The medium is the message,” Marshall McLuhan said, and Andres Serrano’s is shit: holy shit, mom shit, sheep shit, dog shit, rabbit shit, Freud shit, bull shit. Shit photographed and enlarged, shit set against campy backdrops of psychedelic swirls, shit printed, mounted and framed by somber black wood.
Quoth the artist: “I was wise to see the depth of beauty and diversity in working with shit…I feel that I’ve done the definitive work on shit, and I feel very happy that I’ve claimed shit as my own.”
Today, it’s hard for an artist to shock his way into a household name. It’s even harder in a place like Manhattan, where the stubborn, jaded public maintains an ever-proud refusal to balk at unsightly things.
Usually, the few shock artists that do succeed prove to be one trick ponies, traveling a common trajectory: defecate on the Virgin Mary, splash onto “Page Six” and then fade quickly from the city’s memory.
“Shit,” which is up now at the Yvon Lambert gallery in Chelsea, is remarkable in that it is, in fact, the pony’s second trick. Indeed, Serrano the shit-purveyor is the identical Serrano who, all the way back in 1989, dumped a plastic cross into a vat of his own urine and called it “Piss Christ.” Now, after twenty years spent quietly tinkering with semen and blood, Serrano has plunged back into the thick of things.
The Yvon Lambert gallery, a sleek, sterile space like countless others in Chelsea, has managed to present the work as cleanly and inoffensively as possible. Of the sixty-six photographs of human and animal excrement gathered in places as mundane as Serrano’s New York apartment and as exotic as a farm in Ecuador, only twenty are currently on view. These have been blown up to extraordinary proportions – each chromogenic print measures exactly 88 by 72 inches – and perfectly aligned around the square space of the gallery. To step inside and survey this panorama, thus, is to feel oneself thrust into a kind of perverse candy-land, one that disgusts not with its content but with the whole of its presentation.
Serrano claims his work is all about the wonders of the organic – the beautiful variety of textures, colors, and consistencies of shit. Any reasonable viewer, however, will see right though that claim. The choice of backdrop and random blurring – usually of both fore- and back-ground – have made any kind of focus on texture virtually impossible. Simply put, the overwhelming impression is that Serrano had decided to just get funky on some shit.
Perhaps that is why instead of inspiring awe or some new-found appreciation for the beauty in something so frequently denigrated as ‘disgusting’ in our society, the photographs manage to elicit only giggles from typically blasé visitors. “This would make for a great diet,” a woman casually remarks to her boyfriend. “Come in here before lunch, and you would never want to eat anything again.”
Somehow it is only the children that respond with any kind of excitement or glee to this latest manifestation of the body grotesque. “What is that?!” resounds the voice of a five-year-old boy, holding the hand of a somewhat frazzled parent. “It’s poop! It’s poop! Those are pictures of poop,” his older sister responds.
Poop. Ca-ca. Doo-doo. Serrano seems to prefer “shit,” however, in all its metaphoric glory. Having struck upon this bit of linguistic genius, he squeezes it for all its worth. “Here’s Good Shit and Bad Shit—see, no difference!” he squeals in an interview with the Village Voice. It is this “meta” quality – a shit show commenting on the shitty nature of all contemporary art shows – that appears to be Serrano’s saving grace.
It is a novelty show, and Serrano knows it. Freely giving himself to interviews, he seems to be beckoning the audience, inviting them in to test out their own mettle. Still, upon entering the gallery space, one cannot easily shake off the notion that the viewer is being somehow laughed at, derided for his attempts to do so when all the art world has to offer is precisely “good shit,” “bad shit,” – the same old shit.
The only (all too facile) conclusion to be drawn is that Andres Serrano’s shit really is, well, shit. But that would be giving in to his game too easily.
[Jac Mullen also contributed to this article.]