WeHo AIDS Memorial

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A Space Connection
West Hollywood plans $5M AIDS memorial
by Stevie St. John

AIDS memorial design by Daniel Tobin
AIDS memorial design by Daniel Tobin

The city of West Hollywood (aka WeHo), an LGBT enclave, will soon be home to a large AIDS memorial. Gay and HIV-positive Australian artist Daniel Tobin has been tapped to design the monument, which will sit in West Hollywood Park.

An affluent little city, WeHo is currently undertaking a big-ticket, multi-million (nearly $86m) renovation on the park, with both the park and monument expected to be completed in early 2018. The nonprofit Foundation for AIDS Monument is working to raise $5 million to fund the memorial itself.

The shape that the memorial will take is that of vertical panels, representing the lives of those taken by AIDS, affixed to the ground in an arrangement that allows visitors to walk amongst them.

Tobin, who beat out two L.A.-area artists and one German artist who were considered for the project, says that his passion for the project is connected to his identity as an artist and as an HIV-positive gay man.

“The two things I struggled with when I became HIV-positive were strong feelings of isolation and the social stigma attached to my new status,” Tobin said. “Like many, I began an emotional journey—mine moved through anger, regret and acceptance. I wanted to create a space that spoke to those issues but also rose above them to become a place of sanctuary, reflection, respect, strength and celebration.”

Tobin came out at the age of eighteen in 1988 in Brisbane, Australia—where homosexuality was still against the law. The AIDS crisis was “in full swing,” Tobin said, and sex was seen as something to fear. Police regularly raided the bar where he worked.

“I remember escaping to Sydney and the excitement of the Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras, the strength of the community and the fight to effect political change,” Tobin said. “I remember being at community events in Sydney’s Green Park and watching the crowd gather and speeches made. I imagined creating a space that felt like that—a space for people to gather, a space for people to connect, a place for people to converse.

“The traces are both figurative and metaphoric. I imagined them as a crowd gathered in the park: those who have passed, all left behind and those still to come. As a field the traces are iconic, strong and permanent. As singular elements they are more delicate, fragile even vulnerable. The traces can also be seen as proof of existence, a mark left behind, a symbol of what was there, what happened.”

Other cities and communities, too, have established marks and symbols to honor lives lost and affected by HIV/AIDS. Other cities with AIDS memorials and monuments include:

San Francisco, California: The National AIDS Memorial Grove. Officially designated as the National AIDS Memorial Grove in 1996.

Ensconced within Golden Gate Park is the ten-acre National AIDS Memorial Grove. The grove was, according to the website, “envisioned [as] a serene place where people would come alone or in groups to hold memorial services, to remember among the rhododendrons and redwoods. It was to be a place dedicated to all lives touched by AIDS.” Visit www.aidsmemorial.org.

Berlin, Germany: International Stele Always Remember. Dedicated in 2010.
At the center of the Berlin memorial is a sculpture of the iconic red ribbon along with the phrase “Always Remember” in many languages. On the ground are white stones that some visitors place on a foot-level plaque in remembrance of someone lost to the disease. Search on www.aidsmemorial.info.

Key West, Florida: Key West AIDS Memorial. Dedicated in 1997.
Located on the White Street Pier, the Key West Memorial incorporates the names of people with connections to the area who died of AIDS-related causes. The names, which can be nominated through the monument’s website, are engraved in granite slabs that are incorporated in a walkway near the ocean.For more information, visit www.keywestaids.org.

New York City: New York City AIDS Memorial. Dedicated in 2008.
The existing memorial in the Big Apple is a large granite bench bearing the words: “I can sail without wind; I can row without oars. But I cannot part from my friend without tears.”

Additionally, plans are underway to establish an AIDS Memorial Park; the design was unveiled in 2013. Visit nycaidsmemorial.org.

Bournemouth, England: Dorset AIDS Memorial. Dedicated in 2010.
The Dorset Memorial is comprised of ceramic tiles, bearing designs created by children, affixed to a wall. Search www.aidsmemorial.info.

Behind each monument is a story of activists and mourners who sought to use the beauty of art, nature or both as a way to pay homage to lost family, friends, and community members. Like other places with significant LGBT populations, WeHo was hit especially hard by the epidemic.

Incorporated in 1984, during the early years of the AIDS epidemic, WeHo has always had strong ties to the HIV community and to the fight against the disease. Early in its cityhood, WeHo banned discrimination against HIV and AIDS. According to its Web site, the city government was one of the first to provide funding for HIV/AIDS service organizations and its “response to the AIDS crisis has been recognized as a model for other cities, nationally and globally.”

“The City of West Hollywood has been a focal point for the HIV/AIDS epidemic from its very beginnings thirty years ago,” said Francisco Contreras, the city’s Innovation & Strategic Initiatives Manager.

“As we approach the end of the epidemic and begin to explore ways to end AIDS in West Hollywood, it is incumbent upon the City to establish a memorial to simultaneously commemorate the lives that were lost to the disease, acknowledge those that survived, honor the allies that fought alongside affected community members, acknowledge the organizations of change that were born out of the epidemic and educate future generations.”

Todd Williamson, a WeHo arts commissioner who’s also a member of the Foundation for AIDS Monument board, praised Tobin’s proposed design as one that “will easily move into the future and still be relevant.”

“In twenty years, the young people of WeHo will still want to visit the monument to help them better understand a very horrible time in our history,” Williamson said. “This monument will forever memorialize the strength and support of a young city that came together to care for their own.”

Information about, and images of, many AIDS monuments are available at www.aidsmemorial.info.

Stevie St. John is a freelance writer in Los Angeles, where she serves on the board of the local chapter of the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association (NLGJA-LA).