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The Art of AIDS

The Art of AIDS


Ahead of World AIDS Day and the corresponding Day With(out) Art, HIV Plus takes a look at the art, in its variety of forms, that has been created in the name of this virus. From emotional and physical therapeutic efforts to the outright documentation of the AIDS crisis, we had no idea when we started this project of just how immense the body of works had grown. And while we were barely able to scratch the surface here in these pages, we are grateful--and awed--that there is not only a universe of creativity that speaks of the past three decades of struggle, of success, and yes, of loss, but also an army that is growing to preserve this history.

Choice Made
When visual artist Joe Average was sitting with a doctor in Vancouver, Canada, at the age of 27 in 1985, he says when he asked what the diagnosis meant he was told, "You could last six months. You could last a year, five years, 10 years, or forever. We just don't know." His response: "I'll choose forever." And 25 years after that conversation, he is still going.

A few years later, after being let go from "a crappy job," he says, he decided to make an effort to make a living as an artist. Since art had been part of his life since childhood, it made sense. "I started making art and having little shows in my apartment," he told The Positive Side in 2005. "I priced things according to my rent so that if I sold a piece, I could pay a month's rent. HIV saved my life in that I decided to make art my life."

One World, One Hope, 1994: This image (above) was for the XI International AIDS Conference in Vancouver in 1996. The conference organizers asked if they could reprint the image I did in 1991 that became Canada's first AIDS awareness poster, Average says. I said I wanted to rework it. The first image was just different faces, different people, and there was a heart in the center to suggest that we're all joined together as a race--because we are--and to get through this we have to do it with love and compassion. When I reworked it, I decided to change it into stained glass to show the fragility of humankind, the face of AIDS, and that we are all connected. I kept the heart in the center.

My Thinking Cap, 1997: This piece (above) is a bald head with the brain sectioned out like diagrams of cuts of meat, says Average, and each section has different words like hope, love, courage, sex--what's in the forefront of your brain to keep you going. The person has no nose; instead the pills 3TC, d4T, and AZT are strapped to the head like a nose.

The work that Average went on to produce--much of it infused with HIV-related themes--garnered critical acclaim and has even been sought out by celebs and royalty. In fact, he's been credited with having given a face to AIDS in Canada when in 1991 he created the first national HIV awareness poster. He created British Columbia's annual AIDS walk poster each year for more than a decade, and one of his existing pieces was requested for use as the symbolic artwork for the XI International AIDS Conference when the biennial meeting was held in Vancouver--although he did decide it was important to rework the piece specially for the IAC. The image also became Canada's first AIDS-themed postage stamp.

Poignant Metaphor
Fifteen years ago the musical Rent took the traditions of New York's bohemian art scene and spun them into pop culture. All along, artist Marguerite Van Cook has remained true to the spirit of the underground and carried on those splendid visions of the avant-garde. Indeed, she has lived, so to speak. As central figures in the East Village artistic community, she and husband James Romberger survived and thrived at the epicenter of the New York City AIDS crisis of the 1980s.

Trained as an artist in her native England, Van Cook says she had an intellectual curiosity and yearning for public forms of expression that have propelled her to try on various colorful hats. Her band, the Innocents, once toured with the Clash. After Sid Vicious killed his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen, in the Chelsea Hotel in 1978, the Sex Pistols front man called her house to look for his manager. A few days later the Innocents and some of the Clash, she says, "played the gig that was like the Sid Vicious defense," a benefit concert for his defense fund.

In addition to producing their own work, she and Romberger ran the Ground Zero art gallery in the East Village in the mid 1980s, and the two of them have curated together over the years. More recently she ran New York City's Howl Festival, the ad hoc tradition that keeps alive the spirit of beat poet Allen Ginsberg's revolutionary 1955 poem. She also completed a bachelor's degree in English at Columbia University and has gone on to master's work in European studies at the university.

The 1980s were so traumatic, she says, that she found it "almost impossible not to make art" about AIDS. Her most HIV-specific work was a collaborative effort between her, her husband, and renegade HIV-positive artist David Wojnarowicz: a three-part comic book called Seven Miles a Second. Wojnarowicz, a former child street hustler whose provocative work was held up by conservatives as an example of why the U.S. government should cut funding to the National Endowment for the Arts, died of AIDS-related complications in 1992. Afterward, Van Cook and Romberger took Wojnarowicz's diaries, which chronicled his death, and used them for the story of the series' final installment.

She and Romberger learned of their own respective HIV infections in 1997. They have a 25-year-old son, who is HIV-negative. After her diagnosis, Van Cook says she suffered through seven years of often poor health, including a bout of meningitis, the need for a hysterectomy, and complications from hepatitis C coinfection. Today, she has found inspiration, both for her own physical perseverance and for her artistic vision, in her community gardening efforts. "I was watching these things grown and just hanging on," she says. "It was the idea that if I could live through this bulb cycle, I can get through this."

She's also examined the physical changes HIV and antiretroviral treatment has brought onto her body--through an exploration of amphibians, which she feels serve as a poignant metaphor. "This disease changes you and you're in between two worlds, more or less," she says. "Because there is a really strange sensation to being in a different place to those people who are healthy. You start to live in this very amorphous condition. So I made these images of women as frogs: growing flippers and tails. Because your body really does change. And it is really difficult to cope with."

At the end of the day Van Cook is a dyed-in-the-wool social activist but "always with a twist, if possible," she says. "I've always tried to keep a fabulous edge to it!" After reading recently released data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the high prevalence of HIV among urban gay men, she felt the age-old call to action.

