featured gallery for June 2019

Of Riots and Mourning

There is a pile of black clothes in the center of my room. Leather and canvas, nail polish and a balaclava, water bottles and eye liner. I am overwhelmed, excited, utterly uncertain. I sit and stare up at the water. The print of dark water hangs over my bed. I look at it when the world is too much, when life fills with the hauntings of everyone and everything lost. In the dark water I imagine the ghosts are able to rest, rest with me, and we can be at ease. It is November 1999, I am gender-questioning queer and anarchist militant studying queer theory at a college in Minnesota. I am packing to riot at the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle. The print is from the stacks of Felix Gonzalez-Torres, on display at the nearby Walker Art Center, as Untitled 1991. It remained above my bed for the next twenty years, traveling with me from city to city.

Somewhere in the mess of my life from those years I started thinking about the legacy of AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power NY (ACT-UP NY), about AIDS, and about art and critical theory. I found some subtle threads about loss, about reckoning with grief, about others who had found ways to suture grief with rage, activism, and catastrophic loss. Eventually I followed the paths into myself it hinted at, and I came out as a trans woman, and spent some years as a social worker working with long term survivors of AIDS. Today, in my Brooklyn apartment, it is replaced by another of his stacks, showing something of my shifted aesthetic, but a common ache: a single bird, against the sky.

In selecting works for this series, I was drawn to a number of interconnected themes drawn from that period of my life: grief, political action, and memory. I looked to pieces that worked with text or photography, as media that works with repetition, a means of grappling formally with the difficulties of meaning and with loss. I picked pieces with direct reference to AIDS activism, political protest, and interrelationship between march and riot. I also looked to pieces from the history of New York City, and by those who have been active militants in AIDS movements. Other themes are more subtle, linked both to Gonzalez-Torres and my own circumstances in my late teens and life trajectory: beds, transfemininity, pharmaceuticals, imperialism and state violence. I looked for pieces that struck me as beautiful, and evoked something personal and political from my life trajectory.

The first six images I selected are pieces of Felix Gonzalez-Torres that had a major impact on my political development. A pile of replenished candies like placebos piled in corner; a billboard image of a bed where two people have departed evoking a lost love; a print and a billboard listing dates that almost make a history of AIDS and queer activism, but not quite. Through the Visual AIDS Artist+ Registry collection, I explored other artists close to Gonzalez-Torres: his lover Ross Laycock, his close friend Carl George. I was particularly moved by Carl George’s Felix’s Hand as a ghostly photograph. Following the theme of AIDS activism and ACT-UP NY, I next returned to the pieces of AIDS activist legend David Wojnorowicz. I next included the work of Wojnorowicz’s close friend Marguerite Van Cook and her partner James Romberger.

I include other pieces specifically from the milieu of AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT-UP) NY, ABC No Rio and NYC queer life, including the photographs of Vincent Cianni, prints and photographs by Peter Cramer and a painting by James Romberger. Cramer and Romberger share an interest in Lower East Side countercultural life, including the punk scene that drew me so strongly as a teenager. Cianni I included selections from both his photos from ACT-UP protests in the US, and from Germany, reminiscent of the kinds of street protest that drew me in the late 1990s in Europe and the US, including fighting skinheads.

Chloe Dzubilo was new to me from the archive. Dzubilo was a trans woman and NYC AIDS activist, I was struck by these pieces as exploring the ambiguities, contradictions and power of trans feminism that I continue to face and struggle with in my current oral history work with other trans New Yorkers. Charles Long I had the pleasure knowing during his time as staff at NYC AIDS activist group VOCAL (Voices of Community Activists and Leaders). In Shan Kelley’s pieces here I liked the sense of a transformative potential and threat of intimacy, and the skillful use of text to evoke absence and presence. Felix Partz’s large pills reminded me of Gonzalez-Torres’ candies, and the politics of drug testing and development so central to AIDS movements.

I close with Stephen Andrews. The beauty of these pieces stayed with me. Two work with text. One of a cloudy sky and one black water, like Gonzalez-Torres with which I opened. Both using text to explore the limits of the political. The third, entitled Waiting for the Bus Baghdad, set in 2005 during the early years of the US military occupation, again reminds me of ghosts. The ghosts of the hundreds of thousands killed during the US sanctions of Iraq, during the invasion, and the years of occupation and civil war since. All three pieces elegantly evoke the dream-like internal affective state of haunting, the grief that is the political, that I began to glimpse at 19 looking up at the black water of Gonzalez-Torres, and have been lost in ever since.