Andres Serrano: Torture / Reviewed by John McDougall / 19.12.18
There’s a sensation while initially viewing Andres Serrano’s Torture at Stills Centre for Photography in Edinburgh which is perhaps akin to watching Michael Haneke’s 1997 meditation on media driven violence, Funny Games, in which the Austrian filmmaker consistently reminds the viewers of their involvement in bringing the subjects of their gaze to a grizzly end. The large scale images on display in Serrano’s solo exhibition depicting instruments utilised solely to inflict pain and staged illustrations of modern torture techniques appear to be doing something similar: uncovering practices which are hidden by a strange and tangled timeline; one where museum pieces take precedence over active practices which come from the same school of thought as the medieval horrors that have become the focus of family day trips. Practices which are spoken of only in hushed tones as hearsay and rumour in today’s media outlets. Where Haneke’s characters are exposed to acts of violence because of our participation in viewing, are we also culpable in real-world, dehumanising atrocities simply by allowing our gaze to be diverted?
This particular selection of images offers only a glimpse of what Serrano has compiled since teaming up with a/political in 2015 to explore militarised zones, concentration camps and collections of objects around the globe, yet it is a presentation which places the viewer directly into a dilemma of morals and ethics. Beautifully presented, in almost life-size proportions, Serrano’s images make it impossible to ignore photography’s ability to aestheticise and beautify even the most repulsive of subjects or to glamourise even the most brutal of ordeals. Serrano doubles down on this particular photographic tendency with troubling effect.
A triptych depicting a hooded man with arms outstretched before a pit in the floor is almost peaceful in its tone, as if the man is so confident in his particular cause that he is accepting of his fate, no matter what that may be. A deliberate choice in Serrano’s direction, surely; a way to remind himself of the controlled nature of these set ups, perhaps.
At the far end of the room a man lies slumped, face hidden by a bloodied cloth. There’s a religiosity to this, recalling Christian imagery of Jesus’ journey to the cross. Are the victims in Serrano’s setups implied to be modern day martyrs? Complicit in their own pain through a resolute silence, unwavering to their devotion to whatever it may be that drives them? This possibly offers an all too easy way out for the viewer, a way to ignore the pain, suffering and misuse of power by assuming that they have some sort of option in all of this.
The inclusion of a portrait of CIA Whistleblower John Kiriakou deepens this conflict of ethics and emotions. This image of a man who is living proof of the use of inhumane forms of torture carried out by the USA, with the support of their allies, Kiriakou’s portrait becomes accusatory when placed among these depictions of brutality, no matter how aesthetically palatable they may have become; a reminder that saying nothing and ignoring the signs should never be an option for any of us.
Torture, like much of Serrano’s work will divide opinion. It is perhaps too showy in its grandeur, too easily stepped-away-from because of its beauty and religious iconography to be considered hard hitting, but where viewers can remove themselves from it without trouble, it is also accessible. That accessibility might be its strongest weapon in allowing us to see what’s going on in the shadows.
– reviewed for Photomonitor by John McDougall
Andres Serrano: Torture continues at Stills Centre for Photography until 3rd March 2019.
Stills Centre for Photography
23 Cockburn Street
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