As a lead up to Day With(out) Art 2020, which focuses on the global scope of the AIDS crisis, Visual AIDS is commissioning writing on AIDS-related art and exhibitions from around the world. Below, Szymon Adamczak reviews the exhibition Creative Sick States: AIDS, CANCER, HIV, which was on view at Arsenał Municipal Gallery in Poznań, Poland last year.


Szymon Adamczak

There is a growing commitment among Polish artists, curators and researchers to reflect and materialize the problem of HIV in our culture today. According to government data, some 25,020 people have been diagnosed with HIV in Poland, of whom 3,741 have been diagnosed with AIDS, and 1,424 have died, as of September 2019. These basic epidemiological stats give an impression of HIV and AIDS as marginal problems for Polish public health, and the government has claimed its fight against the epidemic to be a success. But public health professionals have found that, in a country of 38.5 million, 90% of Polish citizens have never been tested for HIV, and estimate that up to 23% of people who are seropositive are simply not aware of it.

These numbers reveal how repressed this subject is in the lives of the majority. Stigma against people with HIV lives on in stories soaked with violence, crime, and racial prejudice. Last year, Luiza Kempińska, Hubert Zięba and I discussed the past and present of HIV and AIDS in Poland in a conversation for “What You Don’t Know About AIDS Could Fill A Museum,” an issue of On Curating edited by Theodore Kerr. Elaborating on that discussion here, I will take the exhibition Creative Sick States: AIDS, CANCER, HIV, organized by Arsenał Municipal Gallery in Poznań, as a guide to the contemporary landscape of HIV in Poland and the people involved in it.

It is hardly a coincidence that HIV and AIDS is enlisted along with cancer in the research exhibition Creative Sick States. Zofia nierodzińska, curator and deputy director of Municipal Arsenał Gallery has previously examined the connection between illness, emancipation and artistic practice in her exhibition entitled The Romantic Breast Cancer Adventures of Beth Stephens & Annie Sprinkle in 2018. In the exhibition text for Creative Sick States, she and her collaborators situate HIV in the context of breast cancer, mentioning the achievements of the Amazons, the largest patient movement in Poland. The Amazons are primarily a mutual aid organization, with a membership of some 25,000 women with breast cancer.

On a pragmatic level, I read the presence of the Amazons as a gesture of feminist inclusivity and a way of practicing coalition thinking. There is no point in longing for the never existent ACT UP in Poland, nor in comparing whose stigma has been more severe. It is of value to inform the general audience what kind of movements have succeeded in this post-socialist moment and to elucidate the transformative power of coming together in the face of illness. A larger framework allows us to see HIV and AIDS in line with other challenges of underfinanced domestic healthcare. In some ways, this side-by-side, illness-to-illness joint venture is a useful strategy for engaging people who might have been appalled by a presentation solely devoted to HIV. Situating seropositivity alongside breast cancer thoughtfully aims for the normalization of life with HIV in Poland. Advocating for the social relevance of being sick can be only beneficial to all of us anyway. After all, as the curatorial text states, “health is a fiction, an impossible ideal to achieve.”

To give you an insight into the matter of the exhibition, instead of reviewing Creative Sick States, I am going to propose a walkthrough, based on notes from a performative lecture I gave the day after the opening.

Installation view of "Creative Sick States: AIDS, CANCER, HIV" at Arsenał Municipal Gallery in Poznań, Poland. Photo: Tomasz Pawłowski

Before we enter the space, I tell the audience, including its non-Polish speakers, that I am deliberately not going to speak in English tonight as we tend to very rarely utter words about HIV in Polish. I begin with the notion of "undetectability," a category referring both to the level of the virus in the blood and limited visibility of HIV-related issues in the public sphere in Poland.

As we follow the stairs, a sign made of balloons appears above our heads, reading N=N, the Polish version of U=U (undetectable = untransmittable). It signals the presence of educational content about current HIV prevention strategies within the exhibition.

