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francePilot Light: essay by curator Lumi Tan

francePilot Light: essay by curator Lumi Tan

28 January, 2010

Lumi Tan

Pilot Light

Although this exhibition brings together a number of public figures, most of whom are no longer with us, it cannot be separated from the personal dimension. Allow me to introduce myself as a straight woman who was born in an American suburb the same year that AIDS was first reported by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, a place as culturally far-removed as possible from the East Village artistic scene flourishing in New York City at that time. Like the majority of Americans, I was introduced to the AIDS epidemic not by the work of Felix Gonzalez-Torres, David Wojnarowicz or Nan Goldin, but by landmark events such as the first display of the already massive AIDS Memorial Quilt in Washington D.C. in 1987, the death of Ryan White, a teenage hemophiliac who contracted HIV from a blood transfusion and had become the face of “innocent” AIDS victims in 1990, and the seepage of AIDS awareness into popular culture. It suddenly seemed that HIV-positive characters were on television sitcoms, annual AIDS fundraising walks were commonplace and to-the-point songs like Salt-n-Pepa’s 1990 “Let’s Talk about Sex” (subsequently rerecorded as “Let’s Talk about AIDS”) were huge hits. The red AIDS ribbon was ubiquitous on celebrities, worn at award shows and other televised events to broadcast their awareness to millions of viewers at home.

These landmarks were all imperative to my adolescent self, coming to understand the place of HIV/AIDS in American culture. Far past the point where the epidemic was automatically (and now shockingly) called GRIDS (gay-related immune deficiency syndrome), Gay Plague or Gay Cancer in 1982, HIV/AIDS became a key trend in popular culture. And as it became an unavoidable crisis that went far beyond the boundaries of the gay male population, these actions, though quite normal at the time, were absolutely revolutionary. No single cause has since permeated popular consciousness in the way that moment did in the early 1990s; the severity of the AIDS crisis required then (and still requires now) a range of different mass-media strategies.

But what I, and arguably the majority of the general public, did not realize was that this acceptance was preceded by the visual culture of the artists in Pilot Light, who accessed culture through strategies that went beyond traditional “fine art”. I can use myself as a primary example: as a child I was enchanted by Keith Haring’s art and was thrilled to discover his Pop Shop in New York City, a store where he sold T-shirts, pins, household items, and toys with his art printed on them. This was a natural extension of his graffiti, which could be seen and processed by any passerby before being absorbed into the museum system with special commissions and market value. Though often criticized by the art world, this ultimate level of accessibility to art was incredibly prescient of the contemporary situation in which many art stars will collaborate with fashion or design companies to produce objects. I had no idea that Haring had died from AIDS complications in 1990, having announced his diagnosis in Rolling Stone magazine only a year before; I only could see that his work had an easy, almost giddy appeal and promoted ideas of love, joy and acceptance. These were basic things for a kid like me, but it resonated through the cynical art world and beyond. I would consider my generation as the first to really grow up with AIDS as a fact of life, an unavoidable reality, instead of the social, cultural and political struggle which preceded it.

These borders between the personal, public and political are at the heart of the work in Pilot Light. When AIDS began affecting the art community in New York (where by 1983, 45% of AIDS cases in the United States had occurred), not only was political and experimental art in general being censored by the newly inaugurated Ronald Reagan administration, but protection of the homosexual community was also being threatened. In response to the 1986 Supreme Court case Bowers vs. Harwick, which allowed states to punish homosexual acts as a felony, Felix Gonzalez-Torres wrote:

“When we start analyzing Supreme Court decisions and public legislation that relate to the body, we start realizing that what we regard as the ‘private’ sphere has never been private. It has always been public. One of the Justices said he thought it [the verdict] wasn’t a big deal when he was asked about it. Never mind that the lives of millions of people were affected by that decision. We cannot get any kind of rights now because in the books it’s legal to criminalize the way we express love.”[i]

