Andres Serrano’s Cuban Odyssey: The Creator of ‘Piss Christ’ Embarks on a Quest to Photograph Fidel Castro
Andres Serrano is perhaps best known for peeing on Jesus Christ, or rather submerging a plastic crucifix figurine in his own urine and photographing it. His 1987 work Piss Christtouched off one of the most famous controversies in contemporary art history. Christians were outraged at his blasphemy in the name of creativity—and the fact that the government had given him a National Endowment for the Arts grant for his work, including Piss Christ—which resulted in death threats and protests. Even today, the piece causes outrage whenever it is exhibited and is frequently the target of vandalism. Of course, Andres has made a lot of art since then, including images that have been used as album covers for Metallica, but it is his earlier work that is mostly taught in college art courses the world over.
We had no idea what Andres was up to until last summer when we got a call from Dahlia Heyman, a producer with whom we are working on a feature film. She asked if we’d be interested in accompanying Andres on a three-week trip to Cuba as he attempted to photograph the normally reclusive Fidel Castro. He was planning to leave in three days, Dahlia said, but we agreed before she could even finish her pitch.
The following day, we met Andres in his West Village home, which is decorated like a Gothic cathedral, complete with pews and a collection of taxidermied cats and bats. We were as giddy as schoolgirls when he used us as models for lighting setups that he was planning for portraits in Cuba. We were less enthused when, a few days later, we found ourselves carrying cameras through crowded Havana streets in 105-degree weather, wishing desperately for a sip of water. The trip had us piling into the backs of 1950s Chevrolets and rickshaws, venturing into morgues, underground gay bars, and reggaeton concerts. Alas, Andres did not end up shooting El Comandante himself, but he did manage to document what seemed like the entire country in a few weeks. We followed him into the homes of Cubans of all social classes—including some members of the Castro family.
Andres Serrano has come a long way from submerging a crucifix in his own urine. We followed the controversial artist around Cuba as he created a new body of work, photographing the country’s influential figures, political leaders, the poor, the rich, and the dead.
Why Is There a Photo of Robert Pattinson in the Cuban Revolution Museum?
While I was in Havana recently, I paid a visit to El Museo de la Revolución. The Cuban Revolution Museum, housed in the former presidential palace, is still pockmarked with numerous bullet holes and packed with propaganda lauding Castro’s Communist regime. Most of what’s on view is the kind of thing you’d expect to find in a communist revolution museum. There are framed photos of brow-beaten serfs and bearded mountain rebels. There are a number of hagiographic amateur Che Guevara waxworks. There is a “corner of cretins,” depicting George Bush as some kind of donkey-Nazi hybrid.
However, upon reaching the last room, I saw something that you might not expect to spot in an exhibition of all things anticapitalist. Surrounded by black and white photos of Castro and other revolutionary types—plus dozens of weapons from the uprising—there hung a large picture ofTwilight star and teenage-girl-exciter Robert Pattinson.
The photo shows R-Patz in a black beanie, T-shirt, jeans, and jacket, apparently strolling through the same room I was standing in. However, it’s clearly been photoshopped (a search of “Robert Pattinson black beanie" brings up the exact same image, only he’s in LA, not Cuba) and the text surrounding it makes no mention of the actor ever visiting the museum.
Which raises the question: Why is there a picture of this Hollywood A-lister, representing all that is beguiling and vapid about capitalist America, on a poster hanging in the shrine to all things Cuban and communist?
In Cuba, Tattoo Artists Make More than Doctors and Lawyers
This year, a 52-year-old politician named Miguel Diaz-Canel was appointed vice president of the ruling Council of State in Cuba, making him a likely future leader of the country. Some Cubans hope he will lead their country into a new era. One reason: while he was governor of Villa Clara province, he sponsored a tattoo festival.
Today, when Cuban Americans journey back to their native country for visits, they frequently come bearing gifts for friends and family, ranging from sunglasses to flat-screen televisions. Che Alejandro wants something else: tattoo magazines, ink, and needles. “Right now there are only a few people bringing tattoo supplies to us,” Che Alejandro, who is known as the godfather of the Cuban tattoo scene, told me. “You can’t get a license to import them, so they have to bring little things in luggage and sell them to you. Many times it’s not the best quality.”
All the equipment tattoo artists need is either illegal or unavailable in Cuba. Autoclaves, which sterilize tattoo needles, are banned. This has forced tattoo artists to improvise. They fashion makeshift machines from baskets, medical supplies, and pressure cookers. Being a tattoo artist in Cuba is hard. But it makes Che feel that he is expanding space for personal expression in a country where individuality has long been frowned upon. Tattoo supplies are hard to find, so Che has innovated. He draws designs from his skateboard and comic books. He makes his own needles, and when working to complete a larger, more intricate tattoo, he offers big discounts to customers.
“We are going too slow,” he said, assessing the pace of change in Cuba. “We need to step up. People die waiting for freedom.”
"But before we dump his collected writings into the marina with which he is so often confused, bidding good riddance to once-sacred rubbish and forget about Hemingway altogether, let’s remember that Hemingway left a sizeable chunk of his fortune to his many cats and their successive offspring, who still enjoy a life of feline luxury in Florida. So Papa wasn’t all bad after all. Meow!"
—Gary Indiana is not a fan of Hemingway (nor Fitzgerald, nor Bukowski).
PS Gary Indiana is now writing for VICE!