A New Generation of Art for a New Generation of HIV

by Whitney Kimball on December 18, 2014 Reviews

Glen Fogel, 7 Years Later, 2014 from Visual AIDS on Vimeo

“Every day is International AIDS Day,” AA Bronson tweeted during a recent week of AIDS-related memorial and art events. Depending on the reader, the tweet could be interpreted as a show of solidarity, or a dig at the nature of tragedy memorials. Typically these things do less to “remind” us of the event, than they do bend into a shape prescribed by an organization. (Case in point: the shrunken New York AIDS Memorial, to which Nayland Blake tweeted “Yeah, my friends died so that we could sit by a dinky fountain in front of a shuttered hospital.”) Based on Bronson’s work, I would guess he’s in the second camp; his portrait “Felix Partz,” his friend and partner lying skeletal in his deathbed, is possibly the most enduring image from the height of the epidemic. Partz’s soft eyes looking out from a hollowed-out face will be burned on my brain forever, and it’s always just as horrific as the last time I saw it. This picture calls for a moment of silence.

This was also the thinking behind Visual AIDS’ “A Day Without Art,” December 1, 1989, a day to pause, mourn, volunteer at hospitals, and educate the public on the HIV and safe sex. Over 800 museums and art spaces either shut their doors or covered their artworks with HIV-related information. It’s an acknowledgement that while art is an emotional plea, art less direct action is the way to education.

Ten years after “A Day Without Art,” the day was changed to “A Day With(out) Art,” a day to honor and generate new work about the crisis and by HIV-positive artists. This year, on its 25th anniversary, Visual AIDS commissioned a video series titled ““Alternate Endings,” seven new art videos. Visual AIDS doesn’t specify whether all or any of the invited artists are living with HIV, but perhaps having the answer isn’t essential. The series seems more oriented toward commemorating personal losses and awareness. While treatment has vastly improved, AIDS is the sixth leading cause of death in the world, according to the World Health Organization, and the CDC reports that one in 300 in the US is HIV-positive. Cases have only risen overall since the nineties; there’s still a lot of de-stigmatizing to do. Whether another commission series is an useful tool, or another art world assignment, is another question.

A handful of moments hit the point home. There’s a first-person perspective from Tom Kalin, a former member of Gran Fury; his time-lapse video “Ashes” suggests years and lives slipping by, through light passing along walls, buildings and sky, minimal sounds of synth and piano, and dates and names:

“July 22, 1992 David Wojnarowicz”

“1996 Despair”

“2001 Joy again”

Intermittent shots show us close-ups of a healthy man smiling and basking in warm sunlight. And then the hands are clasped suggestively over a chest; another person’s hand slips over them, and slowly out of the frame. In a gesture, Kalin elegantly twists thoughts of light affection to a plague creeping into the bedroom. It was so effective that the image made me queasy.

Other artists feel like a forced match for the topic, such as Rhys Ernst. His video “Dear Lou Sullivan” appropriates powerful archival footage of the prominent writer and ftm AIDS activist, but fails to add much to it. Sullivan, who identified as a gay man, talked about his struggle to get a bottom surgery in the 1980s, the very early days of gender transitioning; the choice of subject makes sense, since Ernst himself recently gained fame for self-documenting his own ftm transition, a project shown at the last Whitney Biennial. The video layers TV interviews with Sullivan with elements from daily life of an ftm. After years of trying, Sullivan’s surgery stalled due to implant complications—at which point, Sullivan discovered he had AIDS. The surgery was, therefore, never completed. This was, he said, “the worst part about finding out I had AIDS.” Throughout the interviews, Sullivan’s face wanes to the point of skeletal; he passed away in 1991.

Given how heartbreaking those interviews already are, there’s not much to be added by re-appropriating them as art. The interviews are superimposed with fairly outdated advice on gender-bending—only wear “super-adult garments” and pump iron in order to enlarge the veins in your hands—and text messages which seem to have started with a Grindr profile. “So do you have a dick? I’m sorry if I’m being obnoxious” is a question Ernst seems to get asked a lot. The comments are callous, but from the perspective of hookup apps where the goal is to get in somebody else’s pants, they seem reasonable. The interviews speak volumes; the additions mostly add noise.

Also a stretch: Hi Tiger covers The Village by New Order, in a sadder, more mournful tone. The press materials link it to the loss of HIV/AIDS, but in the Q&A, Hi Tiger frontman Derek Jackson simply explained it as sadness caused by a break-up.

But I would recommend the whole of “Alternate Endings” for generating one defining perspective which feels worthy of its predecessors. In “Seven Years Later,” Glen Fogel asks his ex-partner Nathan Lee to discuss with him why they’d broken up; the setting is a standard city apartment, but turned upside down by a constantly spinning camera which creates the effect of an MC Escher-style impossible room. In tense tones, Lee mentions that their open relationship brought on a “constant cycle of anxiety and jealousy” as we watch Fogel and Lee walk in and out of opposite rooms, are standing and hugging, or have suddenly switched places at the kitchen table. The final trust boundary crossed, Lee says, was when he “became positive.” But even after this revelation is spoken, the two keep moving keep rolling cigarettes and washing dishes, until the camera finally turns upside down and the frame is closed into a sliver. It’s not the image of horror and tragedy of the eighties and nineties, but a pain that people struggle with forever.

It’s the answer to the question that “Alternate Endings” might otherwise have left unanswered: Who lives with HIV now? Where are they?

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