-drawn ‘begging’ signs. He then collated the two hundred signs he had collected to create the video Signs of the Times, 2013. Made for Creative Time Report, the video was also featured alongside his solo exhibition Cuba at Yvon Lambert Gallery in Paris this past November. Perhaps it is because the name Andrés Serrano is rousing, but despite the videos positive intention and seamless appearance, it is receiving harsh criticism.

The video features the collection of signs in a flashing stop frame sequence. The camera zooms in and out on each message to the familiar sound of Martin Luther King Junior’s “I Have a Dream” speech that is played over an upbeat soundtrack composed by Simon Pearson. It has been argued that the thumping music distracts from the content of the signs trivializing the overall message of the piece by being too upbeat. It has also been argued that $20 is a relatively small amount if the sign is viewed as an original artwork, and that Serrano is exploiting homeless people in order to create what writer Jillian Steinhauer calls “faux-political art.”

In counter argument, Serrano confirms the signs were all sold willingly and one can argue that the money offered is more than most people give. It is true that Andrés Serrano does not offer a strong political position, but perhaps this is also purposeful. Serrano stated in an interview he does not think of his work as political or even intellectual, but rather that it conveys a social conscience. Mimicking a Youtube clip, Signs of the Times graphic imagery and dynamic beat use the language of advertising, avoiding elusive art-speak that may require decoding. In fact, it can be argued that the execution of the video is so linear and direct that it reads as a social awareness campaign or a charity advertisement. In this way, Serrano pushes up against preconceptions of what constitutes contemporary art in much the same way he did with Piss Christ.

Serrano is also not new to the theme of homelessness in New York City. For the series Nomads, he photographed homeless subjects on the street against portable backdrops, adding them to his already eclectic portrait portfolio. As such, it can be argued that Signs of the Times is a progression from Serrano’s past sensationalist provocations to justified social provocation – although this line is blurry. Andres Serrano admits, “There is a fine line between exploration and exploitation and I have always been prepared to walk it and in doing so, put myself on the line. Life would be boring and art would be dead if we didn’t take risks.”

It seems it is Serrano’s notorious hit and run approach making Signs of the Times that has left the viewer reeling for meaning in what is flatly and plainly conveyed. The heart of the debate is whether the video’s non-committal stance effectively translates the homeless message. Effective or not, Serrano has provoked considerable praise for taking action.