ABC’s Encounter Program recently re-ran a conversation with David Freedman (Rabbi, Sydney), Robin Jensen (Professor of the History of Christian Worship and Art, Vanderbilt University, Nashville), Rod Pattenden (Director, Blake Prize for Religious Art), Steven Liew (Plastic surgeon, Sydney), Maureen O’Sullivan (Plastic surgery patient), and Christine Piff (Founder and CEO, Let’s Face It) on the topic of the human face. The conversations reflected on artistic representations of God, and modern cosmetic surgery and its relationship with experiences of facial disfigurement. It was a fascinating program (and it can be downloaded here). One the reflections that struck me was that of Rod Pattenden on Andreas Serrano’s much-debated photograph ‘Piss Christ’. I appreciated being invited (even compelled) to revisit this piece, and, in so doing, rethink and revisit some earlier reflections, questions and conclusions I drew from it both as a piece of art and as a christological statement. Here’s what Pattenden had to say:
This image is an image of a familiar crucifixion. Jesus is spread out upon a cross, probably it’s a little hard to see because we’re seeing it through an orange or red glowing light, with what appears to be bubbles. It looks like the crucifixion has been immersed in this kind of gaseous, underwater, soft orange light. So at first instance, it looks like a very pious image, something very familiar to us, but in a place which seems unfamiliar.
It’s only when we are told that the title is Piss Christ, that we immediately recoil, and as we understand the artist has made a photograph of a traditional plastic crucifix which he’s purchased in a gift store, and placed it in a large – presumably glass – container and filled it with urine, and photographed it. And so you have what seems like a moment of blasphemy, of an offence, of an artist transgressing what is familiar and pious and precious to a believing person, into a situation that seems horrendously offensive.
One of the issues we face as contemporary human beings, is that we live in the age of AIDS, and other diseases which are passed on by human body fluids, and so here is a crucifix placed in body fluids. So the artist – who describes himself as a faithful Catholic, and grew up in a family that was very pious – is actually making a theological connection in this work, about the very humanity of Jesus, and blood, and death, and what it is to suffer.
And what I like about it is that it reminds me that as a religious person I become very familiar with my symbols; I anaesthetise them, I dust them, I make them into gold and precious ornaments, and they become something safe on my shelf. And he reminds me that Jesus actually died and bled and suffered, and that this is offensive and grotesque and difficult. And that that’s a part of what it is to be human. So in the very offence that arises for particularly people of faith, in Serano’s images I think, is an opportunity to revisit the fundamental shock of the crucifixion, and the meaning of Jesus’ death and life.
Andrew Hudgins, in his (pungent and overstated) poem, Andres Serrano, 1987, echoes Pattenden’s claim that it’s in the naming of this photograph that we ‘recoil’, but that it’s not only in the naming:
If we did not know it was cow’s blood and urine,
if we did not know that Serrano had for weeks
hoarded his urine in a plastic vat,
if we did not know the cross was gimcrack plastic,
we would assume it was too beautiful.
We would assume it was the resurrection,
glory, Christ transformed to light by light
because the blood and urine burn like a halo,
and light, as always, light makes it beautiful.
We are born between the urine and the feces,
Augustine says, and so was Christ, if there was a Christ,
skidding into this world as we do
on a tide of blood and urine. Blood, feces, urine—
what the fallen world is made of, and what we make.
He peed, ejaculated, shat, wept, bled—
bled under Pontius Pilate, and I assume
the mutilated god, the criminal,
humiliated god, voided himself
on the cross and the blood and urine smeared his legs
and he ascended bodily unto heaven,
and on the third day he rose into glory, which
is what we see here, the Piss Christ in glowing blood:
the whole irreducible point of the faith,
God thrown in human waste, submerged and shining.
We have grown used to beauty without horror.
We have grown used to useless beauty.