Derek Jarman, reflecting on his experience of living as a homosexual in the United Kingdom in his 1993 memoir At Your Own Risk: A Saint’s Testament, neatly summed up:

“For the first twenty-five years of my life I lived as a criminal, and the next twenty-five were spent as a second-class citizen, deprived of equality and human rights. No right to adopt children, and if I had children I could be declared an unfit parent; illegal in the military; an age of consent of twenty-one; no right of inheritance; no right of access to a loved one; no right to public affection; no right to an unbiased education; no legal sanction of my relationships and no right to marry. These restrictions subtly deprived me of my freedom. It seemed unthinkable it could be any other way, so we all accepted this.”[ii]

AIDS brought many of these issues to the forefront; lifelong partners who were unable to attend hospital bedsides or who were deprived of legal rights to shared possessions were again punished. Issues that heterosexual married couples would never need to consider now became overt and oppressive at a critical and tragic time. After the initial victories of the gay rights movement in the previous decades, AIDS heightened a sense of mobilization in the gay community to push back against government forces which wanted to control their private lives.

The AIDS crisis necessitated the mediation of art in a previously unknown way. The dramatic effects could be seen on the most basic community level in concentrated art centers such as New York. The 1989 exhibition at Artists Space in New York, part of the first national “Day Without Art” organized by non-profit Visual Aids and curated by Nan Goldin, was pointedly titled “Witnesses: Against Our Disappearance”. Goldin uses the inclusive “our” to denote that beyond the artists in the exhibition, we as a public are all in the crisis together, and only through acceptance of this could the epidemic be stopped. Through their own experience, artists with AIDS were also empowered with the unique ability to control their own public image. The fame of artists with AIDS was necessary and imperative to speak for the thousands, then millions, of voices that were unable to speak at this time. The media rarely paid attention to the anonymous intravenous drug users, prostitutes or Haitians who were among the first groups affected, but they did listen to Rock Hudson, Freddie Mercury, Rudolf Nureyev and Robert Mapplethorpe. Artists have the privileged position of being able to influence, long after their deaths, how AIDS patients are seen in the media and popular culture. Yet there was an implicit understanding that this was just the beginning, a means to an end; a 1991 piece from the collaborative Gran Fury: The Artists’ Response exhibition catalogue at Ohio State University states “With 47,524 dead, art is not enough. Our culture gives artists permission to name oppression, a permission denied to those oppressed. Outside the pages of this catalogue, permission is being seized by many communities to save their own lives. We urge you to take collective action to end the AIDS crisis.”[iii]

The delayed reaction to the epidemic can be attributed largely to that fact that it appeared to “punish” unwanted, dispensable minorities: homosexuals, intravenous drug users, prostitutes, and Haitians. Only when AIDS started to become a threat to the general – and “innocent” – society mainly through hemophiliacs, did it become a greater cause for concern. The introduction of everyday materials to represent AIDS moved the epidemic away from the predatory threat, and created a “safe” and “comforting” way of understanding the disease. This incredibly effective strategy can be seen in the NAMES Project Foundation’s AIDS Memorial Quilt, which since 1987 has collected over 40,000 individual panels from thirty countries, making it the largest community art project in the world. The use of a quilt is the ultimate metaphor: quilts are wholesome and steeped in tradition, an activity associated with maternal figures, as well as linked to collectivity. It allows for a diverse use of materials – some of those listed on the website include Barbie dolls, condoms, cookies, cremation ashes, jeans, love letters, and cowboy boots – which promotes an individualized ability to represent loved ones through whatever objects or ephemera are deemed fit. At the moment of the quilt’s inception, AIDS needed to be distanced as much as possible from “risky” behavior – namely, sex and drugs – and a quilt as a tactile symbol of deaths from AIDS had an undeniable impact on the way the virus was regarded. One can see this as a compromise, undermining or even trivializing the severity of the epidemic, but it can also be seen as victims taking agency and subverting the image of the epidemic. Gonzalez-Torres wrote:

