In 1987 Andreas Serrano photographed a small wooden and plastic crucifix floating in a jar of his own urine. The infamous photograph is called ‘Immersion (Piss Christ)’.
The work has caused much controversy. In 1997 the work was attacked with a hammer when on display in the National Gallery of Victoria, a Patron of the gallery had also tried to remove the work. In 2011 the work was irreparably damaged whilst on display in France. In 2012 President Barack Obama was petitioned by various groups asking him to denounce the work. All of these attacks must, I presume, be driven by a presumption that the work is blasphemous.
It is worth considering Lucy Lippard’s assessment of the work on formal grounds:
“a darkly beautiful photographic image… the small wood and plastic crucifix becomes virtually monumental as it floats, photographically enlarged, in a deep rosy glow that is both ominous and glorious.”
It is certainly an accurate observation, one which ignores the context, making and subject matter of the work and judges it purely on formal grounds. It is undoubtedly a beautiful image. Yet to remove the work entirely from its subject matter and making is problematic and limiting. For me the meaning of the work likes in the contradictions and dialogue between the reality of its production, its iconography and the formal beauty of the final image.
Serrano has managed to turn a waste product (his own piss) into a glowing, beautiful signifier of spirituality, he has turned base matter into light. Is this not the central symbolic narrative of the crucifixion, of the corporeal transcending to the ethereal, of flesh becoming spirit.
The controversy raised by the works production is not an attack on religion but perhaps an attack on a certain crass commercialisation that Serrano saw as manifest in religion of the late 20th Century. With this in mind it is worth thinking about other transformations that take place in the photograph. Photography is often held up as a medium which records truth, in the same way people hold religious doctrine and institutions up as conveyors of truth. Yet neither religion or photography should be blinded trusted. Serano was photographing a small plastic toy, a cheap kitche commodity, and yet through photography he has turned it into something of monumental scale, of glowing richness, an image both powerful and moving. Through this Serano points to the crassness of commercialisation whilst serving us up a beautiful lie.
This is not an image which, as a description of it might suggest, looks to merely off up sensational shock, rather it is an image which presents a cheap crass commodity floating in piss and manages to raise it to something beautiful, meaningful and spiritual. It is the type of transformation which lies at the centre of much great art, and certainly lies at the centre of the Christian faith. If, as me, you are not religious, then the work can still be read in human terms, with the added comfort that this is a religious work of art which celebrates its faith whilst exposing its flaws. As accurately pointed out by Dan Holloway, it is an act, of transubstantiation.