"I'm horrified. It's terrifying," she says. "I feel personally delinquent. I should've been back out in the trenches. I'm already thinking, What's the slogan that goes on the street now?"

A Man Remade
Terrence Gore's resume is a collage of his diverse interests. The 46-year-old Philadelphia native has worked as a hairstylist with models and celebrities, he's excelled in interior design, he's curated gallery shows and sold artwork by well-known African-American artists like Allen Stringfellow and Frank Louissaint, he's studied modern dance, and to top it all off he's accomplished in the culinary arts. An insatiable curiosity has taken him and a pair of trusty Rollerblades to the four corners of the globe, where he's sped through various cultures and picked up many varied treasures along the way.

"I just gained more and more momentum, becoming inspired with beauty," he says of his peripatetic days, "whether with a single-panel painting or a building or a person dressed nicely."

Then suddenly it seemed all his rich aesthetic pursuits--and quite possibly his life as well--would come to an end. In 2005 he was in a dance class when he felt a numbness in the big toe of his right foot. The numbness spread over the right side of his body and affected his vision. He was soon diagnosed HIV-positive, and subsequent tests showed he was suffering from a typically fatal nerve-degeneration disorder known as progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy. A biopsy identified a lesion on the left hemisphere of his brain that has caused widespread numbness and paralysis on the right side of his body to this day.

Initially given a short time to live, he was in the hospital for a year and a half and spent nine days in a coma. But he managed to speed by the stop sign before him, Rollerblades or not. When Gore was well enough, a friend took him some art supplies. Using his left hand (Gore is right-handed), he began to experiment with watercolors. Now living on disability, he's remade himself as a fine artist and, in doing so, has found his voice. HIV, he says, is the best thing that ever happened to him.

"It appeared that I had everything in the past: traveling the world, being able to acquire whatever I wanted. But there was some sort of void inside me. I just decided that once I came out of the coma and I realized that I was alive, I asked God, 'What is it for me to do?'"

Gore has devoted much of his work to collages, in which he brings elements of his travels home to his canvas. The very act of artistic creation, he says, in turn communicates the hopeful message of his survival to others. In addition, his dedication to juicing and homeopathic herbs as a source of rejuvenation lends an added benefit to his work; he often takes skins of fruits he's consumed--like a banana or mango--preserves them, and applies them to his artwork so that they resemble, for example, human skin. "There isn't anything that goes to waste," he says. "Everything has a new life, even after it's consumed."

His own new life as an artist, he says, provides not just occupational and physical therapy, but an emotional and spiritual release as well. "I think we're all going to die from living, ultimately," he says. "And if in fact I die from PML, or whatever, I still have to live well. I have to do what I can right now. That's why I live my best life."

Saving History
Visual AIDS is an organization that campaigns for HIV prevention and AIDS awareness through producing visual art projects, while also assisting artists who are living with HIV. One of its major functions is to preserve the work of HIV-positive artists as well as the artistic contributions of the AIDS movement through its repository of images of all types of pieces created by HIVers over the years so that their legacy is not lost. Working to turn attention to the often overlooked females who are affected by HIV, a section of the agency's website, Women of Visual AIDS, pays tribute to those who've incorporated their HIV status into their works. And each January the agency holds the Postcards From the Edge fund-raiser, in which the public can purchase one-of-a-kind creations on postcards. The creative twist to the benefit is that when a buyer selects a purchase from the several hundred available, no one knows until after the transaction is complete if it was created by one of the many HIVers represented by the agency or by a celebrity. And unlike in earlier years, buyers can even do their shopping for the postcards online now.

Home Movie
Filmmaker Ira Sachs's 2010 documentary short, Last Address, presents a look at a set of creative individuals who've been lost to AIDS. In roughly eight minutes of footage, the film moves from street view to street view of 20-plus New York City houses and apartment buildings where artists, writers, and performers lived when they died--their last address. Yet with little more than the ambient sounds of the city and the names and addresses of the lost superimposed on frames, the film is riveting. Among the sites visited are the former homes of Keith Haring, Robert Mapplethorpe, Vito Russo, David Wojnarowicz, Assotto Saint, and Reinaldo Arenas. With all of the individuals whose homes are shown having died from 1983 to 2007, Sachs has memorialized in a quiet, beautiful way, as he describes it, "the disappearance of a generation."

Color Blind
Perhaps best known stateside for Play Me, I'm Yours--an installation of pianos on city streets and in public buildings across the globe "for the public to enjoy," including 60 placed throughout all five boroughs of New York this year--British artist Luke Jerram is all about sculptures, installations, and live art projects that he hopes excite and inspire people, that he says "explore the edge of perception." And that's precisely the motivation behind his creation of transparent glass sculptures of microbes that are having a major effect on our planet, including an HIV cell (above). Jerram believes there's a need to contemplate the global impact of each disease and to consider how the artificial coloring of scientific imagery affects our understanding of phenomena.

The question of pseudocoloring in biomedicine, he says, and its use for communicating science is a vast and complex subject. "If some images are colored for scientific purposes," he asks, "and others are altered simply for aesthetic reasons, how can a viewer tell the difference? How many people believe viruses are brightly colored? Are there any color conventions, and what kind of 'presence' do pseudocoloured images have that 'naturally' colored specimens don't? How does the choice of different colours affect their reception?"

Working with virologists from the University of Bristol, Jerram used a combination of scientific microscopic photos and models to create his works--including swine flu, smallpox, and SARS viruses as well as an untitled future mutation--and now images of Jerram's color-free art are being distributed as alternative representations of each virus.
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