Stop Making Sense: Looking at 3 exhibitions about AIDS

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AIDS The First Five Years in New York—a current exhibition at the New York Historical Society—is heart breaking in its boredom. They have reduced the genesis of our ongoing crisis to a pedantic collection of papers, videos and pull quotes. And even though there are real political problems with the exhibition—the lack of people of color represented, and the relationship set up between gay sex in the 70s and AIDS in the 80s—it is the sheer lack of sex, despair, creativity, survival or urgency that is the shame of the Historical Society’s efforts.For those of us invested in HIV—because we acknowledge that we are impacted by it or are living with it—we have become used to attempts to “capture” AIDS. And we have become use to these attempts being woefully inept.

Being generous to the Historical Society, it can be said that it is hard to represent AIDS, a world transforming assemblage, in any sort of digestible presentation.

So don’t.

Forget usual ways of understanding and organizing ideas. Instead: Go deep. Embrace complexity. And don’t worry about who gets it. Take risks, and let impacts linger beyond exposure. A successful representation of AIDS should mirror AIDS (a collection of negotiable and nonnegotiable facts that engender limitless reactions and experiences across the human spectrum, rooted in flesh, desire, power and pain). It should be messy, painful, not make sense. This can be a daunting undertaking.  Unless it is not. Unless AIDS is so in you—and not necessarily because HIV is in you—you can’t not communicate the complexity, horror, ever-burrowing depth, reach and outrage. I know this is true of Kris Nuzzi and Sur Rodney (Sur) who curated the Not Over exhibition for Visual AIDS (which was on view at La MaMa Galleria June 1-30, 2013). As an artist in the show, and as the programs manager at Visual AIDS I got to see them work first hand.

Nuzzi is a 20-something Brooklyn based curator from Long Island who started at Visual AIDS as an intern 6 years ago, and who has since used her skills as an emerging curator to dig deeper into subjects of the body, and identity. Sur is an Lower East Side legend who excused himself from working at Gracie Mansion (gallery) to care for his friends who were dying of AIDS in the 80s. A seemingly unlikely pair, for a show about the ongoing impact of AIDS they are perfect. They had to negotiate everything they didn’t know together. They began by looking at the work of artists born after 1980 to see what was the most urgent (such as the burden of history, the lack of cultural space for people living with HIV who became positive after 1996, and a curiosity for a lost generation), and then went back in time and curated work that was in conversation with this moment in history. This is just one example in which Nuzzi and Sur bucked conventional wisdom on how to display AIDS. They did not privilege science, media narratives, or even activist culture. They did not attempt to be overly sentimental or detached. They were not afraid to overwhelm the audience, and contradict themselves. They trusted and worked with the artists, many of whom are living with HIV; they took what was being made, and what was made, and found the truth of the exhibition in what was present. The result was an eclectic show that made space for chaos and conversation; that acted as a platform for performances about HIV criminalization, public discussions around the politics of memory and memorials, and brought generations together to be less afraid.  In his review in The New York Times, Holland Cotter ended simply with, “Go see it.” What made NOT OVER work was the ways in which Nuzzi and Sur did not set out with a thesis, instead they let AIDS be AIDS.

While maybe not as free as Sur and Nuzzi, I suspect that David Kiehl, who put together I, You, We at the Whitney Museum of American Art also understands the ways in which AIDS will not be fenced in. Through the exhibition one can see the the ways AIDS disrupts, even when rendered almost unseeable, undiscussable.

Not about AIDS per se, I, You, We is a survey of work from the 1980s and early 1990s from the museum’s collection. “The works on view here” states the curatorial text, “explore the disparities of wealth, ideology, and social responsibility in a suite of galleries that reflect upon the conscious and unconcious association of the personal pronouns, “I”, “You”, and “we”.

And so AIDS is present. How could it not be? It is ghosted into the very spirit of the exhibition. AIDS is left unsaid on the didactic panel for Mark Morrisroe, it’s the content of many posters hung in the gallery, it is infused in Nan Goldin’s slideshow.  And it is contained in a small gallery tucked into the corner of the exhibition within the “We” suite.

AIDS is simultaneously everywhere yet isolated. It is almost undetectable, and then unavoidable once one is immersed. And it is for this reason that David Kiehl’s exhibition is successful. He has used the space to make physical the truth that AIDS is both exceptional and banal, weaved into the very fabric of our everyday, seen (and unseen), (forgotten) and ever present. And yet ignored: relegated to the hinterlands, a private affair for those who can’t not care.

For many this boxed in room is an affront, an echo of the calls to quarantine those living with HIV. Was Kiehl conscious of this when he was creating this room? Or was he instead nodding to the ways in which the response to AIDS created its own infrastructure? Maybe he was alluding to both? Neither?

