Torture and silence: A shattering exhibit of photos by Andres Serrano confronts what we don't talk about

Photographer made famous years ago for "Piss Christ" confronts empty spaces, ambiguous bodies and the unsayable

By Anis Shivani

Published August 27, 2017 8:00AM (EDT)

In this autumn of anger, even a liberal can find his thoughts turning to … torture. OK, not cattle prods or rubber hoses, at least not here in the United States, but something to jump-start the stalled investigation of the greatest crime in American history. ... We can’t legalize physical torture; it’s contrary to American values. But even as we continue to speak out against human-rights abuses around the world, we need to keep an open mind about certain measures to fight terrorism, like court-sanctioned psychological interrogation. And we’ll have to think about transferring some suspects to our less squeamish allies, even if that’s hypocritical. Nobody said this was going to be pretty. — Jonathan Alter, Newsweek, Nov. 4, 2001

Would I approve waterboarding? You bet your ass I’d approve it, you bet your ass. In a heartbeat. In a heartbeat. And I would approve more than that. And don’t kid yourselves, folks, it works, okay. It works. Only a stupid person would say it doesn’t work. It works. — Donald Trump, Jan. 26, 2017

Andres Serrano is a prominent American artist who gained notoriety with “Piss Christ” (1987), and has also been noted for his series “The Klan,” “The Morgue,” and “Shit.” His photographic exhibit “Torture” — at Houston’s Station Museum of Contemporary Art, arguably the region’s finest radical/anti-capitalist/human rights-oriented gallery space, which recently hosted the incredible exhibit “Corpocracy” — interrogates the complicity of the liberal subject in human rights violations that go on “in our name,” though we may not like to admit this reality.


Actually, I was quite worried about what I would encounter, because an online search showed rather dismissive criticism of Serrano’s work in this line. Critics thought he was too cold, too emotionally distant from his subject matter. I found this vein of criticism absurd. Instead, what I discovered was that Serrano, through a technique of endlessly ambiguous identification, puts us squarely where he wants to: the viewer as (potential) criminal, the viewer unable to take his sight away from the disgusting spectacle, the viewer questioning his own position in the constant generation of “torture porn,” the very fuel of capitalism’s imagined opposite of torture, i.e., domestic bliss and containment.

In Serrano’s work, as I will explain below, the pain of the human body undergoing torture is not something to be lamented or to be made the subject of social tragedy, but an existential reality that has been the mirror image of civilization and its public rites from the beginning, the hidden bliss (or anti-bliss) without which civilization is not imaginable. “Torture” seems to want to argue that not only are we, the liberal American or Western citizens trained in the rites of democracy, authorizers of this thing we call torture, but that we don’t understand — or refuse to understand — the first thing about it.

Torture, first of all, is incomprehensible. Let’s get that out of the way, as indeed I think Serrano does. We must not speak of it if we are to deprive it of its power. We must not speak of it because it cannot be. This is the paradox of the image below (“Fatima,” a Darfurian/Sudanese refugee), where the woman covers her face, yet from the observer’s point of view is in no discernible pain. Her hands vaguely imitate a supplication, while not looking at us. It is curious not to be able to look at the one who asks assistance of us, because to make “eye contact” is an essential part of democratic give-and-take. (Can we, at this late date, protect Fatima’s identity, or of all those who have been tortured?) Her eyes are half-covered; just a little slip and they would be exposed. There are no obvious scars on this body, which looks healthy and sturdy. The hands are big and the forehead strong. So how does this let us imagine torture? Fatima seems not in need of anything, even as she is positioned in an exhibit on torture.



In the triptych above, there is a continuation of the silent, half-blindfolded woman. By now, the absence of aural cues should have hit the spectator, and along with that there should be a growing mystery, or doubt, about the visual content of this “exhibit” on torture as well. We are already at a “comfortable” remove from the essential unknowability of torture, and at first glance it would appear that Serrano is in no hurry to make it knowable; after all, he is imaginatively revisiting sites that have long been abandoned as torture grounds, such as the British detention centers where members of the Irish Republican Army were tortured, or Eastern European torture facilities, which have become as quaint as Stasi files.

