‘A Day With(out) Art History’: AIDS and Art History

In 1981, the Center for Disease Control reported five cases of Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP) among young, previously healthy gay men in Los Angeles — the first official reporting of what would become known as AIDS. AIDS term AIDS is adopted the following year and the retrovirus is first isolated and identified in 1983. The Winter 1987 issue of the journal October, with guest editor Douglas Crimp, is dedicated to cultural responses to AIDS, subtitled “AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism”. Since 1989, Visual AIDS have organised Day Without Art on December 1, World AIDS Day — changed to Day With(out) Art in 1998. They describe the project as “an international day of action and mourning in response to the AIDS crisis” — led by art workers (curators, writers, and art professionals) and focussed primarily on galleries and museums.

This panel will consider the various effects that HIV/AIDS has had on art history — not just in terms of subject matter, but also as a discipline. Papers are invited that engage with and address, among other topics: curatorial and editorial responses to HIV/AIDS around the world, for example Nan Goldin’s 1989 exhibition, Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing; critical engagement with art historical scholarship, particularly critics and academics who we lost to AIDS, such as Craig Owens; and methodological innovations, akin to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s notion of reparative reading. Moreover, what are the ethical considerations at play in revisiting the early history of the pandemic today?

Session Convenors:

Louis Shankar, University College London

Will Ballantyne-Reid, University College London


Elizabeth Frasco, New York University

Culture Wars: Latinx Artists and the AIDS Crisis

Absence, loss, fear, and chaos haunt the work of many artists whose lives were tragically cut short by the disease known as AIDs. Through a myriad of styles, methods, and approaches, the generation of artists struck down by AIDs used art to confront what was becoming unmistakably clear: there was no cure, and there wouldn’t be one any time soon.

This paper will narrate the devastating and profound impact of the AIDs crisis on the Latinx art community in the United States – a community influenced by conservative Catholic values. By exploring the work of Félix González Torres (1957-1996, b. Cuba), Carlos Alfonzo (1950-1991, b. Cuba), and Carlos D. Almaraz (1941-1989, b. Mexico), this paper will highlight a struggle that was significant both for Latinx art and for American culture more widely.

For context, this paper will also discuss the Culture Wars of the 1980s and the ways in which this zeitgeist exacerbated the suffering of those diagnosed with AIDs and their loved ones. Background will be provided on other well-known artists whose work coincided with the AIDs crisis and the Culture Wars, including Keith Haring (1958-1990), Robert Mapplethorpe (1946- 1989), and the Nigerian-born Rotimi Fani-Kayode (1955-1989).

Moreover, this paper will examine the unique perspective of Latinx artists during this period – as they confronted not only their diagnoses and the culture at large, but also their status as immigrants in a divided land. Their ability to synthesise their ‘outsider’ status into their final artworks will reveal both a longing for an unobtainable future and for a distant homeland.

Liang-Kai Yu, Maastricht University

Unveiling the ‘Hole’: Asian-American Artists in AIDS Histories

In the exhibition statement for Dismantling Invisibility: Asian & Pacific Islander Artists Respond to the AIDS Crisis (1991), Hong Kong-born American artist Ken Chu articulates a profound curatorial motivation, asserting that no community is immune to AIDS.

This paper seeks to address a gap in the current literature on AIDS art exhibitions by exploring the curatorial strategies and artistic responses within the context of Dismantling Invisibility (1991). This exhibition stands out as a rare case that addresses the voices of diverse Asian American artists. The examination delves into various artistic approaches, including collage and mixed-media installations by artists such as Zhang Hongtu, Skowmon Hastanan, and Paul Pfeiffer. These artworks serve to amplify the multi-dimensional voices of artists of colour, migrants, and sex workers from Hong Kong, Thailand, and the Philippines.

Rather than attempting to close the gap, the ethical consideration put forth in this paper is that these artists embrace the ‘hole’ in the memory politics of HIV/AIDS. Through strategic absence and socially-engaged approaches, they contribute to a more nuanced understanding of the pandemic. Drawing inspiration from Nguyen Tan Hoang’s concept of bottom viewing (2014), which complicates the binary between dominant and submissive in Asian-American sexual and social experiences, this paper suggests that adopting a perspective of ‘bottomhood’ offers a more expansive way to open up the gap in current historiography. By doing so, it advocates for a more multidimensional examination of the AIDS art history through an Asian-American lens.

Fiona Anderson, Newcastle University

Nobody was looking: HIV/AIDS and UK live art in the early 1990s

This paper builds on my recent work tracing a history of Living Proof (1991–92), a multidisciplinary community arts project produced with diverse groups living with HIV/AIDS across the North East of England. The workshops, exhibitions, and performances produced as part of Living Proof (and in response to it) engaged directly with addiction, HIV/AIDS in the prison system, racialised and gendered experiences of UK HIV/AIDS care, and the radical power of international solidarity with AIDS activists and cultural producers in North America, including Pomo Afro Homos and the so-called NEA Four.

One of the artists involved, Nicholas Lowe, said later that Living Proof was possible partly ‘because nobody was looking’ so far north. The history of Living Proof speaks to the distinctive, but now largely defunct, funding and festival networks active in the region in the late 1980s and early 1990s, particularly those which supported live art and performance.

In this paper, I explore the challenges that the British live art scene of the 1990s present for historians of HIV/AIDS cultural production in the UK. Focusing on Living Proof, I attend to the ways in which the contemporary unfashionability of certain kinds of live art and community arts popular in the early 1990s and the precarious and often ephemeral archives they generated can make it difficult to see the impact of projects like Living Proof in their own time and to understand their value for art historians of HIV/AIDS in the UK in the present.

James Boaden, University of York

What Happens to Art History When Plagues ‘End’?

In this paper I would look at why the artwork that was produced in the late 1990s and early 2000s continues to challenge many of the models of art historical study which have developed over the last twenty years to historicise the relationship between art and HIV/AIDS. Looking closely at my own pedagogy with first year undergraduate students at the University of York over the last decade (especially with students of curating where questions of the place of historical works in a contemporary context are emphasised) and my experience of being taught about HIV/AIDS culture as an undergraduate student in the early 2000s when these works were produced. I will work through three landmark projects that emphasise particular questions about HIV/AIDS in the time of effective treatment and prevention options: Gregg Bordowitz’s video Habit from 2001, A.A. Bronson’s exhibition and book project Negative Thoughts, also from 2001, and Sunil Gupta’s photo series, From Here to Eternity, 1999. All three are projects which have been displayed in recent exhibitions that aim to produce a historical account of the visual culture of HIV/AIDS, yet I will argue that they largely undercut that historicisation if they are fully contextualised. I will ask: what kinds of pedagogy can we draw upon to open up these works for new audiences today?

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