We gather in the rear end, passing through Dobrawa Borkała’s work. It takes the shape of a translucent chamber equipped with sockets containing yellow powder. Installation introduces the feeling of panic and distributes it across the venue via smell and ill-sounding breath.

"I will talk about forms of kinship, or rather about affinity—it is a more appropriate word, because it is not just about relations of blood, but about the bonds into which we, me and you, are intertwined by the human immunodeficiency virus."

I introduce a litany of maladies running through my own family, family tree interrupted. Lung cancer that took my grandpa prematurely, never allowing us to meet. Stillbirth of my sister. Bipolar disorder. Kidney cancer. Depression. All the allergies that come and go. Diabetes. All of it must have equipped me for the experience of living with HIV.

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Piotr Nathan, "Familienalbum," 2019. Photo: Tomasz Pawłowski

Now we are looking at the overwhelming in size photographic–painting mural by Piotr Nathan, a German artist of Polish origin, executed with the help of students of the Fine Arts High School in Poznań. The artist spotted a serene moment while travelling to a cemetery in Berlin: a handsome man and a handful of green balloons carried in the metro. The tombstones on the right hold the memory of his friends lost to the epidemic. The work is entitled “Familienalbum” [family album]. In a seminal book, the Polish scholar Jakub Janiszewski asked “Who in Poland has HIV?”. I can’t help but to reverse the question to “Who in Poland has died of AIDS”? There is barely a record of it. There is no monument nor cemetery to go to. Families would prefer to keep it private, preferably unmarked. The afterlives of shame, the anti-tradition of mourning. Bodies that don’t deserve public grief.

I turn from the mural to a massive wooden chest dedicated to the life and work of the recently deceased writer Aneta Żukowska. She was uncompromising about her terminal condition. She turned herself, dying from malignant cancer, into a passionate interlocutor in a public conversation on death. And most of all, she was a friend and a loved member of a queer community in Kraków. Vala Fołtyn, a witch and shape-shifter, made a beautiful, lasting contribution to their friendship by bringing a solid wooden chest, with its ephemera and video documentation into this exhibition. “Tenderness”, we read above and we read below, looking down as to see the deceased for the very last time. There are two TVs with images from the former home of Lamella, electric lights, postcards, piece of fur, and a book written by Aneta entitled Meat that was released posthumously.

Vala T. Foltyn, "Decay," 1907–2018. Photo: Tomasz Pawłowski

Tenderness and patience are necessary to execute a quilt. However, a large item hanging in the centre of the exhibition does commemorate no individual. Initiated by the group Positive in Rainbow Union, the Polish AIDS quilt is the result of a collaboration between a number of organizations. Even if indebted to Western tradition, their patchwork continues to be one of the few—if not the only—items publicly displayed in Poland to commemorate the annual Worlds AIDS Day Memorial. I am reminded here by a conversation I had with Karol Sienkiewicz, a Polish art critic, during the opening of the exhibition. The impact of the HIV epidemic, and the artistic sector’s response to it, has become a shared, global legacy. From the perspective of Poland, this legacy becomes then a chosen context, part of our cultural DNA that needed to be found elsewhere.

Zjednoczenie Pozytywni w Tęczy (Association Positive United in Rainbow), "Patchwork One”, 2011. Photo: Tomasz Pawłowski

I find myself struggling to narrate in Polish as most of the discourse on HIV/AIDS I have assimilated is in English. In Polish, “HIV” phonetically and colloquially spells “HIF.” “AIDS” is “EJC.” Polonized versions of words have been a popular part of the slang, especially in the hip-hop scene. HIV and AIDS tend to be understood as foreign entities in both the culture and language of Poland. The running joke was that “AIDS” was a derivative from “ADIDAS,” a brand that entered the Polish market and consumer imagination in the 1990s.

