Honoring Communities of Care In “AIDS At Home” at Museum of the City of New York

Hugh Steers, Bath Curtain, 1992, oil on canvas, Courtesy Alexander Gray Associates, New York © 2016 Estate of Hugh Steers/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

At a panel last July entitled IV Embrace: On Caregiving and Creativity, organized by Visual AIDS in conjunction with the show In The Power Of Your Care at The 8th Floor, Ted Kerr observed that we are in “the revisitation phase” of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. And Kerr is right. While smaller exhibitions have been mounted since the beginning of the pandemic, major institutions only in the last five or so years have taken an interest in exploring the effects of HIV/AIDS on communities of artists.

Of course, this is a good thing. After decades of erasure and awkward maneuvering around difficult topics in order to please museum donors, museums are now interested in AIDS and activism. And yet, many of these larger institutional shows leave something to be desired. Unsurprisingly, many of these revisitations take one of three forms: a romanticized fixation on the aesthetics of protest and activism, an obsession with the canonical artists who died due to HIV/AIDS (Art AIDS America) and finally, a grim look at imagery of the sick and dying (I’m looking at you, Whitney Museum’s America Is Hard To See).

L.J. Roberts, Chaplain Christopher Jones at Home in Harlem, 2017, single-strand hand embroidery on cotton, Courtesy of the artist

Very rarely, though, does an institution focus on some of the quieter, more subtle moments of HIV/AIDS activism, namely caretaking, self-constructed families and fights for necessary structural support for those living with AIDS. On some level, this is no surprise. In many respects, caretaking is the most thankless part of AIDS activism, though one of the most important. It’s hard to romanticize and feel nostalgic for the hard work put in by caretakers, buying groceries or giving someone a bath. Yet, private moments are just as essential as the die-ins, marches and guerrilla art tactics. It saved lives and comforted many others.

An exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York is taking up the helm in focusing on these more private moments of activism. Entitled AIDS At Home: Art And Everyday Activism, the show, curated by Stephen Vider, explores alternative forms of kinship and care that emerged out of the emergency of the AIDS crisis. AIDS At Home quickly answers the question recalled by artist L.J. Roberts (whose embroidery Chaplain Christopher Jones at Home in Harlem is featured in AIDS At Home) in their forward to Duets on Nicolas A. Moufarrege. Projected during the fall 2015 New HIV Discourses conference at University of Arizona, the question read, “Do you think being at home with AIDS is political?” And AIDS At Home answers with a resounding yes.

The show is divided, with some overlap, into four sections: Caretaking, Housing and Homelessness, Family and HIV/AIDS At Home Today. Thankfully, it avoids two of the major pitfalls of institutional shows about HIV/AIDS. First, AIDS At Home, with a diverse range of artists, clearly learned from Art AIDS America’s whitewashed mistakes. And secondly, it also acknowledges the current experiences and challenges of people living with HIV and AIDS, avoiding putting a cap on HIV/AIDS with the invent of the AIDS cocktail in 1996.

Kia Labeija, The First Ten Years, 2014. Courtesy of the artist.

Granted, I feel that I have to acknowledge that AIDS At Home isn’t quite as “groundbreaking” as its press release would have you believe. Many institutional shows like to act like they’re the first because otherwise it would screw up their singular narrative. While AIDS At Home will certainly expose its themes to a different audience than smaller Downtown shows, it’s hard to claim, as the press release does, “newly discovered” artists in a “groundbreaking” show when Visual AIDS’s 2016 exhibition Everyday featured many of the same artists under a similar theme.

This isn’t to say that AIDS At Home isn’t necessary–there are some curatorial themes that are complex enough to be investigated numerous times and with the financial and institutional weight that a museum can provide. And AIDS At Home certainly builds on the themes laid out in Everyday, showing both the artistic and activist responses to the private realities of HIV/AIDS.

David Wojnarowicz, Peter Hujar’s diagnostic letter, 1987. David Wojnarowicz Papers, Fales Library & Special Collections, New York University.

Almost just inside the show’s entrance, Vider places a diagnostic letter sent to photographer Peter Hujar, revealing that he had tested positive. On the letter, David Wojnarowicz drew an image of two men kissing, recognizable from others works like Fuck You Faggot Fucker. Wojnarowicz’s is a radical gesture of same-sex desire and a rejection of the politically and religiously sanctioned homophobia brought on by HIV/AIDS, all on an intensely private letter. “To make the private into something public is an action that has terrific repercussions in the preinvented world,” writes Wojnarowicz in his essay “Postcards from America: X-Rays from Hell” in Close To The Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration (121).

