Ephemera as Evidence
A new Visual AIDS show explores the legacy of AIDS
by Alina Oswald
In recent history, the AIDS pandemic has prominently highlighted our…limitations, as humans, when facing the disease, bringing home the realization of our mortality and the loss associated with it. Maybe most importantly, when it comes to HIV/AIDS, this loss takes on new dimensions, becoming a collective loss, one that, if allowed, threatens to leave a permanent void in our past, and, hence, in our present and future.
So the question that we may want to ask ourselves should not regard the passing of time, but the way in which we capture some of the ephemeral, yet important moments of our time to leave them as legacy for generations to come, so that they, too, can learn from the past, in order to better understand their present and build their future. As it often happens, art becomes a tool that facilitates this kind of experience, and with it, that the legacy of AIDS will continue.
Hence, Ephemera as Evidence, a Visual AIDS show that ran at La MaMa La Galleria in New York City during the month of June, and hopefully
will travel in the following months. Inspired by a 1996 essay written by performance-studies academic José Esteban Muñoz (1967–2013), the show talks about the legacy of AIDS through three different art forms—visual arts, performances, and pedagogical works—offering a collective body of work capturing the cultural, social, and sometimes political life of HIV/AIDS.
“Ephemera is about challenging the idea of evidence,” says Joshua Lubin-Levy, who co-curated the show together with Ricardo Montez. “The binary between living and dead is so firm, [hence] Ephemera is a way to activate a connection between those spaces, [allowing] us to grasp all the stories within the realm of existence.”
Both mentored by José Muñoz, who passed away in November, the curators thought to bring his work, which was central to the early nineties, to the registry of Visual AIDS. As Ricardo Montez and Joshua Lubin-Levy are both in academia, the show started as a student project, an interactive and often intergenerational project that invited students from The New School, where Montez works, to go to the Visual AIDS registry and find an artist whom they wanted to work with, and develop a semester-long project with that artist.
“We are profoundly grateful that the artists have been willing to engage with us,” Lubin-Levy says, “[and we tried] to meet them on their own terms.” For the show, they created art in response to the relationship between the ephemeral and the legacy of AIDS.
Benjamin Frederickson’s piece is representative of that, attesting that ephemera are constantly accumulating. A Minnesota native, Frederickson studied photography at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, graduating in 2003. In 2010 he came to New York City for a visit, and decided to stay. For Ephemera, he wanted to do something interactive, so he put together his makeshift pop-up studio within the gallery space, taking appointments and shooting at the gallery, during opening hours. At the end of each day, he posts his favorite images outside his studio. After the closing of the show, he plans on publishing these images in a small publication.
His photographic process sets him apart nowadays, because Frederickson, a very young photographer, shoots film. “Since I’m shooting analog, the process is slowed down,” he explains. “But that’s how I’ve been trained. You get your great photographs, but you also have your mistakes, [which, on film,] are permanent. I like the idea of having everything, the bad and the good. It’s about the process for me.”
He uses his images to share his HIV story. He believes that talking about HIV/AIDS helps eliminate related stigma, and makes people understand AIDS today—what it means to be undetectable or that testing positive doesn’t make anybody a bad person. “I’m very open about my status now,” he confesses. “I just want to share my story so that maybe it will help [others] become comfortable with their status. [My testing positive] gave me the kick in the pants to come to New York and follow my dream. [It] really opened my eyes.”
Being part of the Ephemera as Evidence group show has been a unique experience for Frederickson. “Some of the artists are no longer around,” he mentions, “but there are also artists who’re still creating. It’s a nice balance.”
Eric Rhein [A&U, December 2005] adds to that balance by sharing a few art pieces from his personal archive, his AIDS memorial, Leaves, which honors people the artist knew, and who died from complication to AIDS. Started in 1996 as a response to the artist’s own Lazarus transformation, Leaves—leaves the artist collected and rendered in wire, creating the portraits of those who passed away—documents “a collective tragedy,” and the artist’s role in documenting it. Today it includes more than two hundred names, artists like Hugh Steers [A&U, September 1996] and Chloe Dzubilo, whose works are also part of the show.