“News” about torture hits us from time to time, as with the revelations about Abu Ghraib (review again the 2006 Salon cache of follow-up Abu Ghraib pictures), which went along with revelations about torture in Afghanistan, at Bagram air base and Kandahar, all of it feeding into the documented abuses at Guantánamo Bay, which torture facility President Obama failed, in the end, to close. It is still there, waiting to be activated. We act surprised each time, though our history of torture is continuous with our entire history of empire. It remains enshrined in the CIA’s landmark 1960s KUBARK manual. It is continuous with our history of pervasive support for authoritarian regimes bent on torture in Latin America, Africa and Asia. We act surprised about torture, though our prison system embodies various forms of torture — such as prolonged solitary confinement — and the torture regime has recently been extended to immigrants.

The first photograph on the left in the triptych above makes us realize that torture is always confounding; it comes in a sturdy, moldy, dank shape that won’t go away. It is a body in bulk, the lump that is the antithesis of the shapely, curvaceous, gorgeous human body we seek to sculpt with every ounce of our energy during our voluntary capitalist self-discipline. It is a mask, an unshapely sack behind which the contours of the human body are invisible, because torture comes from the spirit that seeks to hide the human body when it is no longer desired, when it is the “other” — dehumanized, beyond sympathy or compassion, as are Muslim and Arab “terrorists” and so-called “criminal aliens” today, as were African-Americans standing up for their rights in the South — whom we imagine as a formless hunk that we can cover up and hide. We civilized people can be offended by the Muslim woman covering herself in a burqa on the streets, but we are pleased to authorize such a cover-up when the body that is being tortured is one that we have formally excluded from humanity.

But as the next image shows, this particular narrative about torture is a lie, isn’t it?


Despite Serrano’s imaginative recreations, does torture really, and mostly, take place in underground caverns — dark, unilluminated, with a palpable sense of medieval activism, or the present acting as archival history? What about the “black sites” whose existence was acknowledged during the Bush administration, and which were not really resolved by the Obama administration, so that we may presume their continuation in some form or other, in some parts of the world? Does calling them “black sites” remove them from our consciousness? Are we no longer obliged to think of them? If and when the courageous among us do think of them, do we imagine the damp dungeons of misery Serrano depicts: cement, iron, a beige rust enveloping the life forms and the instruments and locations of torture alike? Why is torture limited in our imagination to such absolutely “other” spaces, which frighten us for their very existence -- Room 101 in Orwell's "1984," for example, where the worst fears of the tortured materialize, rats in Winston Smith’s case.

In this image of the hooded figure, torture articulates its own symmetrical rationality: It becomes a ceremonial elaboration whereby power exerts itself for power’s sake.


Again, the tortured is not allowed to see, by way of the hood, the face of the torturer: We presume that the tortured can only blame humanity in general for the injustice that cannot be put into words. We presume that the tortured has lost touch with his own humanity (what is known as the dislocation of senses and perceptions, which makes the tortured yield the necessary “information” that will satisfy the torturers). We presume that this yielding of one’s humanity has been crafted in ritual, in ceremony and protocol, so that it becomes a work of art, the human body as the pinnacle of aesthetics in the midst of the ultimate pain, our finest civilizational accomplishment. It corresponds with Christ’s body in pain. Prolonged standing, though the Bush-era torture memos famously sought to exclude it from the definition of torture (Donald Rumsfeld famously said, “I stand for 8 to 10 hours a day. Why is standing limited to four hours?”), is an exquisite form of torture. Any human function, prolonged beyond natural capacities, turns into torture. Not sleeping, standing or sitting in one position, listening to noise, all of it easily becomes torture, without leaving visible marks — except the death of one’s humanity, that is, which is the whole point.

As I said, regimes like our own, and all torturing states, exert power for its own sake. Those who were hauled in, often randomly, from Afghanistan and other places and ended up at Guantánamo Bay were by no means the most dangerous few hundred people on earth. Often they were the victims of jealous informants eager for reward money, or happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Their actual identity was irrelevant. Their “information,” months or years after the fact, about who was or was not escorting Osama bin Laden, was beyond worthless. Tortured, a person will say anything, which is another reflection of speechlessness; the point of torture is to make communication, the question-and-answer activity between two human beings, irrelevant. The tortured, as in the perfected image above, can only assume the posture that has been ordered, become a work of art in progress, listen, obey, yield his spirit to the torturer standing in for humanity as a whole.

