work:
Piss Christ
artist:
Andres Serrano
location:
The National Gallery of Victoria, Australia
date:
12 October 1997

The infamous Andres Serrano work Piss Christ - a photograph of a crucifix submerged in urine was attacked in two separate incidents on the consecutive days of the opening weekend. In a move almost as controversial as the work and the attacks themselves, the director of the gallery, Dr Timothy Potts subsequently closed the exhibition in order, he claimed to protect the safety of the gallery and its staff.

The first incident occurred when 51 year old John Allen Haywood took the photograph from the wall and kicked it. Haywood received a one month suspended jail term. After his court appearance he is quoted as saying "You can go so far with taking the piss, you understand....It riles me, it really gets me very upset."[1]  And when asked what he would say to the artist who's work he damaged, he eloquently replied "I wouldn't like to say nothing to him. I'd just like to punch him on the nose."[2]
Haywood's actions caused only slight damage to the photograph's framing.

The next day however, two teenagers, aged 18 and 16, were to have considerably more success in their endeavor. In an orchestrated attack it was reported one teenager acted as a decoy, kicking a print on the opposite wall which distracted the guards who rushed to subdue him while the other smashed Piss Christ about 8 times with a hammer. When the guards overpowered the perpetrator the hammer fell and struck a security guard on the knee.

A witness is quoted describing the event "Suddenly there was this bang. I looked around and there was this guy kicking one of the photographs, I think the Klu Klux Klan one . . . everyone's attention was to that and the security guard started to move in and suddenly we heard all these other noises, bangs. I thought it was a gun, and we all froze. Then I saw this person and I suddenly thought: `There is a person with a hammer bashing this picture' . . . people just froze, there was stunned silence."[3]
The exhibition was thereafter shortly closed.

It is interesting to note that the media reported the second attack as an attack on Piss Christ, while they fail even to mention the title of the other work (depicting a Ku Klux Klan member) that was kicked by the youth. Even though the youths stated that their actions were as a result of the racist and blasphemous nature of the exhibition. "I do not like racism, Putting them out in an art gallery like that creates racism and violence. The KKK could take over Australia."[4]  One of the perpetrators is reported as saying after describing how he "let loose a flying kick against a picture of the KU KLUX KLAN."[5]

The closure of the exhibition effectively awarded the attackers a victory in removing the work from public view and caused much debate about censorship and freedom of expression. Prior to the closure the Catholic Church (lead by Melbourne Archbishop George Pell who years later would be accused of covering up cases of sexual assault in the Church) unsuccessfully attempted to procure an injunction to stop the show going ahead on the basis that the work was blasphemous. The closure of the exhibition also preceded the axing of the Sensation exhibition which was to be held two years later at the National Gallery of Australia. Sensation contained Chris Ofili's The Holy Virgin Mary which was also perceived as blasphemous by some quarters and the subject of an attack.

[1] Vandal says he won't repent
MANIKA NAIDOO; The Age Melbourne Online, Tuesday 14 October 1997

[2]Ibid

[3]Serrano show axed
JANE FAULKNER; The Age Melbourne Online, Monday 13 October 1997

[4] ILLUMINATI-Zine!
Issue 3. November 97!-

[5] Ibid

The Andres Serrano Controversy
Rita Piteri

Art as a Useful Tool
Ron Brunton; Courier Mail, 25 October 1997