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Andres Serrano photographs angora bunnies

Image via New York Times

Just in time for Easter, Andres Serrano (yes, THAT Andres Serrano) has released some particularly cute photographs of angora rabbits for the New York Times Magazine. The noted Piss Christ photographer traveled to Palmyra, New York to take photographs at the National Angora Show. Of his experience, he said "The rabbits were good subjects. They didn’t move much. They’re professionals.”

Here’s the accompanying text written by Jon Mooallem:

They are basically already sweaters. Not just because they’re mostly wool, with that ludicrous shag frothing out of their nonphysiques; it’s their total passivity, the way they allow themselves to be handled or arranged on a table, just so, like those sea creatures that, incapable of self-propulsion, get joggled along by the tides. Ask about Angora rabbits, and a word you hear a lot is “docile.” “They’re generally a pretty mellow rabbit,” says one Angora fancier. I heard about one that supposedly fell out of its cage overnight, landed on the back of a dog and stayed there until morning.

People who raise purebred Angoras for show — who spend time coddling the rabbits and poring over their pedigrees, and who give them names like Alfredo, Chunk, Silvertone’s Marvelous, Hagrid and Shamwow — swear that, beneath this universal torpor, Angoras have distinct personalities. Asked to elaborate, a young breeder in Pennsylvania named Ashley Shaw explained that one of her Angoras likes to sit very still on her lap, while another, named Surprise, likes to flop over on its side and lie there. “She looks like she’s dead, but she’s not,” Shaw said. Cheryl Eng-Link, a veteran judge on the show-rabbit circuit, told me: “I’ve never had a vicious Angora.”

Image via New York Times

The magazine sent the artist Andres Serrano to photograph Angora rabbits at a National Angora Show, the Westminster for Angoras, held in a pole barn in Palmyra, N.Y. (“The rabbits were good subjects,” Serrano reported back. “They didn’t move much. They’re professionals.”) Serrano had never seen an Angora before and found the animals to be “festive and surreal” — figments of some through-the-looking-glass evolutionary imagination. The rabbit breeders, meanwhile, were similarly fascinated by Serrano, a stylish New Yorker who rolled in with a small entourage. “He’s a cosmopolitan man!” says Joan Hastings, president of the National Angora Rabbit Breeders Club. “People don’t show up normally in slinky $300 shoes!” That is, every living thing inside the pole barn that day seemed, just by being itself, to make the atmosphere feel otherworldly to another living thing. “The pictures that came out of it are a reflection of that,” Serrano says. “I felt like I was in an alien country.”

At rabbit shows, Angoras compete within their four recognized breeds — English, French, satin and giant — and are further classed by color, age and sex. A judge scrupulously inspects each rabbit, stroking and kneading it, flipping it over on the judging table, comparing its characteristics to the ideal described by the American Rabbit Breeders Association’s “Standard of Perfection.” These include length, size and body type (ideally, for an English Angora, “between a cantaloupe and a basketball,” according to Eng-Link, and “nicely fleshed” — that is, not too bony); proportionality of the head and ears; density of the ear cartilage; alignment of the teeth; color of the toenails. Most important, judges examine the quality of the animal’s wool, which should be lustrous and even and “have a good hand,” as fanciers put it — plusher than plush, but also “alive,” and springy. Only in the world of competitive An­gora breeding is “cottony” a disparagement; if your bunny feels merely as soft as cotton, you’re a failure.

Maintaining these impeccable living pillows takes a lot of work. Angora fanciers groom their animals at least once a week, locating snarls in their coats before they escalate into tangles or matting. (Two particularly high-risk areas: armpits and necks.) Preshow preparations involve specialized brushes and high-powered blowers, all of it tolerated exquisitely by the rabbits.

Serrano photographing a rabbit. Image via New York Times

In fact, fanciers argue, it’s this relentless handling by humans, from such an early age, that makes the Angoras calmer than other rabbits. It gradually separates Angora breeders from other rabbit breeders as well. There’s not a lot of haughtiness in the purebred-rabbit world. Rabbit people tend to be rooted in the world of agriculture. Many are “good old boys,” as Hastings calls them: guys who got their start raising burlier breeds, like checkered giants, in 4H, and tend to leave shavings and poop all over the judging table, which the more persnickety Angora breeders must clean before daring to deposit their own, immaculate rabbits there. “They think we’re crazy,” Hastings told me. That said, the Angoras, too, are essentially regarded as livestock; most fanciers harvest their wool several times a year, and many eat their inferior animals. “They make good barbecue,” Hastings said. (She once took a pot of rabbit stew to a rabbit show, and her husband walked around calling it “loser stew.”)

After the National Angora Show, Hastings went online and looked up the artist who’d spent the day quietly making rabbit portraits in a corner of the barn. She was not prepared for what she discovered. “It doesn’t bother me,” she explains, “but a lot of his work is very . . . avant-garde, is what you would call it.” Serrano’s artwork has involved feces, menstrual blood, semen, severely burned corpses and the Ku Klux Klan. He’s most famous for “Immersion (Piss Christ),” which shows a crucifix submerged in a jar of his own urine and was a flash point of the culture wars in the 1990s.

“It’s funny,” Serrano told me. “I have this reputation of being a controversial artist, or a provocateur. For me, I would love to take pictures of cats and dogs — nice portraits of cats and dogs and children.” He paused for a moment, and I imagined him imagining himself, photographing kittens and babies, maybe by a river somewhere, content and still as a rabbit. “But,” he went on, “people expect something else of me.”