WASHINGTON — On January 6, 2022, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi invited Lin-Manuel Miranda and other cast members of Hamilton to address a gathering of Congress members in a House committee room. Over Zoom the troupe performed a number from the Broadway musical, a ballad sung by Aaron Burr — a thematic fit for the occasion, given Burr’s place in history, if a bewilderingly benign gesture by House Democrats.
Art was otherwise mostly missing from the proceedings to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the attack on the United States Capitol. There was no address by poet Amanda Gorman, no exhibition from the Smithsonian, no display at the Capitol of artifacts that are, in any case, likely tied up in ongoing prosecutions.
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So, the artist Andres Serrano took the assignment upon himself. Insurrection, a new 75-minute film — the artist’s first ever — debuted on January 6 at the Source Theater. A collage of found footage from the attack and other scenes from US history, Insurrection is an effort to ground the deadly chaos of the day in a respooling of American culture. No one will call it too gentle.
Like “Piss Christ,” (1987) the artist’s best-known work, Insurrection is shocking. The film ends on a note that is as troubling as it is unwatchable. Yet unlike his earlier work, Serrano’s film about Trump appears to be less creative and more responsive, even 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 prosecution of the culture wars of the 1990s. While the photo was intentionally provocative, it was also a deliberate and defensible contemplation about the mortification of the body in Christianity. The conflict of that era looks almost cordial in hindsight, given the bloody melee into which Serrano now inserts himself. Insurrection was produced by the London-based group a/political and presented in collaboration with CulturalDC, a nonprofit that has supported political projects such as Jennifer Rubell’s “Ivanka Vacuuming” (2019).
There are two frameworks to Insurrection, twin cinematic storytelling modes that don’t conflict with one another, but don’t ever gel, either. The film is in part an epistolary documentary, using shaky smartphone footage from the riot as well as snippets of film from the Great Depression, Civil Rights protests, and other moments of great consequence. Insurrection also presents itself as a production by former President Donald Trump, based on Thomas Dixon Jr.’s racist 1905 novel, The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan. Grainy black-and-white title cards evoke the golden era of silent film, but otherwise, this meta-fiction conceit goes nowhere.
From the start it’s not clear what kind of motion picture Insurrection wants to be. The first chapter flits between Americana scenes of dancing flappers, Juggalos, Malcolm X, young Don Trump, Mardi Gras and dozens of other images to suggest a long century of sociopolitical flux. This collage concludes with an extended sequence of a Russian cosmonaut doing Michael Jackson’s moonwalk. The Cold War visual critique is unmistakably Boomer in tone. The scene almost begs for a line from Dire Straits: “money for nothing, chicks for free.”
From then on, however, the film deploys newsreel and found footage to set the stage for the attack. There’s a scene from a Trump rally in Pensacola, Florida, in which three young girls do a syrupy song-and-dance number to lyrics denouncing the enemies of freedom. “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” as screeched by an impromptu choir that assembled for the Stop the Steal rally in DC, loops ad nauseum over video of Trump supporters. An ominous synthesizer crescendo builds before cutting abruptly to Lee Greenwood’s “Proud To Be an American” — an ironic preface for the shame to come.
What follows is the bulk of Insurrection: footage exclusively gleaned from the Capitol grounds on January 6. Serrano assembles the scenes roughly chronologically, tracking the storming of the barriers to the bloody hallway battles to the scenes of insurrectionists idly wandering the Capitol building. Many viewers will be intimately familiar with specific images from news footage and congressional hearings, such as the moment when Metropolitan Police Department officer Daniel Hodges was crushed by the press of bodies against a revolving door frame.
But many viewers may be unfamiliar with even the existence of footage that shows the death of Ashli Babbitt, an Air Force veteran who was killed by a Capitol Police officer, one of seven people to die in the attack or its aftermath. Insurrection culminates in Babbitt’s death: Serrano includes a long segment that captures the moment when she was shot as well as another scene, broadcast live by MSNBC that day, that shows emergency personnel performing CPR on Babbitt as they remove her body from the Capitol.
For reasons of taste and discernment, these horrific images aren’t part of the broader visual gestalt of January 6. But Serrano has elevated this footage, for a devastating yet baffling turn. It’s a jarring note to end on, given sustained efforts by Trump and his supporters to make Babbitt a martyr and to endanger the officer who defended Congress members from attackers. Serrano’s decision to include this explicit footage disorients the entire document. Perhaps it was done in service to the artifactual conceit that Insurrection is a Trump production: The president’s signature appears on the title cards.
If Serrano’s sensationalism is ultimately copacetic with Trump, this wouldn’t be the first time. For a 2019 exhibition, The Game, Serrano showed a vast collection of Trump memorabilia. The ironic yet indulgent show centered on a rather adoring 2004 photographic portrait of Trump taken — of course — by Serrano.
It’s hard to watch Insurrection. Ghastly footage aside, it’s embarrassing to witness the artist continuing to try to one-up the former president, in this case using a narrative that Trump might find useful. Insurrection is a blunt effort by an artist to find a sensational edge to a national tragedy. Shocking, maybe, although not for the reasons that Serrano intended.