Diagnosed in 1987, Rhein gets to experience what he calls “the aftermath of survival,” a time when HIV status is not binary anymore. “It’s a wonderful thing that some people became undetectable,” Rhein comments. “But undetectable is not a cure, [rather related to] the wear and tear, the war wounds and the toll on one’s physical and emotional, and also economic status due to living in a country that doesn’t have socialized medicine.”
A founding member of the Visual AIDS artist registry, Rhein explains that Visual AIDS archives were started in order to consolidate and preserve the work of artists living with HIV/AIDS, at a time when so much of art was being lost when artists died. The archives were set up to be inclusive, and Visual AIDS, as an organization, has maintained the archives, nurturing this inclusiveness regardless of age, cultural, social or class structures, to this day.
Nancer LeMoins [A&U, August 2012] takes the idea of social and class structures, and also gender, a step further, exploring the concept of loss and longing as seen through the prism of HIV, but also of related poverty, joblessness, and aging, especially related to women. LeMoins uses discarded shoes and uses their leather soles to create art. For her, shoes represent a perfect metaphor, because women, as well as men, and poor people in general, are stepped on by society. Also old shoes, having been worn for a long time, have a personal imprint that in turn translates into an intimate work of art.
“I think we’ve really gotten away from realizing the importance of older people, especially older women, in our culture,” LeMoins says. “People [especially older women] are getting walked on. They are out there, and nobody notices them. [That’s why] I’m trying to nudge people a little bit,” she adds, “to say ‘this is what’s really happening.’ I’m trying to create a cultural shift through art.”
Another kind of shift, one concerning AIDS stereotypes, comes through the work of Kia Labeija, a young artist who deals with the AIDS legacy in a very different way. A member of the House of LaBeija for almost three years, Kia Labeija is a multidisciplinary artist
interested in photographing people. Lately she started doing self-portraits, she says, “because I spend so much time photographing people, and I don’t have any pictures of [myself]. So I started using myself as a subject.”
Her images are a representation of an under-represented population living with HIV, a population characterized by three words not usually associated with HIV/AIDS—young, beautiful, female. The artist brings that up, because she believes that continuing to think of AIDS in the same old way is only fueling the stigma.
Her self-portraits displayed in the show captivate the viewer by their…realness, and also by the intimacy and the artist’s own emotional state they evoke. Being born with HIV, her experience of living with the virus is quite unique. The sense of loss comes through not only from losing her health at a young age, but also her mother, to the disease. But in her artwork, she doesn’t want to portray this loss in a sad or depressing way, rather in a fantastically beautiful way, as if under another identity. Hence, the creation of powerful pieces, like In My Room, and Mourning Sickness. Kia and Mommy is a self-portrait of the artist holding a picture of her mother in her hands.
“I heard somewhere that the healing process begins as soon as it bears witness,” she says. “So, for me, to tell my story through my images and have people witness it, really helped me—ten years after my mom has passed, twenty-four years after I’ve been dealing with this—to really get to love myself, heal, and gain a new kind of happiness, self-love, and fulfillment.”
Ephemera as Evidence has brought many artists in touch with their survival. As Rhein puts it, the show “affirms that we are in this together, with a collective history, [present] moment, and future beyond generational, social, and class structures.”
Visit Nancer LeMoins at: www.visualaids.org/artists/detail/nancer-lemoins; Benjamin Fredrickson at: www.benjaminfredrickson.com; Kia Labeija at http://goodnight-trafficcity.com. Visit www.ericrhein.com for more about Eric Rhein.
For more about Ephemera as Evidence, check out: www.visualaids.org/events/detail/ephemera-as-evidence-visual-aids-exhibition.
Alina Oswald is Arts Editor of A&U.