“Two clocks side by side are much more threatening to the powers that be than an image of two guys sucking each other’s dicks, because they cannot use me as a rallying point in their battle to erase meaning. It is going to be very difficult for members of Congress to tell their constituents that money is being expended for the promotion of homosexual art when all they have to show are two plugs side by side, or two mirrors side by side, or two light bulbs side by side.”[iv]

When the prevailing cultural belief is that homosexual love is dangerous, dirty, perverse, and now deadly, Gonzalez-Torres’s choice of materials like these, seen in homes and offices or readily available in the corner store, effectively combated the stereotypes of gay love without sacrificing political content. Walking through a beaded curtain, unwrapping and eating a candy, and rolling up a poster all became political acts through these artists’ work; these minor, concrete materials stood in for the grand concepts of death, love, sex and memory.

For those being overwhelmed by the devastation of AIDS, however, subtlety was not an option. For an activist group such as ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), set up in New York City in 1987 and quickly followed by international chapters, one of the most notable, impressive and important communication strategies was borrowed from the language and visual culture of advertising and mass media. The “Silence=Death” logo was both esthetically and linguistically clear, clean and to the point. So much misinformation about the epidemic had been spread by 1987 that these strategies were not only refreshing but also imperative. Gran Fury, an artist collaborative which spun off from ACT UP in 1988, created posters which brought together powerful graphics with stark facts about the forces that were affecting the pace at which AIDS was being considered a deadly epidemic: pharmaceutical companies, racism, the media, government inaction, and religion. Gran Fury’s posters were wheatpasted on the streets of New York, shown on bus shelters and subway platforms in major cities around the world, and featured in traditional art exhibitions such as the 1990 Venice Biennale. Group Material, another New York-based artist collaborative which included Gonzalez-Torres, was set up to respond not just to AIDS, but to social issues in general; it created a site-specific AIDS timeline (1989-1991) to chart the social, cultural, and political events which shaped the development of the AIDS crisis in America. For each year, advertisements, quotes, art works and ephemera from popular culture were brought together to help shape the story of AIDS; each year ended with the somber tallies of new cases, total cases and deaths to date. By making each version site specific, it responded to each community, including local organizations and artists to integrate their present and individual needs. By the timeline’s final incarnation at the 1991 Whitney Biennial, it represented twelve years of the virus’s growth, taking over the entire first-floor lobby.

By focusing on disseminating information, these artists played a role that the government or other public agencies were unwilling to fulfill, and used strategies to spread the message as far and wide as possible. General Idea’s Imagevirus works (1989-1991) documented how their 1987 AIDS logo, itself based on Robert Indiana’s immediately recognizable 1966 LOVE painting, was displayed in very public spaces such as the exterior of Amsterdam subway cars, the Jumbotron in Times Square, and in Hamburg’s city center. It is not hard to see the relationship between the repetition of an image, poster, or fact around the world and the virus itself; exposure and knowledge were equated to help destigmatize and inform. The public does not search for this information; it becomes inescapable, and refuses to privilege the educated, the rich, or the healthy. AA Bronson said “We want to make the word AIDS normal. AIDS is sort of playing the part that cancer did in the sixties. By keeping the word visible, it has a normalizing affect that will hopefully play a part in normalizing people’s relationship to the disease – to make it something that can be dealt with as a disease rather than a set of moral or ethical issues.”[v] Fear, stigma, and segregation all take root in the lack of knowledge; in a scramble for the facts about this new virus, panic too often replaces tolerance.