As did AIDS. In the artistic scene in Poland, AIDS is hardly a topic on its own, with the exception of a controversial and censored exhibition entitled I and AIDS from 1996. In Creative Sick States, researcher Luiza Kempińska has compiled and visualized documentation of I and AIDS, positioning new works by two Polish artists living with HIV in proximity to this historic exhibition. This dialogue is significant. I and AIDS echoes the importance of the AIDS epidemic to the art world. AIDS became a theme, in some ways a task that Polish visual artists took up in order to keep up with Western cultural production. A group of artists that gathered around Artur Żmijewski in 1990s devised several exhibitions addressing subjects like fascism, sex work and sexual identity with a desire to challenge societal norms and prejudices. Some of them have been labelled as Polish Critical Art. AIDS and I was one of their most discussed undertakings. Artur Żmijewski was a driving force behind this exhibition, which can be best grasped by looking into his manifesto accompanying the display.

“AIDS reminds us of the gravity of contacts with others. They are hazardous. An encounter with another man is dramatic, and in the case of an HIV-positive person it becomes way more tragic. AIDS is one of the variants of developing contact, which can bring about serious repercussions – infection. […] This exhibition is not about death. The participating artists are not obsessed with it, on the contrary – they are obsessed with life. […] The topic was formulated in a way that assumes a distance between AIDS and I – no wonder as the exhibition was made by people who are HIV-negative. It makes their cowardice public by demonstrating its cause: a virus in the body of another person. The fear tells them what to do, formless – clumsy shiver, so they got accustomed to domesticating the phenomena by lending them form – the artists form their own fear and shape it in a visually attractive way. It brings relief. […] The void, hitherto filled with fear, becomes filled with objects of art. It is a proposal of a therapeutic method. Doctors invent chemical preparations, artists – artefacts.”1
Szymon Adamczak in collaboration with Paweł Schubert, "Sugar for the Pill,” 2019. Photo: Tomasz Pawłowski

The obsession with life is what draws me close to my attitude towards HIV as well. For Creative Sick States, I contributed a spatial composition made of latex, wood and medication bottles created with Paweł Schubert for the performance An Ongoing Song. The installation frames a video from my private archive entitled Sugar for the Pill from 2017. It registers a private ceremony—me taking my first dose of antiretroviral medication.

During the walkthrough I ask Jacek Zwierzyński, a co-curator, to open the latex screen onto which the video is projected so I can press my body from the other side. He closes it on me. A one time projection on my body takes place. Material wrinkles heavily. I am wondering how I will age with HIV and whether I will keep returning to this video in the future.

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Szymon Adamczak during his walkthrough of "Creative Sick States: AIDS, CANCER, HIV." Photo: Maciej Krajewski

The last segment of my work in the exhibition is a collection of medication bottles, lab glass, and flowers selected according to their presumed effect on the immune system, all framed by a pink rectangle of tape. Most of the bottles were donated by HIV positive friends I have made since moving to Amsterdam in 2016. My own would not be enough. I try to make the point of artistic practice having epistemological value when working from illness. This installation was to me a tribute to all of the artists I have read about who kept their own gardens during the epidemic.

Szymon Adamczak in collaboration with Paweł Schubert, "Sugar for the Pill,” 2019. Photo: Tomasz Pawłowski

Affinity is a strong feeling. When I think of my plants I immediately make a segway to exhibitions by Bartek Arobal Kociemba. Bartek is known for his drawings, creating layered, richly patterned floral work. For Creative Sick States he presented a lightbox entitled Mental Body next to a selection of early drawings documenting the early stages of living with the virus. His personal experiences bear the trauma of being denied medication access for years (in Poland during the first decade of the 2000s your CD4 count had to be under 300 to receive antiretrovirals), as well as the weight of social and internal stigmatization and personal loss. He gently weaves these experiences together into Mental Body. There is something powerful and soothing about this self-portrait. Bartek gazes firmly ahead as he has already found a locus for his pain.

