“INTIMACY, ACTIVISM, and AIDS”: Exhibition Review

Ilaria Grando responds to Tate Modern’s new display, “Intimacy, Activism, and AIDS”.

Two things capture my attention as I enter “Intimacy, Activism, and AIDS” at Tate Modern: one, the intimidating emptiness of the centre of the room, and two, the tangibility of the silence that pervades it despite the bustle of the galleries. Standing in the middle, I begin to turn around. The wall of the entrance is covered in General Idea’s wallpaper installation AIDS (1988). The vivid blue, green, and red colours used to spell the word AIDS ad infinitum attack my sight without mediation, conveying the urgency of the works I am about to approach. A panel on my left-hand side formally introduces me to the show. Curators Gregor Muir and Kerryn Greenberg provide a general picture of the epidemic from the first cases recorded in California in 1981 to the present global crisis. Their wish is to present a worldwide, inclusive perspective of the epidemic and go beyond the scholarly focus on white male artists from New York.

‘Intimacy, Activism, and AIDS’ at Tate Modern. Image: Ilaria Grando

Yet, it is the work of a New York artist that opens the show. Robert Mapplethorpe’s self-portrait looks back at me questioning my very presence in the room. How am I looking at his photograph? Am I a witness or an intruder? Mapplethorpe holds a cane topped with a skull, his emaciated face emerging from the black background, now reinforced by General Idea’s colourful wallpaper installation. Word and image merge quizzically: the invisible presence of AIDS lingers without visibly manifesting itself as the slogan of ACT UP echoes in my mind, “SILENCE=DEATH”.

Moving along the wall covered in General Idea’s installation, I encounter Derek Jarman’s studies for Blue (1993). This time I am asked to step closer and stretch my eyes beyond the glass display. Like Mapplethorpe’s photo, Blue is also a final testament: Jarman made the monochromatic movie right before his death, as cytomegalovirus compromised his vision. I observe the diaries, study the notes, and read through the third draft of Blue. I recall the sensation I felt watching the movie, losing my physicality in the deep blue of the screen, completely absorbed by the words. I wonder what the viewers who have never experienced Blue will feel looking through these papers. I wonder if they will stop and read carefully, or if their eyes will only catch the blue pages. Pay attention, read, get informed: the display requests the audience commit to a primary action of activism.

“If you are concerned about any of the above side effects or if you would like any further information, please ask your doctor. I really can’t see what I am to do. I am going to sign it” reads the script.[1]

I lift my gaze up, and the blue of Jarman’s journal encounters the blue of General Idea’s installation, getting mixed up as I ultimately lock my eyes with Mapplethorpe and his skull. I am a witness. I am an intruder. A silent observer in the waiting room of a hospital, a scientist without instruments. I am passively looking at a system of words, symbols, and images constructed and constructive of AIDS. What role do I play in this narrative?

A man sits holding a burning candle in his lap. I cannot see his face, but I can clearly distinguish the circular spots that cover his entire body. I approach the picture like a medical image and attempt to decipher the marks. The diagnosis is inconclusive: I have to look for information. Titled Sonponnoi (1987), the work refers to the Yoruba god responsible for spreading and curing smallpox. The work’s author, Rotimi Fani-Kayode, a Nigerian-British photographer, died of AIDS-relatedcomplications in 1989. In the superimposition of diseasesand ritualistic cultures, I move across time, retracing the early years of the epidemic. Initially called GRID (G­ay Related Immunodeficiency Disorder) and ‘Gay Cancer’, in the early years of the crisis, AIDS becomes for the media the disease of Kaposi Sarcoma, a form of skin cancer, usually manifested in purple spots. The parallel offered by Sonponnoi is immediate but completely unsupported. I am looking at circular marks on an anonymous body superimposing that body with a disease that is not even mentioned. A strange dynamic of looking is triggered, and just as I am about to move past Fani-Kayode’s work, I begin to question how I look at an ill body.

Leonilson’s The Penelope (1993) and Pepe Espaliù’s fabric mask follow, reinforcing the clinical dynamics implied by Jarman’s text and Fani-Kayode’s cross-cultural representation. The Penelope is a white fabric made by sewing together different pieces of cloth: it hangs from the wall, revealing to the careful eye the words “SECRET – SILENCE – SENTINEL – THE PENELOPE”. The label mentions “the tension and isolation felt by someone coping with AIDS,” but in the narrative I am constructing, the piece, associated to what appears as a revised surgeon’s mask, is instead easing my entrance into a space of medical analysis.

From Jarman’s written symptomsto Fani-Kayode’s superimposed diseases, passing through the sterilized space held by the works of Leonilson and Espaliù, the show has prepared me to confront the abstract science of Helen Chadwick’s Viral Landscape No.3 (1988-1989), and Juan Davila’s Love (1988). Resembling a collection of microscopic images, Davila spells SIDA, making the virus visible for a split second.

The journey through AIDS is sealed in the intimacy of a portrait: Muir and Greenberg chose to close the show with a selection of Sunil Gupta’s black and white photographs from Lovers: Ten Years On (1984-1986), and the vibrant colours of You Can’t Please All by Bhupen Khakhar (1981). In the end, the voice is returned to “the brilliance, beauty, and bravery of those whose lives were cut short prematurely”.

I make my way into the middle of the room, turn around, and give one last glance at the works presented. The word AIDS echoes, visibly present, from one wall to another, getting louder in the atypical silence of the room. Beside the unconvincingefficacy of the global perspective advertised in the curators’ statement – the show makes gooduse of many works made by British and American artists – the space offers an incisive analysis of the narratives of the epidemic. Asking the viewer to engage on a literal and visual level with each of the pieces selected, it questions the dynamics of gaze that come to play when one is faced with a marked skin, a list of side effects, the tangibility of death, and the storylines that are built once illness is made visible, those same storylines that still affect the way in which we approach and interact with healthy and ill bodies.

The empty space in the middle burns with urgency as I lock my eyes one more time with Mapplethorpe’s; the word AIDS, blurred in the background, a confused mass of colours. The silence becomes heavier, and I sense the provocative title of Elizabeth Lebovici’s Ce quela sida m’afait resonating in my mind.[2] It is my turn to step forward, to ask myself what am I looking at and why, to question my position as a spectator, to explore the temporal connections I make, and maybe become an activist in the conscious understanding of the discourses that have shaped,and continue to shape a narrative of the AIDS epidemic, and more in general, a narrative of illness.

I leave the room. Your turn.

“Intimacy, Activism and AIDS” is at Tate Modern till March 10th, 2019.


[1]Derek Jarman, sheets from the third draft script of Blue (1993) from the Tate Archive.

[2]Elizabeth Lebovici, Ce que la sida m’a fait: Art and Activisme à la fin du XXe siecle(Paris: JRP | Editions, 2017).

Ilaria Grando is an art historian, writer, and researcher affiliated with the University of York. Her PhDthesis looked at representations of the male body made during the 1980s and 1990s AIDS epidemic in North America, to explore the impact the epidemic had and continues to have on the contemporary understanding of healthy and ill bodies. She is interested in further exploring the concept of aesthetics of illness in the medical humanities by bringingtogether art, dance, literature, and theatre in the acknowledgment of a necessary union of academic disciplines. She is on Twitter @GrandoIlaria

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