by Lester Strong
via A&U July 25th, 2011
Curator John Chaich and Visual AIDS team up together in the show Mixed Messages to remind us that apathy is no cure for aids...
|David Wojnarowicz, Untitled (One day this kid...), 1990. Courtesy of The Estate of David Wojnarowicz and P.P.O.W Gallery, New York|
Curator John Chaich has updated that tradition into our contemporary world, placing it in an AIDS context, in a recent (June 2 through July 3) exhibition for Visual AIDS titled Mixed Messages at one of New York City’s premier alternative arts venues, La MaMa La Galleria.
AIDS and HIV, acronyms though they are, have had their own memorable histories as words. First introduced in the early 1980s to name a newly discovered disease—Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome—and its cause—Human Immunodeficiency Virus—they themselves quickly acquired an air of mystery and threat. In the first years of what later became the worldwide pandemic we know today, AIDS had no known cure or treatment options, unclear modes of transmission, and an unpleasant death as its only certain outcome. It also burst on the world as a disease associated mainly with gay men, which meant that, especially in the United States, homophobia played its part in the attempted social ostracism of those having it and calls by right-wing politicos of the day for their incarceration in concentration camps.
That started to change in the mid-1990s with the introduction of effective antiretroviral medicines that didn’t cure AIDS but transformed it into a manageable, chronic illness like diabetes or asthma. The result: By now, almost precisely on the thirtieth anniversary of the first reported cases of people with the disease, the terms AIDS and HIV have moved largely into the background of our culture, scarcely mentioned on newscasts or in the print media any longer, while all the hysteria of several decades ago has vanished into what often feels like a vast indifference on the part of the public at large.
|Jack Pierson, Desire/Despair, 1998, c-print, 20 x 16 inches, AP 2/2. Courtesy of the artist and Cheim & Read, New York|
Enter John Chaich and Mixed Messages. When contacted about the exhibit and asked how it came about, Chaich traced it back to an interest he developed while working for a Master of Fine Arts degree in Communications Design regarding how effective designing with words alone is in communicating messages rather than designing with a combination of words and images. “As a communications designer, I’m a writer first,” he explained. “I would argue that presenting words alone is actually a very visual experience, and I’ve always been interested in playing with words on the page and through the spoken word.”
Mixed Messages was certainly about words. And it’s no surprise it was also about AIDS. Chaich began his career as an HIV counselor and community educator in his hometown of Cleveland before moving to New York City for graduate school. Since then he has presented at national conferences on AIDS and the arts, and has worked for almost a decade with Visual AIDS on a number of their projects.
“For my degree,” he said, “I began to research which campaigns historically and today had to do primarily with words only. And given my personal history and knowledge of art and design in response to HIV/AIDS, many of the examples I was looking at and collecting were drawn from that world. The more I collected, and the more HIV/AIDS-specific examples I came across, the more passionate I felt about exploring how words have shaped our understanding of HIV/AIDS and how we are challenged when those words are visually presented.”
|Andrew Graham, AIDS is God’s Curse, 2009, acrylic on canvas, 12 by 9 inches. Courtesy of the artist|
|"Untitled", 1989, framed silkscreen on paper, 16½ x 21¾ inches, edition of 250, 10 APs, No. 70 of 250. Published by Public Art Fund, NY © The Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation, Courtesy of Andrea Rosen, NY|
Perhaps one of the more profound messages viewers could take away from the exhibition, especially in the face of so much apparent indifference on the part of the public at large to this pandemic on its thirtieth anniversary, is that the art in the show was created by people very much in touch with their outrage at and concern over the effects of AIDS. Apathy has never solved a problem. John Chaich is reminding us we must remain connected to our own outrage and concern as individuals and a society if we want to see the crisis come to an end.
Lester Strong is Special Projects Editor for A&U.