This elevation of the private into public, a tenant for activist art since, well, forever, is fully on view throughout the exhibition. Opposite Hujar’s letter, a painting by Hugh Steers presents a man holding the hand of another thinner man in a bathtub with his head shrouded by the shower curtain. On one hand, this scene is quite mundane–even, on some level, boring–no different from a moment shared in anyone’s life. And yet, Steers raises this moment of tender caretaking to the level of history painting. It feels grand, momentous even if it just showcases a man giving his partner a bath. It is both sweet and a political gesture in the face of both homophobia and AIDS-phobia.

Susan Kuklin, Kachin and Michael at Michael’s Apartment, 1987, Photograph, © Susan Kuklin

Analyzing the use of memoir writing by lesbian caretakers during the HIV/AIDS pandemic, Ann Cvetkovich in her An Archive of Feelings writes, “their primary focus has been not on activism but on the experience of caretaking, which produces in its own way an encounter with death that demands witnessing and testimony” (211). This demand of witnessing and testimony can be seen in artworks like Steers’s Bath Curtain, as well as archival documents from GMHC’s Buddy Program. Started in 1982 in response to people with AIDS who were abandoned by family, the Buddy Program provided valuable care for the sick. Volunteers would help people with AIDS with doctors visits, advocate for their care, get groceries, and many other services.

Beyond just the practical resource, though, the Buddy Program, as seen in the photographs by Susan Kuklin, also formed almost familial bonds. Take, for example, the photograph Kachin and Michael at Michael’s Apartment, which features a pair of buddies staring deeply into each other’s eyes. They resemble childhood best friends. With Michael wearing an ACT UP T-shirt, the two convey a visible friendship that exceeds simple volunteer caretaking.

Luna Luis Ortiz, Self-portrait (Reality Sets In), 1996. Courtesy of the artist.

This form of kinship frequently (but not always) replaced heteronormative structures like family that broke down in the wake of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Not only was home reevaluated as a political place, but self-fashioned families became essential to survival. In many ways, this formation of family outside of biology relates to the structure of houses in the ballroom scene. Luna Luis Ortiz, who is father of the House of Khan, includes his photographs in the exhibition, which feature the reconstructed family structure of drag houses. Photographs of ballroom icons like Melissa Xtravaganza are glamorous and dramatic, but they’re also tender like family photographs.

Beyond care and family, the show also investigates the fight for needs like affordable housing for people with AIDS. Many people with AIDS, particularly early on in the pandemic, were evicted or bullied out of their homes due to fear of the virus or just mere gentrification. For example, Cynthia Carr’s biography of David Wojnarowicz narrates much of his struggle to stay in his apartment, adding stress on top of his illness. Assholes.

Lee Snider, ACT UP member Ronny Viggiani at a demonstration at Trump Tower, October 31, 1989. Courtesy of Lee Snider/Photo Images

AIDS At Home features some organizations built in the wake of this rash of homelessness including Housing Works. It also includes images of protests by ACT UP. Even Obstructer in Chief Trump, or his specter, makes an appearance in photographs by Lee Snider of an ACT UP protest at Trump Tower in 1989. In one photograph, a protester Ronny Viggiani, dressed like Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, holds a sign emblazoned with “Surrender Donald.” I could use that sign now.

Why were they protesting our now Orange in Chief? Well, as explained in Keywords For Radicals: The Contested Vocabulary of Late Capitalist Struggle, “When AIDS activists protested outside New York’s Trump Tower in 1989, they sought to expose the ways that dominant meanings of development, housing, luxury, or the good life actually depended upon eviction, homelessness and literal death. Trump received massive tax abatements to construct his towers, while activists calling for housing to keep people with HIV/AIDS from dying in the streets saw their applications for hospice care languish in the mayor’s office.”

Martin Wong, Untitlted (Rooftops), 1995, acrylic on canvas, Courtesy the Estate of Martin Wong and P.P.O.W, New York.

Some of the most memorable pieces in the show elevated simple moments of care, loss, grief and the everyday. From Robert Blanchon’s monumental Untitled (Sympathy Card) to Ben Cuevas’s pillow-y Knit Prep, the artists in AIDS At Home understand and reflect the importance of the commonplace moments–even just the simple reception of a sympathy card or taking medication. In some respects, this is what Art AIDS America should have been–a show presenting humanity, empathy and care rather than an elitist focus on art historical importance.

However, on some level, I yearn for the days when these types of exhibitions don’t have to be solely AIDS-centric. I’d love to see the work in AIDS At Home placed in the context of exhibitions like Leslie-Lohman Museum’s Queers in Exile: The Unforgotten Legacies of LGBTQ Homeless Youth or Simone Leigh’s The Waiting Room, depicting how various communities come together to serve their own needs that go ignored in the face of ignorant and blind institutions.

But, I also know we’re not there yet. We’re still in a time when gallerists like Andrea Rosen and David Zwirner erase HIV/AIDS from the history and interpretation of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s work in order to keep his art marketable and museum-worthy. Like the question if being at home with AIDS is political, one could also ask: Is being in a museum with AIDS political? And the answer is still, obviously, yes.

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