The US artist Andres Serrano has only voted twice in his life: for Barack Obama in 2008 and again in 2012. “I was very proud of my non-voting record, but I had to break it and vote for the first black president,” he says.
Now, on the eve of the high-stakes US election, Serrano tells The Art Newspaper he will cast a ballot for the Democrat candidate, Joe Biden, “otherwise I’ll be a pariah in the community”.
Not that you could discern Serrano’s voting intentions from his project The Game: All Things Trump, a panoptic portrait of the 45th US president created from Trumpian objects Serrano started to acquire in April 2018. That collection has now been turned into a book, printed on paper the same strident colour as Trump’s red “Make America Great Again” hat and published on 6 October, a month before voters head to the polls. And just days before its release, The New York Times published a revelatory report on Trump's tax returns, which suggest that the only part of his business empire to ever see any profits was his branding deals, and that his presidential run might have been mainly spurred by the need to revitalise his image for personal gain.
The book includes images of such Trump branded “classics”, as Serrano calls them: steaks, vodka, tea, even a deodorant called “Success by Trump”. There’s a Trump university diploma (“much discussed but rarely seen”), Miss America paraphernalia and a souvenir miniature cake from Trump’s 2005 wedding to Melania, purchased for $1,880 at an auction in Boston. The media’s role in exalting Trump’s sex life and business deals—even when they went bad—is a recurring theme throughout the book.
He’s whatever you want him to be; he’s your enemy or your friend, your devil or your saviour Andres Serrano
Far from disparaging Trump, however, the collection is more a reflection on why, for the past 40 years, the world has been so in thrall to the man. Serrano believes it boils down to Trump’s power to be all things to all people. “He’s whatever you want him to be; he’s your enemy or your friend, your devil or your saviour,” Serrano says. “He’s good and evil or maybe just good or evil. He’s the reason for your dreams or your despair. He’ll play whatever role you want him to. He can be the uncle who exhausts everyone at the table or he can be your Santa Claus.”
The collection, which now numbers more than 1,000 objects valued at around $200,000, was first exhibited in New York in April 2019, over two floors of a former nightclub complete with a mezzanine bar and blackjack table salvaged from the defunct Trump Plaza in Atlantic City. Liberals accused Serrano of “glorifying this monster” and “adding power to this awful man”, to which he responds: “What artist worries about how their work will be perceived? If the fires need feeding let’s put in some logs.”
The London-based organisation a/political, which is behind the show and the book, is now planning to present The Game in Washington, DC, to coincide with the election. Whether that means a full-blown exhibition, Serrano will not divulge, except to say: “It makes sense. ‘The chickens should come home to roost’.”
In terms of a permanent home, Serrano believes his project belongs in the Smithsonian, also in Washington. “My dream scenario is that it goes to the Smithsonian, the Presidential Library, the Museum of Natural History, or into the collection of someone who appreciates it,” he says.
For now, the collection continues to expand. Recent acquisitions include a limited-edition 24K gold “Build The Wall” collectable from the official White House gift shop, and Trump 2020 campaign straws, featured at the end of the book. The new purchases have prompted daily texts and emails from Trump’s sons, Eric and Don Jr, as well as from vice-president Mike Pence, asking for campaign donations.
Serrano’s “most prized Trump possession”, however, is an 11ft rotating sculpture that spells out the word “EGO”, which once stood in the Trump Taj Mahal Ego lounge in Atlantic City. Priced at $10,000, Serrano managed to negotiate the price down to $7,000. “It’s a work of art that pretty much sums up Donald Trump in one word,” Serrano says.
The other centrepiece of the collection is Serrano’s photographic portrait of Trump, shot in 2004. Of the experience Serrano says: “He was quiet and I was, too. When you photograph someone who’s busy or famous, you know his or her time is limited. Donald Trump can size you up in a minute and if you make a wrong move he’ll cut you off.”
How does Serrano think the election will go? “That’s a tough question because it could go either way,” he says. “Even the pollsters are fooled. Everyone thinks the odds are with them but you don’t know anything unless you rig the election.”
Serrano was in Paris the night Trump won in 2016, watching events unfold on television. “I remember how joyful and glib everyone was on the news programmes but saw their joy turn to worry as things started to go south,” he says. “A lot of people went home with their tails between their legs that night and cried.”
We could well be facing a re-run. At the time of writing, Biden was leading Trump in the national polls, but Hillary Clinton had a clear lead for almost the entire 2016 campaign. As Serrano warns in his book: “Based on what we know about Donald Trump, we should have seen it coming. Donald Trump has always been an open book. Those who didn’t see him coming weren’t looking.”