The End Was Near
MCA Chicago’s “This Will Have Been” Revisits the Political Urgency of the 1980s
by Larry Buhl
In the 2010 film Hot Tub Time Machine, one character scoffs at nostalgia for the 1980s: “We had, like, Reagan and AIDS.” The line was meant as a joke, though for many sick and dying Reagan’s lack of response to AIDS was a defining aspect of the period. Another defining aspect: art about AIDS.
In an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, HIV/AIDS is a dominant theme, both implicitly and explicitly. “This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s,” covers the period from 1979 to 1992, when world politics were dominated by Reagan, Gorbachev, and Thatcher, and the body politic struggled with how to actualize the demands for social justice that sprang forth in the sixties and seventies. Early in the eighties, activists/artists and artists/activists began directing their talents toward a new demand: pay attention to a bewildering disease that was beginning to cut down people by exponentially larger numbers.
The exhibition reminds us that urgency and activism made their mark on the decade, even if the efforts took a different tack than in previous decades. From the anti-nuclear protest in New York’s Central Park to the mass demonstrations by ACT UP and other groups to denounce the government’s slow response to the AIDS crisis, the will to fight on behalf of marginalized voices was strong throughout the 1980s.
In art, activism took new forms, often subversively manipulating popular images for political effect. The MCA points out that the more than 100 diverse artists
represented in “This Will Have Been” were shaped by television images created to elicit desire and conformity. Many artists creatively teased these images into head-turning works that brought awareness to issues of class, race and gender politics, nuclear proliferation, ethnic cleansing, longing and desire, and AIDS.
Kissing Doesn’t Kill: Greed and Indifference Do originally debuted on the sides of busses in Chicago to subvert several memes: that AIDS is a gay white male disease, and that HIV can be transmitted through kissing and casual contact (yes, many people believed it then). The work was created in 1989 by Gran Fury, a collective of artists and activists that worked with ACT UP to show outrage at the indifference towards AIDS, using iconic images and techniques that turned traditional advertising on its head. “In this piece, Gran Fury used images from Benneton-type ads, which were everywhere at the time and used them to draw attention to the [AIDS] crisis,” MCA’s curatorial assistant Karsten Lund tells A&U.
Also on exhibit is a work from General Idea, a collective of Canadian artists, Felix Partz, Jorge Zontal, and AA Bronson, who pioneered early conceptual and media-based art. On display is General Idea’s AIDS Wallpaper, part of a larger project titled Imagevirus, a series of paintings, sculptures, videos, posters, exhibitions and ephemera that from 1987 to 1994 used the mechanism of viral transmission to investigate the term “AIDS” as both word and image. In AIDS Wallpaper, the artists use the ubiquity of a focus-group-created corporate logo by appropriating the styles of street advertising, wheat-pasted posters, and domestic wallpaper. With its bold color blocking and red all-caps text, the Imagevirus logo precisely replicates the format of artist Robert Indiana’s pop-era LOVE logo. Those who were following political events in the eighties may remember that this association provoked controversy not just from the religious right but also from other AIDS activists, many of whom were fighting for a faster, and even militant, response to the epidemic. According to Lund, the transformation of “LOVE” into “AIDS” can also be seen as a canny acknowledgment that the 1960s counterculture was long gone.
Other pieces in “This Will Have Been” include Fast Trip, Long Drop, an hour-long experimental video biography by Gregg Bordowitz, who was diagnosed with
AIDS at 23. “[The video] is a combination of different kinds of footage, including nightly news and his personal moments,” Lund says. “He is an activist who was working through his personal issues publicly.” Bordowitz, a long-term AIDS survivor, is now serving as the chair of the Film, Video, New Media, and Animation Department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
The exhibition, organized by Helen Molesworth, Barbara Lee Chief Curator of the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston, is not specifically about AIDS—less than a quarter deals with it directly—yet different pieces throughout the exhibition evoke the disease, if unintentionally.
“Many of the works in the show are about loss and mortality in metaphorical ways,” Lund says, pointing out artist David Wojnarowicz’s Untitled (Buffalo). The piece features a photograph of an Old West diorama from a museum and depicts stampeding buffalo plummeting off the edge of a cliff. One buffalo stands poised at the top of the cliff, with front hooves silhouetted against the open sky. He has seen the others drop but remains powerless before the inertia of the fall. The image draws a parallel between the AIDS crisis and the state-sponsored purging of buffalo in the United States in the nineteenth century, reminding viewers of neglect and marginalization of people with AIDS in the early days of the crisis.
“There is great political urgency on display with the pieces that deal with AIDS [in the show],” Lund tells A&U. “You can also find an overlapping of many of the
themes in the show, such as love and longing, disaster, gender issues, and democracy.” Lund says the AIDS crisis, depending on the artist’s perspective, can touch on any or all of those themes.
While many of the pieces take on specific aspects of the AIDS crisis, some works which had nothing to do with AIDS but, possibly due to physical proximity alone, can suggest a connection to AIDS. Consider Cildo Meireles’ haunting 1982 sculpture, Disappearances, a work comprising ten magician’s wands attended by filmy white scarves that progressively disappear, a subtle testament to Brazil’s government sponsored torture and murder, and which also could be seen as a testament to AIDS deaths.
“This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s,” runs until June 3 at the Chicago MCA. For more information, log on to www.mcachicago.org.
Larry Buhl is a freelance journalist and screenwriter living in Los Angeles.