It’s true that a form of generalized terror makes citizen compliance easier — as happened in numerous Central and South American countries, or in Eastern Europe, where one could always be next, hauled up before the torturers because of one slip of the tongue or incorrect remark — but that is not the point of torture, although it is certainly a more valid justification of torture than the one regimes usually give out, using the “ticking bomb” scenario, or other forms of urgency that justify the countervailing emergency of torture. In the following images, the instruments of torture do their quiet work, without the help of moral philosophy or situational ethics.


Torture works incrementally, escalating normal functions until they become unbearable. It works on parts of the body, typically not all of it at once. Waterboarding, enchainment and hooding isolate the respiratory and other bodily functions, focus on them in isolation, to make the tortured realize the utter fragility of that particular function to the point where all its sanctity its lost. The state, the usual torturing entity — lynching for example, is better considered as mob violence, not part of the organized, bureaucratic, rationalized process of torture — gains legitimacy by its exclusive power to torture.

The United States only ratified the global torture conventions in 1994 after severely diluting some of the main clauses, restricting the definition of torture to the point where domestic, ongoing torture in federal prisons, or in the pursuit of international terrorists, would be excluded because the criterion of the intentional infliction of pain for its own sake would immunize torturers. This preserves America’s moral sanctity, always being able to say that we do not torture, though there has been no break in the desire to torture since our earliest days. Police forces, until not long ago in this country, regularly administered the “third degree” to prisoners, the very innocuousness and ambiguity of the term hiding the harsh reality of torture.

In the wake of the war on terror, Alan Dershowitz (who called for “torture warrants”), Judge Richard Posner, and the communitarian Michael Walzer have all sought for clarification of situations in which torture might be permissible. Such reasoning occurs only at the level of high abstraction. Serrano’s images refute such dialectics, because torture is not actually a generalized defense of values (as Dershowitz, Posner, Walzer, et al. would hold it), it is an acutely localized assault on being itself.


Consider, in the above instance where we are invited to ponder the before, during, and after of torture, the general inertness, which reflects our moral inertness toward the issue of torture. We cannot process it with our normal thinking abilities, so we treat it as silent, as I said earlier, but also inert — something this image captures perfectly.

It is a body presented for our “viewing pleasure,” because, after all, have we not authorized the torturers who must surely have felt pleasure in the aftermath? Or if they didn’t feel pleasure, if they felt pain to the point of identification with the tortured, then how could torture continue? Again, the body in this image is strong, beautiful, well-toned, muscular, seemingly beyond pain: inert. Is this how we view the tortured? Is this how the torturer views the tortured? As an object of aesthetic pleasure, the human body at its most resilient? The object of torture is to break, break, break — the human psyche, the content of privacy, one’s very soul — but Serrano presents tortured beings who do not seem broken. Why?


Similarly, with the image of the man with his hands tied behind his back, there seems to be an inertial moment of infinite pause. What could he possibly be waiting for? Are we at last seeing (or half-seeing) torture in process? Is a lash about to hit the man, is he anticipating what is to happen to him? The spirit does not seem to have gone out of him. Why?


Consider, too, the image of the man with red marks over his hood, half-standing, half-sitting: He too is unbroken, he is intact, he is strong and perhaps ready to move on.


Finally, with the image of the naked man turned away from us, with a dog perhaps about to lick his anus, we get the same static state, as this particular image cannot be placed as occurring before, during or after torture. The unnameable that needs to happen seems not to want to happen. This image makes us doubt all the others we have seen before, and we realize that they all have this quality of being impossible, as things that cannot possibly be. The dog is restrained, but does not need to be restrained. The human has turned away in what we can presume is shame, but is probably not. Nothing about the discourse of torture is as it seems to us from the outside, yet there is no inside to go to.


But, again, what about the rooms and facilities of torture? We do have identified locations where we inflict this pain, don’t we? Consider the long desk in the examination room, where presumably the tortured has had to answer both before and after the torture, has had to explain his ultimate reality in the way that even the greatest artists and metaphysicians are not compelled to, yielding the absolute “truth” about themselves. The door to the dungeon is half-open, immobilized; it is difficult to view this as a doorway through which people go in and out. Perhaps there is an actual dungeon—as in the image below? Is that what the half-open door leads to? The half-open doors of the individual cells again invoke immobility. There are no prisoners, no wardens, no observers, no spies, no informants, no do-gooders in these facilities: they seem permanently empty, like places we knew about but have forgotten. We cannot possibly imagine these places full of people walking in and out, from government functionaries to clandestine figures without name and title.