Although photography played a major role in introducing AIDS, it was also undeniably problematic. Showing the physically devastating results may only add to the public’s phobia: a 1988 MoMA exhibition of Nicholas Nixon’s portraits of people dying from AIDS was heavily criticized for showing them only as helpless, lonely victims. It is a different matter, however, when the subjects are able to represent themselves, rather than being represented by someone else. Robert Mapplethorpe’s 1988 self-portrait, two years after being diagnosed with AIDS and one year before his death, does not capture shocking weight loss or lesions, but reflects the gravity of the acceptance of one’s death, amplified by the skull cane which appears alongside him. Photography’s intrinsic relationship to death, as an indexical medium as well as a souvenir of the past, lends itself to an epidemic as quick and brutal as AIDS. But at this time, photography was also an essential record of a community which was in danger of dying off. Nan Goldin, Peter Hujar, and David Wojnarowicz are seen repeatedly in each other’s work as lovers, friends, and mentors; Mapplethorpe was photographed by Hujar and was clearly heavily influenced by his formalist style. Through Nan Goldin’s relentless documentation of her friends and acquaintances, a work such as The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1981-1993), a slideshow of hundreds of images, creates an ambient, cyclical and flickering document of lives and deaths, the hectic moments of excitement and the quiet moments of solemnity. There was a twofold fear of being forgotten at this time: as an AIDS patient, ignored by the press and government; and simply as a human being, capturing moments one didn’t want to leave behind. Hujar was known for giving his subjects – artists, musicians, writers, as well as dogs and city landscapes – a certain respect, a regal quality which highlighted their singularity even if they were considered outsiders on the fringes of society. Working exclusively in black and white, the portraits lent their subjects an air of timelessness; Candy Darling on her deathbed, made up to look as flawless as ever in 1974, could easily be a 1940s movie star. Goldin and Hujar’s works are perfect exercises in oppositional styles, contributing to the need for a more complete story of that time.

Whereas these photographers were known for their stark, representational images, in which subjects appeared more or less as they were, Derek Jarman made films filled with references to history and literature, and created multilayered images of ambiguity. Though he made only one film directly related to AIDS, 1993’s landmark Blue, in which he gives a 79-minute narration of going blind from AIDS-related infections over a blue screen, he was one of the United Kingdom’s most vocal gay rights and AIDS activists. He wrote, regarding the beginnings of the AIDS crisis, “There was a confusion in which we acted responsibly. All our energy was spent looking after friends and raising money. It was we who provided you with the information that may have saved your life.”[vi] This acknowledged that it was homosexuals, those most at risk, who were necessarily the best educated about AIDS as each fact become available. Instead of being represented as a threat, the ones who brought AIDS upon the general population, he articulates that the gay community was invaluable to society at large. His memoir, At Your Own Risk, was both a celebration of gay sexuality and a condemnation of the British treatment of homosexuals, which reached a crucial crossroads at the AIDS crisis; Jarman’s career was dedicated to showing homosexuality in a positive and complex way. Sebastiane (1976) was one of the first films to show a positive portrayal of gay sexuality, and in his now classic music videos for The Smiths and Pet Shop Boys, he was able to parlay his signature non-narrative style into shorter clips seen by a wider audience.

Other communication strategies took hold as artists dying of AIDS felt a need to leave behind a story and a legacy of a previously untold or unrepresented struggle. David Wojnarowicz, renowned as much for his writing as for his art-making, collaborated with close friends, illustrator James Romberger and colorist Marguerite Van Cook, to create an autobiographical comic book. 7 Miles a Second relays Wojnarowicz’s complex relationship to sex, the government and AIDS through a combination of fantastic imagery and a narrative which alternates between angry reality and a surrealistic dream. Working together until the end of Wojnarowicz’s life, Romberger and Van Cook had to finish the book four years after his death. 7 Miles a Second was published by DC Comics, a publisher associated more with Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman than East Village artists. Although comics rarely tackle such overt political or social issues or work with artists such as Wojnarowicz, his own practice often combined text and image. Wojnarowicz’s relationship to the gallery system was a reluctant one and his efforts to stay as accessible as possible are ideally realized through his comic book. Comics often take the story of an ordinary person and empowers them to do the impossible; among the most striking images is an enormous Wojnarowicz punching St. Patrick’s Cathedral in a manifestation of his frustration against the Catholic Church and their homophobic stance. Yet other images of Wojnarowicz alone in his apartment are equally absorbing; the sense of simultaneous rage, isolation and helplessness is penetrating and draws the reader into his world just as well.

