Andres Serrano: 'I'm always happy when people are positive about the work'

Andres Serrano: '! expect the unexpected, but I'm always happy when people are positive about the work'

Courtesy of the artist

New York-born photographer discusses his Torture exhibition, currently at Stills

'I'm interested in things that can be summed up in one word,' says Andres Serrano, in Edinburgh for the arrival of part of his photographic series Torture at the Stills Gallery. 'Death. Life. Sex. Religion. Race. Poverty. And torture is certainly one of those things.' The works were commissioned in 2015 by London-based non-profit organisation a/political. 'I had done this work about torture in 2005, a commissioned piece for the New York Times magazine; the Abu Ghraib story had just come out, so they asked me to do a few images with that theme in mind, and I did a hooded man for the cover.

'I never developed this as a body of work until I met Andrei Tretyakov, who is a collector who lives in London,' the New York-born photographer continues. 'His organisation a/political approached me and asked me if I wanted support with any particular project, and knowing that they like to fund and collaborate with artists working with social, political and apolitical views, I asked Andrei if he would be agreeable to having me embark on Torture as a project that I could do for him, with his help.'

Serrano spent three months in 2015 travelling Europe, inspecting the collection of medieval torture instruments at Hever Castle in Kent (some of the devices form part of his photographic series here) and touring concentration camps and former Stasi prisons in France, Germany and the Netherlands. The heart of the work is the most controversial part; a photographic session with 'models' posing as torture victims, made at a/political's Foundry studio, a former ironworks in Maubourget, France.

He personally directed these sessions himself. 'For me, I had to roleplay as the torturer,' says Serrano. 'It's easy to torture people once you have power over them, and that's how I felt as the artist and as the torturer, that people were helpless. I mean, these were actors or models, they chose to perform in that sense; but also, when you're the victim you want to stop the torture, so you do whatever you can to appease your torturers so they lighten up on you.'

The images which appear on the walls of Stills are some of the lighter ones (although it's all relative, in this context), with naked males hooded and in stress positions, and an eerie close-up of the fool's mask at Hever. The accompanying publication is more troubling, bearing images of simulated agony and characters covered in (presumably) fake blood; and the glossy, reverentially large manner of their display is part of what troubles, with a dichotomy emerging between the reverence paid to the victims of torture but also the examination of power relationships both on a high-level photo shoot and in the torture chamber.

'Absolutely it's performance art, but a lot of my work is real and not real at the same time,' says Serrano. 'When I went into the morgue and I photographed dead people, they're real dead people, but I put them in a tableau setting, a void so to speak, with a backdrop. When I photographed the KKK, they were real Klanspeople, but because there was a black backdrop, again they were like studio portraits. I've done the same with homeless people; when I first photographed homeless people in the subways late at night in 1990, again there's a backdrop there so they're studio portraits. In that sense it's almost like being a postmodern artist in that you create an artificial environment or reality.

'I always say that, even though I'm an artist, I have one foot in and one foot out of the art world. And so I like to do work that explores subjects that have an art world reference, but they can also be understood by people outside of it, people who know nothing about art. So my best work, I think, is populist in that sense; in that you don't have to know much about art to understand the work.'

These days, however, 'populist' is a dirty word, and Serrano – whom Donald Trump has sat for in the past – has drawn criticism. Not just from the religious right, who protested the display of his 1987 work 'Piss Christ' (a plastic crucifix photographed in a tank of the artist's urine) and placed him at the forefront of the era's culture wars, but also on the other side of the aisle, where claims are made that photographing homeless people in such a manner as he did in his Nomads series is exploitative, for example. The subject matter he chooses, and the frequent use of his own body fluids, has given Serrano an outlaw reputation befitting someone who has created album covers for Metallica, yet in person he is polite and softly spoken, and reminds more than a little of David Lynch.

'I never know what to expect,' he says of the critical response to his work. 'I expect the unexpected, but I'm always happy when people are positive about the work, when they like what they see or they have a reaction to it. You know, sometimes the work does things it's not intended to do, it's not intended to be controversial, but sometimes it is, for different reasons depending on the place and the time. I hope for a positive reaction, but I'm prepared for the worst.'

Many people question his 'who, me?' sense of surprise when unmistakeably provocative work is picked up on in the media. 'Well, when I did 'Piss Christ' I was a completely unknown artist, so I didn't expect it to have the reaction that it did,' he says, referring to the most famous example. He smiles. 'I'm not being controversial, I'm just being myself, you know? I've always said that the most controversial thing I ever did was to be born.'

At the moment he's working on what he describes as a big project, and his suspicion is that this one might be controversial, because he's having trouble finding a venue willing to show it ('that's a sign to me that it's going to be a good show!' he says with a cheerful twinkle in his eye). Yet in the meantime, he's enjoying Scotland.

'I just want to say that being in Edinburgh, even for a few days, I can feel there's a gothic sensibility, a preoccupation with death, crypts, medievalness, you can even say alchemy,' he says. 'Magic. Black magic! All things I can relate to. At home we live with 15th, 16th, 17th century furniture, sculptures and artefacts… I'm an old soul, and I like being in an old city. I hope to come back to Edinburgh with a new project, with a retrospective of my work at the National Portrait Gallery, for example. I'd love to do that and shoot new work at the same time, because there's a lot of inspiration here.'

Andres Serrano: Torture is at the Stills Gallery, Edinburgh, until Sun 3 Mar.

Andres Serrano: Torture

Images of torture from the photographer, who photographed more than 40 subjects in humiliating and stressful positions based on documented cases of torture.