When the spectre of Aids emerged at the beginning of the 1980s, a remarkable legacy of critical writing and activism followed. The work of intellectuals such as Douglas Crimp, Richard Meyer and Simon Watney steadfastly drew attention to the terrible ways that language and media representation was stigmatising those affected by the disease _ from pervasive claims that there could be “innocent” victims of HIV to the notion of “high-risk groups” (as if your identity, not your behaviour, made you vulnerable) to the sheer visceral terms by which the disease was portrayed. Images of people with Aids circulated as pure spectacle, denying the complexity of experience and our own responsibility for the spread of the virus.
Activist groups such as Act Up (Aids Coalition to Unleash Power) and Silence = Death formed to challenge government policy and religious doctrine for their failures to fund research and deal with the realities of sexual desire and practice. In Thailand, Natee Teerarojjanapongs _ currently president of the Gay Political Group of Thailand _ led dance performances in go-go bars for safe sex education, and hitherto taboo subjects such as anal sex and the practices of sex workers became topics of public discussion.
We’ve travelled much since those early days. What has changed?
You Are Not Alone is an international touring exhibition currently on view at the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre and organised by ArtAids, a transnational organisation founded by the writer and art collector Han Nefkens, who has funded several projects in Thailand over the last decade. The aim of the exhibition is to promote an understanding of Aids and those infected with HIV.
As Prof Praphan Phanuphak points out in his catalogue essay, “2012 is the 31st year that the world is familiar with Aids” and “HIV treatment has been developing exceptionally in the past ten years”. But the essay also sounds a pessimistic note, “No matter how powerful, drugs may not prolong life.” Moreover, the accompanying statement for Ohm Phanphiroj’s photographs of HIV-infected kids in the exhibition tells us that 25 million children were orphaned in 2010 due to Aids.
We can also consider veteran US activist Larry Kramer’s recent remark _ albeit hyperbolic _ in The Huffington Post that “the Aids plague is worse than ever all over the world”. He wrote this in the context of an article that admonished a lack of contemporary activism.
The point is clear _ while great developments have occurred in the treatment of HIV and Aids and our consciousness about the disease has made long strides, there remains much to be done, and dark undercurrents persist. Artistic duo Elmgreen and Dragset declare “Aids is good business for some” in neon at the entrance to the exhibition You Are Not Alone, commenting on the enormous profits made by pharmaceutical companies.
South African artist David Goldblatt photographed the famous red Aids ribbon in bleak landscapes throughout his country and writes that it appears as “a stale advertisement for an unwanted product”.
Danh Vo and Pratchaya Phingthong take lateral views of ideas of liberty, care and community in the context of the aim of the exhibition. Danh created a replica of the Statue of Liberty in copper and exhibits it in sections, therefore de-familiarising an infinitely reproduced symbol. Though compellingly beautiful, the work speaks of fragmentation and loss, but is also weirdly ambivalent as an object to contemplate in a museum.
Pratchaya somewhat inverts Danh’s process of stripping an object of its symbolic value with an artfully arranged stash of distressed electric wires. The copper had been removed and used to create screws for installing the other artworks. Suggesting any number of strands in the history of conceptual art, Pratchaya offers a clever take on critical distinctions between art and practical function and, contextually, offers a riff on what it means to allow your subjectivity to disappear in the service of others.
Lithuanian artist Deimantas Narkevicius’ film Restricted Sensation (2011) sees a male character arrested and imprisoned for homosexuality, and is based on first-hand accounts of the experience of sexual dissidents when his country was part of the Soviet Union. Christodoulos Panayiotou filmed the set of a gay porn movie before and after the action, so to speak, and suggests questions of how fantasy and memory can inform the way we see the world.
Matthew Darbyshire’s Resource Room (2011) subverts the typical function of such a place for providing neutral information. Arranged like a classroom, the artist took famous advertisements from the 1980s that depict a cute puppy and overlaid them with Aids activist slogans (including “F*** Aids”). This disarming clash of image and text points to the limits of representation and produces a response far more complex than mere information could provoke. Further, Darbyshire suggests a certain absurdity for the project of agitprop.
Pepe Espaliu’s video Carrying (1992) was the most historic work in the exhibition. Espaliu was a Spanish artist who died of Aids-related causes in 1993 and the video shows him being carried by friends through the streets of San Sebastian as a defiant gesture of support against the isolation and stigmatisation that those affected by the disease suffer.
You Are Not Alone is a sprawling exhibition, including 16 artists from around the world. The artworks move to, from and around the topic of HIV and Aids. This is no bad thing. I am reminded of a comment I once read about the scale of biennales _ we should perhaps not ask what we want from exhibitions but what they demand of us. This is a fitting consideration for thinking through Aids awareness for the contemporary world.
You Are Not Alone is on display at the BACC until May 20. Visit www.bacc.or.th