featured gallery for May 2018

Tropology and the socially contingent positive body

Where the evolutionary trajectory of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus meets that of our own, the narrative of both the viral body and that of the human body changes significantly. The generation of ontology defining images ran concurrent with the social justice agendas surrounding the pandemic at various times. The artworks in this web gallery are a response to narratives of both separation and subject decentralization in the curation of HIV and AIDS, with a specific focus on the metaphysical implications of queer theory and its complicated relationship with embodiment.

The influence of engaged theory, particularly the work of Paul James on the subject of ontological formations and Charles Eisenstein’s application of interbeing, prefigures my curation process. The selection was assembled after a categorical analysis, based on engaged theory, of the Visual AIDS Artist+ Registry. The selected artworks focus on instances where positive bodies and physicality are represented or invoked as ontological formations, as opposed to the implied ontological singularity and separateness that often radicalizes the positive body. These artworks all move away from physical singularity towards readings of the positive body that are layered and intersecting, performative and post-human.

Political agendas frequently appropriated the body as subject in the rhetoric of activist art. The images produced to serve these agendas are powerful and made an immeasurable contribution to the advancement of the social justice discourse in terms of equitable health, juridical trailblazing and gender and identity politics, to name a few. The body as a sign is malleable enough to transverse the collective and individual experience of the pandemic, however, the signification process and intent of the artists are not failsafe against larger contextual factors impacting upon the construction of meaning. Moreover, curators need to be mindful of stigma producing subtexts when the body becomes politically radicalized.

It is now safe to say that deep-seated advances in queer theory can be ascribed to HIV and AIDS activism. One of the challenges of this symbiotic relationship is that it disrupts the social contingency of the subject. Critics of queer theory have long warned that radicalized and politicized subjects are objectified under queer theory. This is further extrapolated to include the denaturalization of the subject by reducing it to discourse.

This move from a socially contingent and layered subject to that of a politicized object often turns the body into a metaform that stands in the place of the convoluted discourse of gender politics, framed against the chaos and distress of the pandemic. The denaturalization of the subject has far-reaching effects for embodiment.

Paradoxically, the psychological distance imposed by this discursive turn in the representation of positive bodies betrays the activist drive towards equitable autonomy and freedom. Positive bodies are annexed by the discourse, and negative bodies are excluded or positioned as counterpoints. We must guard against the tendency to lay claim to positive bodies and appropriate them as the primary site to make the pandemic culturally tangible. It becomes limiting and distancing and ultimately disruptive to achieving social contingency between the infected, affected and disaffected.

The artists in this web gallery grapple with this psychological distance and provide a variety of different approaches to embodiment that traverses the body as a metaform for biopolitics. Instead these works metaphysically position the body to be read as a pluralistic, layered and interconnected ontological formation.

When making embodied visual analogies, the figurative expressions applied to physicality in these works (described as tropes), direct or alter the meaning of the body and challenge theoretical traditions of the domineering discourse. These artworks challenges physical tropology and the appropriation of singular, polarized political ontologies. They open up socially contingent readings of positive bodies in relation to complex inner and outer worlds that are intersectional.

The process of denaturing is replaced by a curiosity to explore physical and human nature; transcendental bodies are invoked in some instances and composite interspecies alliances become possible. Forms of pluralistic and performative embodiment are explored and tropes like metalepsis, metonymy, similes and synecdoches are used as means to invoke embodied presence. Separate narratives are superimposed upon each other to be read as palimpsests that deconstruct alienation in order to invoke a presence of the body that directly or indirectly implies materiality as an ontologically inclusive experience.

What these artists offer us is a look into a socio-physical experience that is not a metaform of disease and politics, but a subjective expression of a collective experience, where rights and agency are not the end-goal, but a fundamental part of constructing contemporary bodies within an expansive ecosystem.

MC Roodt’s web gallery is the result of the annual Visual AIDS International Curatorial Residency Program, co-hosted with Residency Unlimited. MC Roodt’s curatorial residency received additional support from DADAA, Australia. The residency affords curators, arts writers and historians the opportunity to do research in the Visual AIDS archive and interact with the Visual AIDS community in preparation for a curated online web gallery and public program in New York City.