Torture, in the end, is merely the extreme form of normal pain exerted by one human being upon another; it is only its most formalized and rationalized manifestation, as in the examination/interrogation room, or the dungeon or cage, or ropes and chains, or silence and darkness and immobility. The Canadian citizen Maher Arar, one of the war on terror’s well-known early torture victims, was seized by Americans at JFK airport and taken to Syria, in what is euphemistically called “extraordinary rendition,” there to spend 10 months in an underground prison which he called “the grave.” Do the following images, with the interrogation room and the cell with the bed spilling over with blood, at last make an advance toward the discussability of torture? Can we at last speak of torture?


I hardly think so, because the examination chamber is clearly from the 1950s, or some such time period. It has an aura of the last great wars around it, of a totalitarianism impoverished in spirit and not beautiful at all, like the ramshackle cars and appliances that system used to produce, bereft of any beauty. There may be blood on the bed, a body may just have died, but we are not privy to viewing who it happened to and why. There aren’t any files or paperwork on the desk in the examination chamber, just an ominous old telephone. But the telephone may not be a link to the outside world, it may only be used to give and take orders within the torture chambers, within that enclosed world. Perhaps the phone never rings and can’t possibly ring.


Finally, among the images I have selected from this exhibit, I want to note that of John Kiriakou, who was chief of counterterrorism operations in Pakistan in the immediate onset of the war on terror, and who got in trouble later in the decade with his revelations of waterboarding and other human rights violations. The torture prohibition is absolute, and has always been so throughout human history, despite its continuous practice. I think with the inclusion of Kiriakou, Serrano intends us to think about the various levels of distance between the tortured and the torturers.

What is the status of Kiriakou, a whistleblower — that is, one who spoke on behalf of eliminating torture and paid the ultimate price for it by being imprisoned by the U.S. government and facing its wrath — in this matrix of projections? Where does he stand between the tortured (who are still being tortured, in American prisons, in black sites, and in the torture chambers of our “allies” around the world) and the torturers? Was he one of those who opened the floodgates to perception? Did he make it more possible for us to talk about torture? By doing so, did he make torture more possible or less possible?

The problem many people have had with the acknowledgment of the existence of torture is they think it would make it more likely. Thus the anger at Dershowitz’s call for torture warrants, or the admission of certain moral philosophers that there can be times when torture is necessary. It is easier, as George W. Bush and Barack Obama did in more or less equal measure, to deny that we torture, or that torture is systemic, or even that it exists. Serrano’s exhibit is so emotionally powerful because it breaks this silence by focusing on nothing but the silence. Torture is a problem that will not go away as long as we are constituted the way we are. There is no moral way to approach the problem, no utilitarian or idealistic calculus, no way to extract it from the problem of power.

We have repeated the word “torture” so often throughout history — and stridently since 2001 — that it has become common usage, like democracy or liberty, or freedom, and has taken its place amongst that roster of words, each equally lost to meaning. We actually talk about torture, whether or not to do it, whether or not it works, what are its costs and benefits, how we should go about doing it or outlawing it, what is its impact on the tortured, how does it effect the torturers, what is its history, where does it come from, why it won’t go away. To talk about something is to take away its sting, its reality, especially when it’s included in a phalanx of concepts that we feel comfortable talking about.

No one feels comfortable talking about torture, that is its essence; hence to depict it any form — as Orwell does in "1984," or as the leaked Abu Ghraib pictures did in 2004 — is to invite the very human response of immediately trying to put it in context, within the reference points of war and democracy, of those who authorized and performed it, and to start making separations between good and evil, the tortured and the torturers, civilization and its others. Serrano’s “Torture,” by its silence, shows that any such calculus cannot hold.

The exhibit is open until Oct. 8. Visit the Station if you’re in Houston, and support it if you can, as one of the few galleries in the region that consistently challenges power in ways that make us uncomfortable, in a necessary way. And check out Serrano’s “Morgue” series in particular; more of “Torture” at Serrano’s website is here, and here are the rest of the “Torture” images at the Station’s website.


Anis Shivani

Anis Shivani's recent political books include "Why Did Trump Win?", "Confronting American Fascism" and ""A Radical Human Rights Approach to the Immigration 'Problem.'" His novel "A History of the Cat in Nine Chapters or Less" comes out in October. 

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