The legacy of HIV and AIDS provided a clear point of reference when attempting to understand the incomprehensible reality of a society flipped upside down when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States in earnest in March 2020. A crucial historical touchstone was provided by organizations like the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or ACT UP, whose mission to find life-saving treatments and reform America’s for-profit healthcare system, combined with a defiant queer pride that fought homophobic stereotypes, served as a reminder of the strength of group action in the face of death.
AIDS, however, continues to be a tangible force for millions worldwide, exposing HIV-positive people to increased danger in a new era of viral risk, even if it acted as a good metaphor—a distant marker far removed from the daily reality of many people’s lives. According to reporting from New York Times journalist Linda Villarosa, HIV-AIDS has decimated Black American gay and men, with upwards of half of this population at risk of HIV infection in their lifetimes. This is contrary to what years of NGO-driven charitable activities would have you believe. While mRNA technology breakthroughs have advanced efforts to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, they have also raised the potential of developing an HIV vaccine, one that may definitively put a stop to a half-worth centuries of suffering from the disease.
Considering two lethal viruses presents the following issues: How can we think about a sickness that has never left us and whose political and social reality was mostly forgotten when antiretroviral first became available in the mid-1990s? Is the HIV-AIDS specter still present in our environment, and can we still sense its importance now, going beyond the metaphorical allegories it provided during the early stages of the pandemic?
These unanswered questions are echoed by the unsteady presence of two pieces of art currently on display in Chicago, both of which were made by queer men who passed away from AIDS decades ago: Keith Haring’s Self-Portrait and Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.), both of which are housed in the newly opened AIDS Memorial Garden on the lakefront at Belmont. These pieces, which are connected in varying degrees of context loss, commodification, and persistent amnesia, hint at the challenges of modern HIV/AIDS discourse. Although they have radical potential, they live in a compromised present that serves as a reminder of their hard pasts and uncertain futures. If we let them, however, they have the ability to teach us new things. keithharingclothing
On the surface, the omission appears innocent, a thorough erasure concealed by the conventions of institutional art-world jargon. The inscription next to Portrait of Ross in Los Angeles stated that Felix Gonzalez-Torres “had an unusual capacity to construct exquisite and restrained sculptural forms out of mundane materials” and that his work was “marked by a sense of peaceful elegy.” Since he initially made the piece in 1991, five years before the artist passed away from problems connected to AIDS, those everyday items—in this example, a heaping pile of sparkling, multicolored candies—have encouraged viewers to take a piece of the artwork with them.
However, the Art Institute’s description of this piece infuriated visitors, who in September took to Twitter and the Windy City Times to protest a fundamental erasure at work in the description. According to the inscription, the piece started off weighing 175 pounds, which “correspond[s] to the typical body weight of an adult male.” But that weight wasn’t just some abstract idea; it actually represented Ross Laycock, Gonzalez-boyfriend, Torres’s whose passing in 1991 served as the inspiration for an artwork that places the viewer’s disappearance in Laycock’s body. An earlier version of the placard, which was on display until the piece was removed from its installation in 2017, acknowledged the museum’s role in “choos[ing] to replenish the pile, metaphorically ensuring that the work is maintained” and described the piece as “an allegoric portrait of the artist’s partner.”
Gonzalez-experiences Torres’s with HIV/AIDS and queerness are being erased, a trend that is not new. The David Zwirner and Andrea Rosen galleries, which jointly represent Gonzalez-commercial Torres’s distribution, issued a two-page press release in 2017 that made no mention of HIV/AIDS, his relationship with Laycock, or even the fact that the artist was an outspoken gay man. This was noted in an article in the HIV-focused magazine Poz. The erasure of Laycock’s body weight—which, according to a Zwirner representative, had “no correlation to Ross’s healthy weight”—pushes the artist’s specificity so far out of view as to render it unrecognizable, despite the Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation’s suggestion that any single interpretation of works like Portrait of Ross in L.A. should not be taken as “definitive.”
The website, as it stands, mostly avoids employing significant physical resources relating to the HIV-AIDS issue. Instead, it makes use of tiny placards with embedded QR codes that point users to a collection of historical digital stories that are based on the AIDS Memorial Quilt. Ginkgo trees will be planted to separate the site from the surrounding region, and the garden will eventually include a chronology to give a more in-depth tale about the AIDS catastrophe. The Chicago Parks Foundation, a nonprofit that worked with the Chicago Parks District to create the site, says that the ultimate objective is to give the garden’s management to members of the queer community so that it can best serve the needs of those who are most invested in considering the ongoing effects of HIV-AIDS.
According to Willa Lang, executive director of the Chicago Parks Foundation, “having the storytelling when we inaugurated the Garden was something that was authentic and presented from the point of view of people who are living with HIV-AIDS today.” As we move forward, we want the next generation to really take it on and add their touch and significance to it as well. “That was a nice start, but now the remainder of the project needs to be carried out by the community.“
According to the author and activist Sarah Schulman, whose most recent book Let the Record Show explores the impact that acts UP New York had in the fight against HIV/AIDS, COVID vaccines are subject to the same restrictions as HIV medications in that global pharma’s profit impulse determine distribution, generic manufacture, and access. “We do know that catastrophes reveal racial and economic inequities and strike the poor in more severe and acute ways, and in America, without a well-coordinated health care system, most people are in danger,”
Gonzalez-Torres and Haring had long since lost their physical forms after being infected by a virus that spread through queer intimacy, adding their names to an endless list of the deceased. The continuous presence of both artists, however, goes far beyond the restrictions the commercial art industry places on their creativity. They are both beloved in the hearts of the living and defy the evil disdain for human life. Each, certain of their impending demise, worked assiduously to spread their message while there was still time. “It is about leaving a stamp that I existed: I was here,” Gonzalez-Torres stated in a 1993 interview. “I had a concept and I had a good purpose, and that’s why I made works of art.” recognising his tendency to approach an
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