Earlier this summer, twelve artists living with HIV presented newly commissioned artwork as part of the HIV Science as Art exhibition at the IAS Conference on HIV Science in Brisbane, Australia. We asked Riss, a Visual AIDS Artist Member living near Brisbane, to report back on the project. Limited edition artwork posters and exhibition catalogs from the project are available for sale through Queensland Positive People. All proceeds benefit HIV programs and services in the Asia/Pacific region.

Art And Science, For All Our Health's Sake!

by Riss

Much has already been written, with more surely to come, about the inaugural HIV Science as Art exhibition, presented recently at Metro Arts, Brisbane Australia, from July 24th to August 5th, 2023. And if you’re wondering what all the fuss is about—in a world first, twelve internationally renowned HIV scientists partnered with twelve talented HIV positive artists to reinterpret and present HIV science as art.

With funding from ViiV Healthcare Australia, partnering with the National Association of People Living with HIV Australia (NAPWHA), and presented in conjunction with the International AIDS Society (IAS) 12th International Conference on HIV Science (IAS2023 Brisbane), the inaugural HIV Science as Art exhibition commissioned twelve original artworks, co-created by HIV positive artists interpreting their partnered scientist’s accepted IAS2023 HIV science research submission. A uniquely ambitious exposé of science and art, presented simultaneously in Brisbane during the IAS2023 conference.

For anyone not familiar with IAS2023, the biennial IAS Conference on HIV Science is the world’s most influential meeting on HIV research and its applications. The July 2023 conference ventured ‘Down Under’ to the southern hemisphere, and was proudly hosted in Brisbane, the capital city of Queensland, Australia. The conference was jam-packed with satellite sessions featuring innovations in HIV testing, treatment and prevention, community-led approaches, and many priority topics. The affiliated HIV Science as Art exhibition presented visual representations of each of the conference tracks: basic science; clinical science; epidemiology and prevention science; social and behavioral sciences; and implementation science, economics, systems, and synergies.

The exhibition presented a diversity of creative responses from an equally diverse group of artists, spanning fashion to photography, digital media to painting, paper-based creations and sculpture. Funds raised from both the online exhibition auction, and through sales of the limited-edition artwork prints and exhibition merchandise will support vital community HIV programs and services in the Asia/Pacific region.

Tim Tate, Stronger Together, 2023. Lenticular print, 25 x 25 inches

Science is hard, mostly. Art can be hard too, mostly. It’s certainly not all child’s play. Living with HIV is hard as well, although things have changed, mostly. In 2023, and in the post-Covid era, changes and progress with HIV science continues.

For example, progress with HIV treatments mean most People Living with HIV (PLHIV) with reliable access to antiretroviral treatment (ART) have a life expectancy closer to that of the general population. Messaging such as Undetectable = Untransmittable (U=U) and the World Health Organization’s (WHO) recent announcement and recommendation for health practitioners to #sayzero and speak the truth of zero transmission risks for PLHIV on ART, and to destigmatize HIV by demonstrating that PLHIV can and do have long, healthy sexual lives.

Yet, as you’ve possibly experienced yourself, there are remaining gaps when it comes to hearing about progress with HIV treatments, current messaging such as U=U, and for people making sense of it, even for those of us living with HIV. A large part of this has to do with the role healthcare providers play in communicating life-changing scientific research findings, and the need to openly address human rights and gender-related barriers in the rollout of HIV-related biomedical innovations, treatments, services, and education. There are a range of barriers remaining to be addressed for all PLHIV to benefit equally in this U=U era, including equitable access to treatments and healthcare, as well as messaging and education to the broader public.

Art has a power to distil and capture messages and meanings, and to then present back, challenge and confront the audience, and the broader public, particularly an unsuspecting public. Art provides an angle of access and education to that which can’t be so easily digested from a textbook, or scientific journal article. And sometimes, the artwork itself is not so easily digested. In pushing boundaries and educating and presenting controversial messaging to the public, the inaugural HIV Science as Art exhibition was no exception.

The exhibition itself was spread across two rooms, one with large glass windows externally facing a public area, the other an internal darkened room perfect for digital installation. The first gallery remained lit and visible ‘after hours’ to passing pedestrians. Within a few days, a passer-by took offense to an artwork titled Untransmittable #2, a photograph of an oversized phallic-shaped vessel filled with medications, and lovingly embraced in a beautifully relatable and moving way. Anyone already familiar with the photographic works of Taiwanese artist Kairon (Ren-Kai) Liu would appreciate his skill in challenging and communicating directly to the viewer.

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Kairon (Ren-Kai) Liu, Untransmittable #2, 2023. Installation view of 'HIV Science as Art,' Metro Arts, Brisbane, July 24–August 5, 2023. Photo: Louis Lim

And yet, some offended public individuals perhaps felt a little too challenged and submitted complaints to the Metro Arts gallery, as well as threats to smash the gallery’s windows. Among the show’s organizers there was discussion of additional overnight venue security, the possibility of covering artwork after hours, or simply turning off the lights at night. When Liu’s photograph was ultimately covered after hours, debates and allegations of artistic censorship ensued. Ironically, the original sculptural artwork by Liu was unable to be included in the actual exhibition in Brisbane because it contains thousands of antiretroviral medication tablets that Australia’s import regulations do not allow to be shipped into the country. After many written letters of support requesting an import exemption, the artist and organizers decided to instead exhibit a photograph based on the sculpture.

