Stills, a modest photography gallery just behind Waverly station, presents a small collection from Andres Serrano’s Torture series. Serrano is an acclaimed photographer frequently attracting attention in the art world for his use of controversial images to address problematic social, political, and religious structures; his infamous piece Piss Christ being the most notable example.
For Torture, Serrano worked in association with a/political, a not-for-profit organisation which supports alternative artists with socio-political focuses. He visited prisons, immigrant removal camps, concentration camps, historical collections, and tourist attractions to source his material and inspiration.
Torture explores themes of power, vulnerability, and degradation through the motif of torture, unravelling the multifarious manifestations of human suffering before the camera lens. Most of the works in this collection centre upon the human subject stripped naked and shackled or beaten; the human is presented as a passive object, vulnerable and impotent, completely at the whim of the torturer, Serrano himself. These images elicit a powerful reaction in the viewer, as we are shown people at the height of degradation utterly powerless and controlled by another.
One can’t help wondering whether Serrano is trying to muster sympathy for those oppressed by the structures of power in our society; perhaps the bourgeoisie who saunter across the gallery floor may, in some small way, feel for those whom these images represent. In any case, the images are powerful not only in the unfathomable pain they present but in their deep beauty.
Serrano makes use of intense contrast in light and shadow, not entirely dissimilar to Rembrandt’s Night Watch period, that conveys a sinister, ominous sense of darkness that seems to be creeping across each scene. Other works focus on instruments of torture rather than their objects.
The exhibition actually begins with an image of iron shackles, introducing the motifs of power and control immediately, while an image of an iron mask, half in darkness, shocks the viewer with its faceless horror. Serrano has not forgotten his interest in religion as the largest piece in the exhibition is a triptych – an artwork made from three connected panels joined together, almost exclusively found in Churches – that focuses with unavoidable clarity on a Christ-like figure. The man, although hooded, barefoot, and wearing only a ragged sack, is somehow elevated from his dismal situation through his semi-crucified stance, raised chin, and almost luminescent skin. There is no ignoring the religious imagery in this piece, but aside from its implicit message, the transcendental aura of the subject creates an intense effect on the viewer, who is forced to forget themselves for a moment and marvel in the image’s profound beauty.
The selection of works is somewhat limited, containing only 8 pieces from a much larger series. However, the size of the selection seems to have been very purposeful. Other works in the series include far more blood, gore, and passion than the ones in this exhibition – one visitor even wrote ‘no feeling of stress or pain’ in the comments box – and it seems that Stills has decided to select the images from the series that are more subtle and demand greater contemplation than the graphic images of bloody faces.
Stills has chosen the works in Torture that simultaneously explore beauty and humiliation, depravity and transcendence, impotence and power, and the exhibition works fantastically as a result.
Image: Rory Biggs O’May