All photos from The Station Museum of Contemporary Art website. Torture by Andres Serrano is on display through October 8th. Admission is free.
From the outside, the Station doesn’t call to you, it doesn’t welcome you—it stands there and it waits.
And when it’s done waiting, inside it’s almost just like any other gallery; light, polished wood and white walls, bouncing spotlights and the echoes of words spoken inside off of each other. But these walls move, because this space is about the art, first and foremost, and so with every new exhibit they are torn down and rebuilt to accommodate the incoming work. And so, it is also different from any gallery you’ve ever seen.
1502, on the Corner of Alabama and La Branch. This is the Station Museum of Contemporary Art.
It stands as a small warehouse in Houston’s Third Ward, where the roads are at least three different colors of repaved asphalt, and the number of wires crossing from post to post above them feels a little claustrophobic. It’s the kind of place where it feels like the sky should always be gray, because anything else just wouldn’t make sense. Just like the wire metal mosque and worn out billboard in front of it don’t really make sense, at first. But it is all there—inside and outside its walls—for a reason, and every piece of art has something to say.
Currently these walls hold Torture, a controversial photography exhibit by Andres Serrano, in which a combination of staged photographs, portraits, and still life shots displayed in massive prints reveal to us a dark and convoluted narrative of torture in the modern world. It is, by no accident, a political, active, and incendiary work.
As told in the exhibit’s introductory literature, Torture was born in the walls of The Foundry, an obscure experimental space in a commune of southwest France. To produce his staged images, Serrano hired models who allowed him to submit them to shackling, humiliation, and “degrading positions” with the help of military personnel, thus blurring the line between staging and reality, asking How much is too much?
And there is a whole other level of contextualization to this narrative—a powerful statement in the inclusion of images of real torture survivors, historical torture sites, and portraits of political figures with links to torture controversies. Indeed, like Serrano himself, the Station Museum is no stranger to controversy. It is not their goal to seek it out, but they will not run anywhere but towards their pursuit of creative and expressive freedom. Their mission is indicative of this, undoubtedly proud:
“The Station Museum upholds the rights of freedom of speech and freedom of expression. The museum is an activist institution supporting civil society issues as well as artists who engage in social, political, aesthetic, economic, and/or spiritual content and expressions.”
Serrano’s Torture arguably occupies all of these adjectives. To see his work is to feel and to think somewhere dark—to find discomfort in something beautiful, so that we walk through it and around it, and most importantly, so that we cannot ignore it.
Wandering through the exhibit on a class field trip a few weeks ago, I felt the overwhelming presence of a narrative that needed to be told, and was able to do exactly that inside of those frames and on those walls. My body and the bodies of these photographs shared the same space, and, maybe only by some long stretch of my imagination, I felt that my body and the bodies of the individual people suspended in those photographs shared the same space.We shared stories without words, and they told me something I didn’t know before.
And so I think there is something to be said for space, for how Torture’s current residence in The Station Museum is a marriage of art and place united towards a common goal. Just as much as the space means nothing without the art, the art is arguably nothing without its walls. Whether it is in this place or another a thousand miles away, the art does not, in the end, exist to its full extent without this physicality. Without a place to hold the viewer, there cannot be a viewer, and without them, does anyone ever hear what the artist is saying?
I can’t help but think back to our own art community at Rice, and about how our lack of student art spaces is nothing short of an insult. It is another voice, an administrative one that says, Your art will not exist because we do not want to hear it. But we, the students, do. And we will. Just like at the Station Museum, there are places—places hidden from view, that need us to find them—where the walls are shifting and ready to be filled. These conversations are just beginning.
For now, I find comfort in this: there are places out there that don’t sell themselves to us, but that does not mean we cannot find them. Spaces where narratives are unfolding at a million miles per hour—where art is coming into contact with the world outside, kicking and screaming. Where it comes into contact with you, to kick and scream at you until you hear what it has to say. Where art and artist and viewer share a space and say We want to feel, and talk, and think about this, whatever this is. Where we are not passive.
These spaces are close to you. Find them. Make them.
Written by Ana Paula P.