Kairon Liu Untransmittable2 web
Kairon (Ren-Kai) Liu, Untransmittable #2, 2023. Photographic print, 49 ½ x 39 ¼ inches

As someone diagnosed with HIV back in the early 1990s, with “5 years max” as the declared prognosis at the time, I, myself must continually adjust my understanding of HIV to the changing science, especially now within a U=U era. From the early days of feeling ‘toxic’ and judged for even considering sexual relations, to the ‘bigger’ concern of vertical transmission risks and resulting coercive sterilization, to years and years of safe sex messaging and condoms and oral-dams and the insistence that if “it wasn’t on, it wasn’t on”—to now live in a moment where those layers of ‘protection’ are now invisible, thanks to science, and naked sexual relations can again be experienced and enjoyed safely. It can take a bit to wrap one’s head around. It’s not surprising that an uninformed public may struggle to accept the progress with HIV science and U=U.

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Jaewon Kim, Body Temperature, 2023. Digital c-print, diasec, each 11 ¾ x 8 ¼ inches.

South Korean Artist, Jaewon Kim’s digital c-print images titled Body Temperature, respond to, and challenge the viewer to consider the pursuit of sexual rights in the era of U=U. Notably, Kim’s work Body Temperature was hung in a part of the gallery that wasn’t as visible to external pedestrians and didn’t appear to trigger any uneducated public complaints—though it easily could have, given the explicitly intimate representation of said sexual rights being pursued!

Kia LaBeija, Labor of a Ghost, 2023. Suite of five images, 27 ½ x 78 ¾ inches

The work Labor of a Ghost by American artist Kia LaBeija speaks directly to the science around reproductive rights, the risk of vertical transmission, lived experience and ultimately choice. HIV science for women has made much progress, with more opportunity than ever to pursue desires for childbirth, and where ‘having a family’ is supported and celebrated. This wasn’t always the case, and some of us ‘sisters’, may be now in a position more as ‘Aunty’—thankful to be here, but still mourning the loss and the lack of choice afforded by a previous era. I found Kia’s work beautifully moving, and personally confronting, for many reasons.

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Andrew Chan, Caught Between States, 2023. Natural wool fiber, acrylic, fiberglass, wood, polyester, and metal. 110 ¼ x 47 ¼ inches. Installation view of 'HIV Science as Art,' Metro Arts, Brisbane, July 24–August 5, 2023. Photo: Louis Lim

The work Caught between states by Australian artist Andrew Chan was visually my favorite work within the exhibition. Working in colorful woolen fiber, Andrew’s work explores the multi-dimensional liminality imposed upon queer migrants, and the struggles of forcibly displaced individuals trapped in perpetual marginalization within new surroundings due to unjust immigration policies. If liminal space is described as the uncertain transition between where you've been and where you're going physically, emotionally, or metaphorically, I can certainly project my own lived HIV experience over the years and relate to uncertain transitions.

As artists we give of ourselves into our artworks. This is the act of creation. Rejection and negative responses hurt, but we don’t stop creating. As positive artists, both living with HIV, and creatively responding to the lived experience through our artworks, this is more than creation—this is our healing. This is our personal salutogenic response. This is our health. This is our well-being.

Andrew Chan Caught between states web
Andrew Chan, Caught Between States, 2023. Natural wool fiber, acrylic, fiberglass, wood, polyester, and metal. 110 ¼ x 47 ¼ inches

The 12 selected Artists and their paired Scientists in the inaugural IAS32023 Brisbane HIV Science as Art exhibition include:

Dani Marti (He/him) AUSTRALIA Sculpture/film
Melissa Churchill (She/her) AUSTRALIA RMIT University

Camila Arce (She/her) ARGENTINA Photography – Audiovisual
Arjee Restar (She/her) UNITED STATES University of Washington

Antonio Barrientos (He/him) COLOMBIA Multidiscipline artist
Claudia Cortés CHILE Universidad de Chile

Lucas Josué Núñez Saavedra (They/Them) CHILE Multidiscipline artist
Motshedisi Sebitloane (She/her) SOUTH AFRICA University of KwaZulu-Natal

Jerome Kugan (He/him) MALAYSIA Painting, drawing, digital, text
Chase Cannon (He/him) UNITED STATES University of Washington

Tim Tate (He/him) UNITED STATES Sculpture (Glass)
Elizabeth Bukusi (She/her) KENYA University of Washington, Kenya Medical Research Institute

Kairon (Ren-Kai) Liu (He/him) TAIWAN Photography, Mixed media
Kane Race (He/him) AUSTRALIA University of New South Wales

Andrew Chan (He/him) AUSTRALIA Wool and fibre
Ryan Whitacre (He/him) SWITZERLAND The Graduate Institute

Jaewon Kim (He/him) SOUTH KOREA Video, Photography, Installation
Krittaporn Termvanich (She/her) THAILAND Institute of HIV Research and Innovation

Paco (He/him) TAIWAN Painting
Ya-Chi Ho (She/her) UNITED STATES Yale University

Kia LaBeija (She/her) UNITED STATES Image maker and storyteller
Bakita Kasadha (She/her) United Kingdom University of Oxford

Mikiki (They/Them) CANADA Multidiscipline artist
Asier Sáez-Cirión (He/him) FRANCE Institut Pasteur

About the Author

Riss is an Australian artist member of Visual AIDS, a multi-passionate creative artist, project manager, with a passion for op-shopping and upcycling, playing bass guitar—and a connoisseur of coffee and caramel slice! Riss works currently as a Project Officer with Queensland Positive People, and assisted the Australian Team of collaborating organizations and individuals working to deliver IAS2023 Brisbane – 12th International Conference on HIV Science. Riss was involved in many community-related events including the IAS2023 Positive Lounge, the pre-conference Unity Vibes Community Social event, and providing local support to affiliated event teams including the HIV Science as Art project team.

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