Much of the work discussed here is about an extremely private and individualized experience manifested in a public display; artists at this time had to give up their private lives, whether their own or those of their friends, for the public good. Yet this work also actively questions the idea that AIDS is an individual struggle, one without outside sociopolitical forces. Rather than being an issue of sacrifice, there is a desire for the audience to share with, learn from and connect through the encounter with the work; those on the receiving end are more important than ever. Gonzalez-Torres said:

“Perhaps between public and private, between personal and social, between fear of loss and the joy of loving, growing, changing, of always becoming more, of losing oneself slowly and then being replenished all over again from scratch, I need the viewer, I need the public interaction. Without the public, these works are nothing. I need the public to complete the work. I ask the public to help me, to take responsibility, to become part of my work, to join in.”[vii]

The unlimited editions of Gonzalez-Torres’s stacks of paper or piles of candy, or the balloons used in General Idea’s Magic Bullet or Placebo (Helium) installations (which the viewer is supposed to take as they deflate and fall from the ceiling) not only allow the viewer to play an active part in the installation, but also ensure a certain cyclical sense of continuity for the work. The act of replenishing the paper, the candy, the balloons, is one of renewal. Life will go on, without a doubt, after the death of the artist. By responding to Gonzalez-Torres’s request, by agreeing to take responsibility, we claim our part in history.

The crucial step at the start of the AIDS crisis was to transform it from a disease which affects “them” to one that affects “us”. Now, as a worldwide pandemic, it is just as much our problem, in the most global sense, as it was in Goldin’s 1989 statement of inclusion. It has become such a fact of everyday life that it is no longer news for many industrialized countries; we still need constant reminders that it is not an African problem, an Indian problem, still someone else’s problem. The artists in Pilot Light made AIDS a priority to be dealt with and through their efforts they allowed the mainstream to accept it. These works aren’t a document of a specific time and place which has now been resolved; they are the beginnings of a conversation. The struggle now is not about acceptance but remembering that AIDS isn’t just still here, it has continued to grow, even when it is not blatantly confronting us on sitcoms, on the radio, in the movie theater. Just as it did thirty years ago, it continues to attack us relentlessly, whether we are paying attention or not. William Olander, senior curator at the New Museum in New York, who died of AIDS in 1989 at the age of 38, wrote poignantly and urgently in 1987 “Let the record show that there are many in the community of art and artists who chose not to be silent in the 1980s.”[viii] These records, that choice, that anger and that resistance are not to be forgotten.

Illustrated top:

Nan Goldin, Gilles and Gotscho embracing, 1992
cibachrome print, 30 x 40 in (76.2 x 101.6 cm). Courtesy Nan Goldin and Yvon Lambert


[i] Spector, Nancy. Felix Gonzalez-Torres. New York: Guggenheim Museum, 1995, p 158.

[ii] Jarman, Derek. At Your Own Risk: A Saint’s Testament. London: Overlook TP, 1992, p 4.

[iii] Gran Fury collection. Manuscripts and Archives Division. The New York Public Library. Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.

[iv] Spector, p 73.

[v] AA Bronson quoted in Joshua Decter, “General Idea”, Journal of Contemporary Art, Spring Summer 1991, p 58.

[vi] Jarman, p 97.

[vii] Felix Gonzalez-Torres interview with Tim Rollins, Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Los Angeles: Art Resources Transfer, 1993, p 23. Quoted in Spector, p 57.

[viii] Olander, William. Brochure for “Let the Record Show”. New York: New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1987.