WASHINGTON – On January 6, 2022, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi invited Lin-Manuel Miranda and other actors from Hamilton address an assembly of members of Congress in a House committee room. On Zoom, the troupe performed a number of the Broadway musical, a ballad sung by Aaron Burr – a theme suited to the occasion, given Burr’s place in history, if a surprisingly benign move by the Democrats. from the room.
Art was otherwise mainly absent from the proceedings to commemorate the first anniversary of the attack on the United States Capitol. There was no address by poet Amanda Gorman, no Smithsonian exhibit, no Capitol exhibit of artifacts that are, anyway, likely related to pending lawsuits.
Thus, the artist Andres Serrano took on the task. Insurrection, a new 75-minute film – the artist’s very first – debuted on January 6 at the Source Theater. A collage of found images of the attack and other scenes from U.S. history, Insurrection is an effort to anchor the deadly chaos of the day in a reshuffle of American culture. No one will call it too sweet.
Like “Piss Christ”, (1987) the artist’s most famous work, Insurrection is shocking. The film ends on a note as disturbing as it is imperceptible. Yet unlike his earlier work, Serrano’s Trump film appears to be less creative and more responsive, if not reactionary.
Serrano is known for his forays into controversy: “Piss Christ,” his photograph of a crucifix submerged in urine, served as Exhibit A in the conservative-right’s pursuit of the culture wars of the 1990s. was intentionally provocative, it was also a deliberate and defensible contemplation on the mortification of the body in Christianity. The conflict of this era seems almost cordial in hindsight, given the bloody melee Serrano now fits into. Insurrection was produced by London-based group a / Policy and presented in collaboration with CulturalDC, a non-profit organization that has supported political projects such as ‘Ivanka Vacuuming’ by Jennifer Rubell (2019).
There are two frameworks for Insurrection, two cinematic storytelling modes that don’t clash with each other, but never freeze either. The film is in part an epistolary documentary, using shaky smartphone footage of the riot as well as clips from films from the Great Depression, civil rights protests and other moments of great significance. Insurrection is also billed as a production by former President Donald Trump, based on Thomas Dixon Jr.’s 1905 racist novel, The Clansman: A Historical Novel of the Ku Klux Klan. The grainy black-and-white title boxes evoke the golden age of silent film, but otherwise that meta-fictional vanity is going nowhere.
From the start, we don’t know what kind of movie Insurrection want to be. The first chapter swings between American scenes of dancing flappers, Juggalos, Malcolm X, young Don Trump, Mardi Gras and dozens of other images to suggest a long century of socio-political flows. This collage ends with a long sequence of a Russian cosmonaut doing Michael Jackson’s moonwalk. The visual critique of the Cold War is unmistakably in a boomer tone. The scene almost calls for a line from Dire Straits: “Money for nothing, girls for free”.
From that point on, however, the film deploys news and found footage to set the stage for the attack. There is a scene from a Trump rally in Pensacola, Florida in which three young girls perform a syrupy song and dance number to lyrics denouncing the enemies of freedom. “The Battle of the Republic Anthem,” as shouted by an impromptu choir that gathered for the Stop the Steal rally in DC, loops to nausea on a video of Trump supporters. A menacing synthesizer crescendo builds itself before abruptly cutting off Lee Greenwood’s “Proud To Be an American” – an ironic preface for shame to come.
The following is the gist of Insurrection: sequences exclusively gleaned on the grounds of the Capitol on January 6. Serrano puts the scenes together roughly chronologically, ranging from storming barriers to bloody battles from the hallways to scenes of insurrectionists lazily wandering the Capitol building. Many viewers will be intimately familiar with specific images from news footage and Congressional hearings, such as the moment Metropolitan Police Department officer Daniel Hodges was crushed by bodies pressing against an executive revolving door.
But many viewers may not even be aware of the existence of footage showing the death of Ashli Babbitt, an Air Force veteran who was killed by a Capitol Hill police officer, one of the seven people to die in the attack or its aftermath. Insurrection culminates with Babbitt’s death: Serrano includes a long segment that captures the moment she was shot as well as another scene, broadcast live by MSNBC that day, which shows emergency personnel performing CPR on Babbitt as they remove his body from the Capitol.
For reasons of taste and discernment, these gruesome images are not part of the larger January 6 visual gestalt. But Serrano elevated those images, for a devastating but confusing twist. It’s a dissenting note in closing, given the sustained efforts by Trump and his supporters to martyr Babbitt and endanger the officer who defended members of Congress from attackers. Serrano’s decision to include this explicit sequence confuses the entire document. Perhaps it was done in the service of the artifactual vanity that Insurrection is a production of Trump: the president’s signature appears on title cards.
If Serrano’s sensationalism is ultimately co-Pacific with Trump, this wouldn’t be the first time. For a 2019 exhibition, The game, Serrano showed an extensive collection of Trump memorabilia. The ironic but indulgent show centered on a rather adorable 2004 photographic portrait of Trump taken – of course – by Serrano.
It’s hard to watch Insurrection. Gruesome imagery aside, it’s embarrassing to see the artist keep trying to outdo the former president, in this case using a narrative Trump might find useful. Insurrection is a brutal effort by an artist to find sensational advantage in a national tragedy. Shocking, perhaps, but not for the reasons Serrano intended.
Insurrection, directed by Andres Serrano, is presented at the Source Theater of CulturalDC (Washington DC) from January 13 to 15.
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