The curators noted scrupulously that Bartek, Piotr Nathan, and I all live permanently outside of Poland, suggesting it a necessary condition to be able to “speak openly about HIV in the Polish art world.” I would rather consider how HIV is inextricably tied to the notion of migration. All three of us have been, one way or another, present in cultural or artistic production in Poland in the past. Because a space has opened up for artists to present work about HIV, we found ourselves in this exhibition. Another factor is undoubtedly access to medication and the illness itself, which has been made “chronic” for us. I would not rule out the influence of what Theodore Kerr calls “AIDS crisis revisitation.” Concepts, ideas and attitudes luckily migrate as well. This is how artistic practice influenced by HIV can be acknowledged as valid, at least from the perspective of the institutional art world. Even in Poland. Lastly, there is a generation born that does not remember the epidemic. I am myself part of it, born in 1991. Should we accept the stigma of HIV as something given? I don’t think so.

Bartek Arobal Kociemba, "Mental Body," 2019. Photo: Tomasz Pawłowski

The last station of my tour includes a visit to the disease library, an array of publications, zines, catalogues and books dedicated to HIV and other illnesses. Miss Wanda, a retired employee of the gallery who volunteers as an exhibition guard, is always willing to recommend a book from the library, or help to connect the dots if someone’s confused. Miss Wanda is a true ally—she may have become one of the most HIV/AIDS aware seniors in Poland.

I see a face of David Wojnarowicz on the shelf. What a Polish sounding name! I am sorry David, but I am going to read my favourite fragment from Herve Guibert’s book To the friend who did not save my life instead, the part where the French author compares the behaviour of the virus to the logic of the game Pacman.

“Before anyone had ever heard of AIDS, an electronic game invented for the amusement of adolescents portrayed the effects of the virus in the bloodstream. On screen, the circulatory system was a labyrinth through which roamed the Pacman, a yellow cartoon blob controlled by a lever; as if gobbled up all it encountered, stripping the various passageways of their plankton, Pacman was itself threatened by the sudden appearance and proliferation of even more gluttonous red blobs. If you compare AIDS to the Pacman game, which remained popular for quite a long time, the T4s would stand for the inhabitants of the labyrinth, while T8s would be the yellow blobs, themselves closely pursued by the HIV virus, represented by the red blobs and their insatiable appetite for immunological plankton. Long before my positive test results confirmed that I had the disease, I’d felt my blood suddenly naked, laid bare, as though it had always been clothed or covered until then without my noticing this, since it was only natural, but now something - I didn’t know what had removed this protection.
My blood, unmasked, everywhere and forever (except in the unlikely event of miracle-working transfusions), naked around the clock, when I’m walking in the street, taking public transportation, the constant target of an arrow aimed at me wherever I go. Does it show in my eyes? I don’t worry so much anymore about keeping my gaze human as I do about acquiring one that is too human, like the look you see in the eyes of the concentration camp inmates in the document Night and Fog”.2

I can see Miss Wanda smiling towards me. It’s time to finish, Vala is about to give a concert.


Creative Sick States: AIDS, CANCER, HIV closed its doors January 12th, 2020. According to Miss Wanda, it was one of the most visited exhibitions of the past years.


Notice: For those who would like to read up more on Polish and European responses to the HIV/AIDS epidemic from the perspective of establishing policies and care systems, I highly recommend looking at the EUROPACH project’s online repository. In the frame of this project, the traveling exhibition HIVstories: Living Politics has been also recently presented in Poland. Please find its free pdf catalogue here.

Szymon Adamczak (b. 1991) is a Polish artist, writer and dramaturg, working with theatre and performance, based in Amsterdam. He studied art history and philosophy at the University of Poznań and graduated from DAS Theatre in Amsterdam. Currently he is preoccupied with developing an artistic practice within HIV/AIDS field and its cultural, artistic and social-political legacy of the past decades

1 Artur Żmijewski, "Und morgen die ganze Welt... O wystawie „Ja i AIDS”" [Und morgen die ganze Welt... On the exhibition I and AIDS], Magazyn Sztuki, 1996, no. 2 (10), pp. 265-266.

2 Hervé Guibert, To the friend who did not save my life, 1991, p. 4-5.