Andres Serrano is not known as an especially political artist. The 71-year-old’s photographs are more accurately described as transgressive, perennially summed up with a singular point of reference: Piss Christ, his 1987 photo of a crucifix submerged in his own orange-tinted urine, which has over the years sparked multiple instances of national outrage. In the photographic series that followed, including The Klan (1990), The Morgue (1992), Shit (2007), and Nudes (2009), Serrano’s work has remained as provocative as it is aptly named.
“I like to make the kind of pictures where you don’t need much more than the title to tell you what you’re looking at,” the artist said over the phone. As for his perpetual association with a single, 34-year-old work of art, he doesn’t mind: “Piss Christ is a good soundbite – easy to remember and repeat.”
Serrano’s latest work, Insurrection (2022), takes a decidedly more political tone, having debuted in CulturalDC’s Source Theatre in Washington this week, the one-year anniversary of the Capitol attack. As the artist’s first-ever film, Insurrection offers a grim portrait of the United States, stitched together from found footage of the 6 January riot. True to the transgressive nature of Serrano’s practice, it zooms well past the point where ordinary news media would cut away: we get extended cuts of the sheer spectacle of violence, the smashing of windows, the prolonged attempt of one adrenalized horde of men to force its way past another. The frenzy climaxes with an uncut, closeup sequence of Ashli Babbitt’s death, and her subsequent martyrdom in a eulogy by the former president. Much of Insurrection is nothing short of excruciating to watch.
“I like that word, excruciating,” Serrano says. “What I intended to make was an immersive experience that takes you to Washington DC on January 6 in real time.”
In close collaboration with the London-based organization a/political, Serrano began working on the film in April, feeling compelled to respond to the day’s events on multiple levels. He was appalled by the racial dynamics that played out on the Capitol steps, as white rioters who had broken into a federal building were gently escorted out: “Black people get killed for a lot less than storming the Capitol, and these white people got treated with kid gloves.”
To him, the Capitol insurrection was also an extension of Donald Trump’s legacy of divisiveness and fraud, a subject the artist had begun to explore in his 2018 installation The Game: All Things Trump. The former president’s widely accepted version of events – that these were righteous citizens protesting a rigged election – represented not only a triumph of fake news, but his continued hold over the Republican party.
“This guy has to be commended for having the charisma that Hitler had with the German people; there are Americans who don’t believe it really happened, and Republicans who say let’s forget about it and move on,” Serrano says. “I wanted to make a film that anyone would have a difficult time walking away from saying ‘We should forget about it.’”
Spanning 75 minutes, Insurrection comprises news clips and smartphone footage culled from around the internet, alongside archival imagery dating back to the riots of the Great Depression. The score is a mix of American ballads that range from Bob Dylan’s You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere to a children’s rendition of the historic civil war song, Battle Hymn of the Republic. As rioters march toward the Capitol steps, the incessant repetition of “glory, glory hallelujah” emphasizes the role that Christianity, a recurring theme in Serrano’s practice, plays in validating violence in American mythology. “There are groups of people who believe they have the right interpretations of Christ, not only in how they should live their lives, but how the rest of us should live ours,” he says. “They’re going into battle like Crusaders in their holy war.”
The musical interludes and title cards interspersed throughout – “D.J. Trump Presents Insurrection”; “The Killing of Ashli Babbitt” – were inspired by Birth of a Nation, a 1915 silent civil war film condemned for its heroic portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan. The inclusion of these historical references is a reminder, according to Serrano, that “history repeats itself in specific ways.” The insurrection was not a novel event, but another instance of division within a nation that never recovered from civil war, he adds, citing the widespread refusal to accept Biden’s presidency as a resonant parallel. “There are also a lot of people who’ll never accept that the north won, and who’d love to go back to the good ol’ days. Donald Trump was there to tell those people what they wanted to hear.”
Despite the symbolic criticism embedded throughout the insurrection, Serrano is actually reluctant to speak poorly of Trump, whom he photographed in 2004 for his America series. “This guy is a massive showman; he’s incredible at it, and I could see why he’s gone this far in life. He did not wreak damage on America – America was damaged already.” As for the Capitol rioters, he refuses to condemn anyone, nor say that they belong in jail: “I tried to humanize this crowd, to show their faces and hear what they’re saying. That’s what gives a work of art power: when you let people speak for themselves.”
Serrano makes an important distinction in his practice: while provocation is essential to bringing art to life, he is not in the business of political messaging, telling his viewers what or how to think: “A lot of times I look at work, particularly paintings or pictures on the wall, and I’m not particularly moved,” he says. “The one thing I always try to do, whether it’s photographs or with this film, is to give you something to react to. I’m not concerned too much about how you’re going to feel about it, good or bad, but the important thing is that you’re not indifferent. You can’t walk away from it, and say, ‘I didn’t feel nothing.’”