Controversial photographer Andres Serrano comes to Beijing

We chat to him ahead of his high-profile show

Known for his often controversial photography, Andres Serrano has earned high esteem from the art world and the public alike. In this, his first exhibition in China, Serrano presents photographs from across his three-decade career, from photos taken in morgues, to religious subjects, to undesirables – including a certain American president. An exhibition at Red Brick means trekking outside the Fifth Ring Road, but for this one, it’s a worthy trek.

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Do you like Beijing? What’s interesting about the city to you?
Everything in Beijing is interesting because it’s all new to me: the food, the buildings, the history, the people. I love the mixture of the old and the new, the workers and villagers on the road, the tourists and foreigners
on the streets. It’s a city that looks to the future as it displays its past. There’s a level of sophistication in Beijing that you see in the great cities of the world – the grace, humility and splendour of opulent cities.

One of the most interesting neighbourhoods that I went to was Shichahai. I like the old buildings and the lake among the hordes of people. There was a teahouse there that kept my tea waiting for me. I would go there just to sit by a window and see the lights glow at night. Another favourite spot of mine was Dashilan on a Saturday night. I love a city that buzzes with people, and Dashilan buzzes!

How has it been launching an exhibition and special project here in Beijing?
It’s been a great pleasure and honour working with the Red Brick Museum. It’s an amazing museum and I was very lucky to have such a magnificent venue for my first exhibition in China. The exhibition is a broad selection of my work featuring some of my most famous works, including Piss Christ. In addition to my older work, I’m showing some of the new work I did in Beijing in July.

Could you describe the project you have brought to Beijing?
It’s a work that deals with marriage, love, relationships, or the lack thereof, within the context of a traditional vernacular: the wedding dress and gowns of Chinese weddings. Seeking individuals, both married and unmarried, I photographed my models in a classical manner wearing the regalia of the past, which to this day is still used for weddings by many. Dressed in regal outfits, my models come from all walks of life, including professionals working in office buildings, as well as waiters, workers and street cleaners found on the streets. My subjects range in age from their twenties to their eighties, and offer a contemplation on love, youth, memory and loss.

Knowing you would be photographing and exhibiting in China, did you have to change your approach, since you often confront subjects that could face problems here?
I knew that I had a limited time to shoot: ten days. Therefore I had to plan on doing a body of work that I would be able to do in that time frame. That’s why I decided to focus on a Chinese tradition that appealed to me: the traditional Chinese wedding gown and dress. This form of dress is not costume. They are not cheap nor cheaply made. I knew that my models, whoever they might be, would look incredible wearing the clothes. I selected my models from the people I met and faces I saw. I looked everywhere for faces that I wanted to photograph, including Hegezhuang village. I choose my models carefully and when I photograph them I’m looking for their character and soul.

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Did you have much of a chance to get to know some of Beijing’s artists and other institutions? I know you’re also interested in music, did you check any of the live houses or clubs?
I visited the studios of Peter Lewis, Gao Bo and Qiu Zhijie. What impressed me the most is that everyone’s got a big studio. That’s what artists do here – they get big studios!

I stopped clubbing years ago, but my wife and I did visit two clubs in Beijing. One, a Russian nightclub called Chocolate, I went to out of curiosity, and the other, Destination, I went to looking for two models who I found. The one thing I want to say about working in Beijing is that if I had to do it again, I’d do it again!
By Tom Mouna

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