This new series of work, begun in Rome in 1995 and completed in Amsterdam in late 1996, explores the diversity of lifestyles and sexual practices of human beings. As in previous series by Serrano (Fluids, The Morgue, The Church, or Nomads), the artist is examining the larger issues of life: birth and death, bodily functions, social status, religion, ethnicity. In A History of Sex, Serrano sets out once again to put an aspect of human nature in stark relief.
The works are portraits, with an emphasis on individual character. Many of the titles bear the names of those who posed for the photographs, and in most works the subject or subjects look directly at the camera. This matter-of-fact stance of the subjects may seem in marked contrast to their actions. Perhaps this is because most sexual lives are conducted privately or perhaps because the issue of how sexual imagery and practice should be dealt with publicly is controversial and politicized.
Two of the individuals in A History of Sex were known to Serrano. All were chosen for their distinctiveness. Significantly, most of the subjects are not the buff-bodied, super-endowed humans of pornographic fare but ordinary people. Also portrayed are the elderly and those with unusual physical attributes (such as dwarfs and contortionists), types that are not often associated with sexuality. Foremost was the artist’s concern that their personality and disposition be conveyed in their countenance and would not be overshadowed by the highly charged imagery. Serrano further shifted the emphasis away from the merely obscene by taking the sexual acts from the expected arenas of practice to pastoral settings (for example, a meadow, the sea).
A History of Sex is just one history of sex not a definitive one. Serrano is not forcing us to accept a new context for sex, or to condone or reject certain behavior. Nor is he trying to titillate. While the topic of sexuality itself is charged, the images are not stylized in the manner of pornography; they do not have a seductive manner. The easy and direct access to the sexual nature and behavior of the individuals in A History of Sex demonstrates that they are unafraid to show their sexuality; they put it out there for all to see. The viewer is left to determine how to feel about it.
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