Andres Serrano has never shied away from controversy. Back in 1987 his work Piss Christ – a photograph of a plastic crucifix submerged in a glass of his own urine – led to accusations of blasphemy, and the work is still the subject of protests whenever it appears in exhibitions.
You would hope the New York photographer’s latest series could summon similar righteous anger. It delves into the world of torture, throughout history and up to the present day. Ten photographs from the series are currently on display at Stills Gallery in Edinburgh, Scotland.
The idea for the series was first planted in Serrano’s mind in 2005 after he shot a hooded man for an article about torture. “The Abu Ghraib story had just come out, so torture was on everyone’s mind,” he says. But he didn’t revisit the concept until a decade later. Over several months in 2015, Serrano photographed medieval torture implements, victims of torture and staged simulated torture sessions with volunteers.
“In a lot of my work, I combine the real with the unreal,” he says. “Real Klansmen, real dead people, but in an unreal environment: the studio.”
The photographs in the exhibition are overwhelming: their size (about two-and-a-half by two metres), the use of saturated colours and the dramatic contrasts recall classical Renaissance painting. But while their form is archetypal and grandiose, the content is contemporary and lurid.
There are photographs of historical torture devices displayed as grotesque, opulent still lives. One such device, the “pear of anguish”, is even laid out on velvet. “Most torture museums have replicas of torture instruments, not the real thing,” says Serrano. “It’s torture as curiosity or entertainment, like going to the movies or a wax museum. I went to some of those, but I also went to Hever Castle in Kent, where they have authentic instruments of torture. The copy always pales next to the real thing.”
The series also includes images of historic locations where torture took place in the not-so-distant past. Serrano visited several Holocaust memorial museums in Germany and Austria, as well as a Stasi prison in Berlin where thousands of people had been incarcerated and interrogated, some for years. He also photographed actual victims of torture, such as the “hooded men” – 14 men in their 20s suspected of involvement with the IRA in 1971. While in custody, the British army subjected them to the so-called “five techniques”: hooding, stress-positions, white noise, sleep deprivation, and food and water deprivation. None of the men were ever convicted of a criminal offence. “I brought a black hood with me, like the ones placed over their heads during the entire time of their detainment,” says Serrano. “They were shocked, because it was reliving something they never wanted to go through again. We talked for a while and then they said, ‘Let’s do it.’ I was very grateful to them – that was very difficult.”
Did he worry about including victims of such brutal practices? “I never have misgivings about my work. My feelings don’t change over time. I was very happy to be able to photograph them.”
One of the central images in the exhibition is a triptych that mimics the infamous photograph of Ali Shallal al-Qaisi, who was imprisoned and interrogated by the CIA at the Abu Ghraib prison in 2003. Captives at Abu Ghraib were subjected to physical and psychological distress, sexual abuse and humiliation. Serrano says he recreated the image with a volunteer because he saw it as the ultimate symbol of modern-day torture .
Another image that stands out is the portrait of former CIA analyst and whistleblower John Kiriakou. Kiriakou revealed the agency’s use of waterboarding to interrogate al-Qaida prisoners in 2007. It’s the only picture that does not represent torture overtly, although as Serrano points out: “John knows a lot about torture. He wrote a book about it and paid the price for it. He’s an expert on the subject.”
Serrano says his photographs are not meant to be political and that they are – to some degree – open to interpretation. “Viewers may see narratives and threads that I’m not aware of,” he says. So what does he think the series contributes to the understanding of torture as a phenomenon? “You would know better than me,” he replies. “But if I were to ask, ‘What have we learned about torture?’ … I’d have to say we haven’t learned anything at all.”