World AIDS Day: How these 5 artists are responding to the ever-evolving reality of HIV
Early artist responses to HIV were a radical response to a devastating crisis — so what are they like in 2019?
AIDS was like a knife cutting a hole through the centre of the arts community. Because of the destruction wrought, early responses tended to be radical, blending art and activism to the point they were sometimes indistinguishable. A unique genre of "AIDS art" emerged in the mid-1980s, which included works by American activists Gran Fury and the Canadian queer collective General Idea, along with David Wojnarowicz, Felix Gonzalez-Torres and Derek Jarman.
The reality of HIV today is, of course, very different. Pharmaceutical advances have transformed the disease from a death sentence into a manageable health condition (often compared to diabetes). People on treatment are typically uninfectious and the advent of PreP — a drug combination that prevents new infections — has been cause for celebration. So given the changing face of HIV, how are Canadian artists addressing it today?
Photographer Sunil Gupta began documenting gay life in Montreal and New York in the 1970s. He was active in the early AIDS art movement as a writer and curator, but didn't start creating work on the subject until 1999 — a decade after his own diagnosis. The decision to hold off was a conscious one: as a racialized queer person, he didn't want to, in his words, "become a member of a third minority group". But challenges with his health made art a psychological necessity, propelling him to create several bodies of work on the subject, including 1999's "From Here to Eternity," which paired self-portraits with shots of London sex clubs. In lieu of the celebratory communal empowerment often seen in AIDS art of this period, the project reckons with the isolation experienced by survivors and the sometimes desolate nature of their former sexual haunts.
Since his health has stabilized, HIV is less of an overt subject. Instead, it lingers in the background, as seen in the ongoing series initiated in 2009 "Love, Undetectable," exploring queer relationships in India, and 2010's "Sun City," which tackles gay sex culture in Paris. As the reality of the epidemic has shifted, Gupta points to a different set of concerns emerging, in particular the way stigma holds people back from getting tested and receiving treatment, an essential element in halting new infections.
Like Gupta, Andy Fabo began documenting gay life pre-AIDS. Diagnosed in 1986 (the same year his partner, textile artist Tim Jocelyn, died), his work served an urgent need to address the crisis unfolding around him and inside his own body. Among his first works were his 1988 collaboration with video artist Michael Balser "Survival of the Delirious," which used a cannibalistic demon as a metaphor for the virus, and the 1990s series "Diagnosis," which layered playful erotic drawings over AIDS prevention posters and brochures.
Fabo points to a difference in artist's responses north and south of the border. American art usually offered an angrier take, while Canadians tended to focus more on questions of memorialization — still a form of activism in its own right, but with a somewhat gentler touch. Despite being in otherwise good health, in 2012 he was hospitalized for a bout of pneumonia, a condition which would have killed him two decades earlier before advances in HIV treatment. The illness inspired his recent series "Delirious at the Borderlines," a collection of large scale prints exploring his near-death experience.
Jessica Whitbread is one of a handful of female artists creating work around HIV. She usually works in long-term collaborative formats, like PosterVirus, a public art project she co-created with Alex McClelland; HIV Howler, a publication she runs with Anthea Black featuring artists and activists living with HIV; and the ongoing social art project "Love Positive Women," a project using social media to create a platform for people loving and caring for women living with HIV. Her work has a decidedly activist bent — perhaps because she didn't consider herself an artist historically as much as a person looking to create community. It's also frequently tinged with humour and a kind of joyous approach to sexuality, like "No Pants No Problem," a combination curatorial project and underwear dance party.
Toronto-based performance artist Mikiki is another creator who tends to use humour as a vehicle to communicate. Like Whitbread, they often incorporate social elements into their practice, like the weekly Rose Beef drag show, which blends Golden Girls fandom and comfort food with uncomfortable conversations on contemporary queer life. Food appears as a common element in much of what they do, whether it's playing with piles of watermelons and sauerkraut in "NSA" or serving up dinner with a dose of dialogue in the community performance "Disclosure Cookbook." Mikiki points to a double stigma around HIV, the disease itself and the behaviours it's associated with — "reckless" sex and IV drug use — as key things for artists and activists to address, thinking born of both their own life experience and their work doing harm reduction with vulnerable populations on Toronto's streets.
Though he was only diagnosed in 2001, Andrew Zealley has been creating work around HIV since 1990. His projects span video, photography, performance, installation and bookmaking, but all centre on the medium of sound in some way. He's also scored a number of films, including several by another prominent voice in Canadian HIV activism, director John Greyson. Currently doing a PhD at York University exploring artistic responses to AIDS, his new project "Soft Subversions" — a double vinyl record mixing disco classics, punk, sound effects and spoken word — explores the distance the general public often feels from AIDS. Since it's no longer a topic on the nightly news, he points to a broad sense that the disease is "over," which could not be further from the truth.
The plethora of Canadian artists creating working on the subject is a further testament to HIV's continued impact, with other notable artists like Andrew McPhail, Shan Kelley, Shayo Detchema, Dee Stoicescu and Peggy Frank among them. The volume of artistic work currently addressing HIV in Canada and abroad is not simply a way to memorialize those lost to the epidemic — it's also an urgent reminder that there is still much more work to be done.