The AIDS gallery—intentional or not, for better or for worse—is ripe with such questions and reflections how the early days of the AIDS crisis is currently being understood. It begins with David Wojnarowicz’s powerful oversized postcard to the future, “One Day This Kid…” rounds the corner with art about sexuality, including “Big Heat” by Martin Wong, followed by AIDS representation from General Idea, followed by AIDS activism art by Group Material, Frank Moore and others. It moves into AIDS as illness with Sue Coe’s drawings and Nichols Nixon’s photos. And then prepares the viewer to rejoin the rest of the gallery with a celestial work by Keith Haring on a pedestal.

Childhood (innocence), coming into one’s own sexuality, politics, illness, death, and then the sublime— the narrative of the AIDS gallery is too simple, and overdone. While it may speak to some about the speed of which the virus was taking people’s lives during the 80s and 90s, and the flat footedness of death, it does not make space for the otherness of AIDS.  It is rendered it too comprehendible. There are no layers, no moment of things being piled up, no work outcast. This stands in opposition to Short Memory / No History, a room sized installation by artists and activists Jack Waters and Peter Cramer, as part of NOT OVER. It is a living archive of videos, pill bottles, demo signs, and personal effects documenting a 20+ year history of living with HIV and fighting against that which makes it worse. Like the AIDS gallery as part of I, You, We, Short Memory could stand on its own and tells it’s own story. It is a mess and seems unfinished. To get in viewers must pass through a white plastic sheet enclosed with a zipper, conjuring up the image of hospital rooms and neglect. Once inside viewers are invited to sit on the bed and watch the looping videos from artists such as Hayat Hyatt, Ryan Conrad, and Jack and Peter themselves. The work spans from the mid-90s to this year.  The room is a living encyclopedia of the ways in which art and activism work together to impact the epidemic. Unlike the AIDS gallery at the Whitney, Short Memory provided room for rage, confusion, chaos, fear and contemplation. Once inside you couldn’t help but be hit with the fact that AIDS is ongoing.

What the representation around AIDS within the I,You,We gallery lacks in viseral reaction, it provides in contemplative opportunities. One of the interesting effects of the AIDS gallery is the way in which the art works speak to each other in a civil and magnums way, which is not the truth. In context of creation and history these works are in tension with each other. A person unfamiliar with the nuances and arguments of AIDS and representation, is missing out on the historical heat that radiates off the work. The way the room is hung there is little opportunity for someone to know the negative reactions some AIDS activists had to General Idea’s AIDS painting, or the protests that met Nixon’s images when they debuted at MOMA, or the fact that Moore’s print of torture devices-cum-fruit still life almost didn’t see the light of day. The situations in which the art was created and received speak to the power of art, the art that was created and how and why they are still relevant works to this day. These works hang together in an ahistorical harmony that while possibly allowing for new interpretation makes old truths silent.

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I forced myself to take in the entire New York Historical Society exhibition because I felt like I owed it to the people represented in the work, and those I knew who would see it, and those for whom having their history represented in an important location would means something. And it does mean something the first 5 years of AIDS in the United States was a violent roar of silence. To have documents about that time, showcasing the range of work that was being done by people to end the crisis while it was still possible, is invaluable. Too bad there was not more heart, more passion put into the exhibition. Too bad it had to be so clinical, so didactic. In this way, AIDS The First Five Years in New York mirrors not AIDS itself, but rather the worst response to the crisis. It replicates the overly scientific approach that the government, the pharmaceutical companies, and even some AIDS activists have in their approach to AIDS. There is an idea of if only we can research more, test more, we can…end AIDS. But like the exhibition, this approach treats AIDS too singularly; it does not put forward the truth that justice is the cure, that liberation for all is prevention. That the cure is not a thing, just like AIDS is not a thing. It is a network of everything. And achieving “the cure” will be messy, and be full of contradictions and debates.

I, You, We is not a perfect exhibition either. Its representation of AIDS is both lacking in anger and yet powerful in its own ways. It too could afford to be messier. But the ways it wrestles with how to wrestle with AIDS is invaluable, contradictory and brave.

AIDS The First Five Years in New York is about a period of time and in some respects so too is  I, You, We, whereas Not Over trancends such constraints. It is about AIDS and anything and everything that it brings up. A lesson here is AIDS cannot be isolated or easily parceled off. AIDS is best understood and grappled within community, with all that the phenomenon engenders. AIDS is messy and demands attention and action, not merely understanding To attempt to tame AIDS for someone’s viewing pleasure is to miss the point, and do a disservice not only to those who died in the first five years of the epidemic, also those who continue to live.

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