featured gallery for November 2014

You are there, in the place where you alone are absent

I stumbled into the world of Visual AIDS with a sense of longing, propelled by a deep sense of emptiness surrounding my knowledge of HIV/AIDS in America, and in particular, New York. I was aware of ACT-UP as a singular tool of political activism, the hysteria and phobia punctuating the Reagan years, the sheer extent of death that strode continents from the major metropoles of the West to vast plenitudes of Sub-Saharan Africa, the ribbons, the speeches, the Keith Haring t-shirts at Urban Outfitters. But I yearned to place myself within time, in the lives of those who were infected, fought, suffered, persevered, died. This was an altogether different aim than the vague notion I had digested previously, of the epidemic being a horrible thing that happened (past tense) but we are all okay now, right?

This past summer, I was working at Visual AIDS’ artist registry, cataloguing artists deceased and living with HIV/AIDS. In my very hands lay the memory of an entire generation, of vibrant sub-cultures, and individuals bursting with incalculable creativity. This notion of being at the gates of memory made me think of an excerpt from a poem by Jacques Roubaud:

Theology of Nonexistence
Against the grain of your annihilation this, my ransacked memory of you. / But if I plunge into this via negativa, the figure I’ll find is not on high, and I expect no revelation / I do not call your not-dead being to an afterlife / I don’t expect to recognize you waiting in some between-the-worlds / There is your name. I can say it. I can erase the line that crossed it out in letters heavy with place / You’ve left me a picture with your stamp on it, on the very rectangle of reality it represents, and you are there, in the place where you alone are absent. thus / Out of what’s ended I fashion a truth / Of not accepting that you’re not, the silence...
Section V, Some Thing Black

Elegiac stubbornness characterizes Roubaud’s reminisces, distraught by the fraught and fleeting nature of utterance. Conversation last week, yesterday, five minutes ago, the language leaves your lips, who remembers when both actors have left the realm of speech and exchange? It is not just speech that is an utterance, but indeed names, identities, and culture that either remains within the consciousness of the living or who, scraped away by the erosion of wind and streams, gingerly flake, to be carried off, outside of the kingdom of memory.

Tolstoy in his diaries says:
I was cleaning and, meandering about, approached the divan and couldn’t remember whether or not I had dusted it. Since these movements are habitual and unconscious I could not remember and felt that it was impossible to remember—so that if I had dusted it and forgot—that is, had acted unconsciously, then it was the same as if I had not. If some conscious person had been watching, then the fact could be established. If, however, no one was looking, or looking on unconsciously, if the whole complex lives of many people go on unconsciously, then such lives are as if they had never been.

And who shall be the conscious one that is watching?

The first clinical cases of AIDS (albeit under different terminology) were observed in the United States in 1981. That was thirty-three years ago; more than a quarter of a century has passed. At the age of twenty, I can already feel the erasure of the epidemic in my hands, an entire generation carried off before their time, whose joys, sufferings, and moments of ecstasy are in danger of false historicization or complete ambivalence from structures who say certain lives don’t matter, whose voices most literally will be squelched and forever unheard.

It was this desire to plunge into a project of remembrance and active reconfiguration of the present that led me to archival work at Visual AIDS. I was tasked to expand the work and artists present in their online database. One of the most important tools that aided me in this process was the Estate Project’s National Registry of Artists, which collected the names of those lost to AIDS. It was striking to see hundreds of names, with no attributions, no attachments, just listed, one after the other. This is where I began piecing together an expansion of the archive.

My curation hints at the hidden luminosity that I stumbled upon, searching through the inscrutability of online presence, and of flames still flickering. Stunning was the level of incongruence between the artists discovered: figurative artists, Minimalist artists, conceptual artists, photographers, artists working in collage and appropriation, exploring queer culture, abstraction, the mystery of the body as form. Amidst their separateness, lay a unity—bounded by death, their work lay side by side with the still living.

The photography that I discovered was particularly moving. Hervé Guibert, best-known for his writings, created photographs rich in conceptual motif, aided by an eye to form and placement. His work hints at the ineffability of certain knowing, and the place of movement within the lives of his subjects. In his photograph New York, a black girl mimics the movements of sculptures of dancers, ensconced in glass cases within the confines of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Whose dance will be remembered? Which movement shall we enumerate?

Within the work of Crawford Barton, one finds the wonder of the quotidian, of how marvelous the documentation of mid-twentieth century queer life appears to us, post-AIDS. The quiet sensuality of Untitled (Couple) provokes a quiet sigh at an intimacy that threatens to be shattered.

The form of the body is striking in the work of photographers Steven Arnold and Rotimi Fani-Kayode. Both artists concentrate on the construction of fantastical tableaux and settings. Yet where Arnold has a distinctly Surrealist sensibility, Kayode seems motivated by a desire to latch onto specific cultural practices in the lens of a queer aesthetic.

Through a seemingly arbitrary juxtaposition of these images, something essential is illuminated about the nature of memory and the collection of it. The complete cataloguing of loss due to AIDS seems tenuous at best, and at this point we are left to being the ones who stitch together the worn sequins on a beautiful dress called our history, our legacies, and loved ones. Although patches are inevitable, torn seams a fate unavoidable, there is something beautiful about finding ourselves day by day, in a past that breathes life back into both of our livings, theirs and ours. The lackluster of the fading artisans and their creations shines in our eyes, blinding us, showing us new visions, an articulation that the silence is not inevitable.

Will you be that conscious one, watching?