Viewport width =
May 26, 2014 | by  | in Arts Visual Arts |
Share on FacebookShare on Google+Pin on PinterestTweet about this on Twitter

Visual AIDS

Pretend you haven’t been all year and indulge me for a second longer. I’m going to start with an anecdote. In the 1930s, there was a dog, an Airedale Terrier, who used to roam Wellington’s harbour. He was well known to the sailors: he would greet them when they docked, and sometimes accompany them as a stowaway. His name was Paddy the Wanderer. On the first floor of the museum I work in, there is a life-sized model of Paddy. He’s a real hit with kids. And kids, in their unending, insufferable curiosity, are always interested in finding out where Paddy is now.

Paddy died on 17 July 1939.

I guess what I’m trying to say could have been said another way, but children tend to respond to stimuli in an unmediated, visceral way. The museum is inextricably linked with death.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the first New Zealander to die from AIDS-related complications. To commemorate, The Film Archive is displaying 30, a moving-image exhibition, until 14 June. Curated by Gareth Watkins, the exhibition comprises three hours of clips from the archive’s collection, played across several screens in the gallery space. The clips are divided into seven sections: Journeys, News, Artistic Response, Remembrance, Stigma, Self-Esteem, and Prevention.

Maybe it’s easier to comprehend crisis from a certain remove. AIDS, it seems, belongs now to someone else, either long ago or far away; not eradicated, so to speak, but no longer worthy of our urgent attention. What the exhibition does best is to illuminate the insufficiency of this narrative. In the News section, AIDS between 1984 and 2006 transforms from dreaded unknown to cause for complacency. Most striking is the familiarity of the vernacular used towards the latter part of the presentation. In the last eight years, we seem to have reached a point of stasis.

In terms of art history, we tend to associate AIDS with a certain fury, a kind of unity: according to artist Neil Barlett, “we knew who the enemy was.” In 30, this is manifest in Douglas Wright’s Elegy. In black-and-white, Wright mimes self-destruction, stumbling, shaking, disembowelling himself. His lithe figure an emblem of every young body made old in months.

In Jordan Wolfson’s video Raspberry Poser, which was recently on display at David Zwirner gallery in New York, animated HIV viruses dance around the screen, hearts burst from condoms, superimposed over images of SoHo – once the site of pandemic, not a gentrified idyll. An animated figure disembowels himself. Later, a disembodied voice (presumably Wolfson’s) speaking in dialogue: “Are you rich?” “Yes.” “Are you homosexual?” “No.” Jordan, as it happens, is not gay. His work, however, often adopts a particular queer aesthetic, towards which he adopts a consistently flippant attitude. “I’m just making these things,” Wolfson recently said in a recent interview with Helen Marten, in reference to a set of lobster claws decorated with gay porn. “But it’s funny because people will assume that I’m gay or that I’m secretly gay.” Wolfson, it seems, is attempting to operate in a post-identity context, in which these distinctions have become obsolete, and thus the iconography associated with them become common cultural property. Were I more generous, I’d describe Wolfson as anachronistic; for the sake of brevity, I’ll call him a shitstain and move swiftly on.

John Walter’s response to this stasis is perhaps more nuanced. His installation Alien Sex Club will open at the University of Westminster’s Ambika P3 next year, and is an attempt to use architecture as a tool for HIV-transmission prevention. According to Hyperallergic, the project “looks to design a ‘cruise maze’ full of paintings, drawings, sculptures, performance pieces, music, video, hospitality, fortune-telling, and rapid-HIV-testing centers.” In a similar way to 30, Walter’s intent seems to be to reignite a stalled conversation through the proliferation of images.

If the museum is where things, like Paddy, go to die, it can also provide a short reprieve. 30 is comprehensive, poignant, at times quaintly moralising – Health Department advertisements from the mid-1980s flagrantly endorse monogamy as a prevention tool. It doesn’t point towards any answers in terms of how we should deal with the question of AIDS as historical trauma, and what implications that has for how it should exist in the present. What it does is overwhelm, and in doing so it offers a holistic approach to how we have talked about AIDS, how we do now, where language has failed us in the past, and where language continues to fail us. In an interview with the sister of “New Zealand’s first AIDS victim”, a particular longing is discussed briefly: something often unsaid, she hesitates to say it at first, and stutters when she admits that she wishes AIDS “were as easy as cancer.”

Share on FacebookShare on Google+Pin on PinterestTweet about this on Twitter

About the Author ()

Comments are closed.

Recent posts

  1. VUW Halls Hiking Fees By 50–80% Next Year
  2. The Stats on Gender Disparities at VUW
  3. Issue 25 – Legacy
  4. Canta Wins Bid for Editorial Independence
  5. RA Speaks Out About Victoria University Hall Death
  6. VUW Hall Death: What We Know So Far
  8. New Normal
  9. Come In, The Door’s Open.
  10. Love in the Time of Face Tattoos

Editor's Pick

Uncomfortable places: skin.

:   Where are you from?  My list was always ready: England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, puppy dogs’ tails, a little Spanish, maybe German, and—almost as an afterthought—half Samoan. An unwanted fraction.   But you don’t seem like a Samoan. I thought you were [inser

Do you know how to read? Sign up to our Newsletter!

* indicates required