Between visiting the Polo Grounds and going to The Met I ducked into the Museum of the City of New York. I’d never been before and while I planned to see the the permanent exhibition, I couldn’t help but go straight to the special ones.
Of particular interest was the AIDS at Home show. As someone who grew up in the Bay Area during the 1980s, my sense of the epidemic is very much centered on the way that it ripped out the heart of the San Francisco gay community. It’s not a sense that the Bay Area owns the trauma, just that the sheer number of stories I grew up with—and still hear—about friends my parents lost, as well as all the similarly heartbreaking community stories make this a subject which I’m particularly sensitive to.
This is one of the first shows I’ve seen which actually addresses the role art plays in responding to the epidemic. I’d thought about this previously but while one of the critiques of modern art is that it’s often too academic, the AIDS epidemic resulted in art which is intensely personal as it dealt with personal fear and loss and anger.
With every piece I found myself checking first to see whether the artist was still alive.
Much of the art in particular—especially in the earlier rooms which deal with the beginning of the epidemic—is focused on care taking and support. The artists in this case are recording the way that end of life care works or just saving the last precious moments with loved ones. While the horror of AIDS is especially awful, much of the artwork also serves as an indictment of the general quality of both American medical care and the way we treat our elderly and infirm.
People get cut off and alienated from society. Medicine is a beacon of hope which few people can either afford or access. Thirty years later I’m still outraged by the idea that much of America ignored this issue because gays “deserved” it. Thirty years later I’m even more incensed to see the logic used to ignore AIDS being applied to all medical care.
As much as it angers me, where this exhibition is strongest is in how it ties the community response to AIDS to the current struggles to make America support its marginalized and victimized communities in general. It’s explicit in making this connection—especially in terms of gay rights and expanding the definitions of family and marriage.
The true tragedy of the AIDS epidemic is in how many people got cut off from everyone who they thought the could trust. The silver lining is that the resulting fights—which I know didn’t start in the epidemic but certainly came to a head because of the for letting partners be added to leases and medical benefits and the legal ability to make decisions for each other paved a lot of the way for the advanced we’ve made today. And while things aren’t there yet. We have made advances which, while worth celebrating, need to be defended and improved upon as well.
A few specific items caught my attention. I enjoyed the dive into the AIDS Quilt and framing it as nostalgia and an extension of the previous artworks about caregiving and housing rights. While that’s not how the project frames itself, I love the idea that the quilt, in addition to being a patchwork celebration of everyone who we’ve lost to AIDS, also reflects the sense of comfort and home and caregiving that any homemade quilt represents.
And Kia Labeija’s photography is worth a special shout out. For a show which has to deal with so much loss, it’s important to see what the following generation—in this case an artist who was born infected with AIDS—is dealing with too. Her project of photos with her moms stuff is both a powerful statement about survival as well as a remembrance of her mother—both in terms of loss and dealing with the fact that what her mother left her goes beyond material items.