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ART REVIEW : Exhibit Gives AIDS Human Face--a Woman’s

Soulfully the young mother looks over the playground, one arm encircling her tiny daughter, drawing her close. The child is strangely calm, her eyes unfocused, her mouth slack. This image, a pale gray photograph titled simply “A Mother and Her Child Who Has AIDS,” is part of the poignant multimedia exhibit, “Until the Last Breath: Women With AIDS,” presented by the Women’s Building (to Aug. 19). It’s a powerful encounter with people--people being changed by death.

With photography, video, short quotes and pieces of chunky art-therapy craft, “Until the Last Breath” makes a difficult subject approachable. It manages to humanize an epidemic that for many is simply a depressing but impersonal social plague. Organized by documentary photographer Ann Meredith, the focus is on women--the nearly forgotten victims of this disease.

Meredith’s project was completed in cooperation with the Women’s Support Group of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, the Woman’s AIDS Network and the San Francisco Commission on the Status of Women. Most of the exhibit consists of Meredith’s photographs. They are compelling, photojournalistic glimpses of the victims’ stark lives, accompanied by fragmented bits of narrative from the women themselves.

The pairing of the women’s portraits with separate pieces of text creates an intense human presence similar to Sophie Calle’s conceptual art piece, “Blind.” Here, however, the specter of death lends the words added emotional force. Some of the photos, like the one of an anonymous infected mother playing with her child, are beautiful. Most are raw, capturing the scratchy, unpleasant texture of poverty, alienation and physical pain.

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Facts about each woman accompany her image. These telling bits of information give the first name, age, sexual preference (more than half are heterosexual) and how they were infected (most are former i.v. drug users). The pieces of data coolly anticipate the viewers’ questions about how the women became infected and clinically set up a basis for understanding the effect on their lives.

On small white cards tucked beside the speaker’s photograph are short quotes taken from interviews given to the artist. Invariably, the phrases make the women and extent of their suffering vibrantly real. “Joan,” a lesbian and i.v. drug user, stands in front of a picture of a gun in a poster for the movie “Final Justice,” wearing an emblematic T-shirt that makes her an obvious target. Her comments hint at guilt as well as fears of abandonment as she wonders why her parents don’t respond to her letters and requests not to be left alone.

Interspersed in the exhibit are statistics and facts about AIDS or definitions that make some of the medical terminology the women use to describe their treatments and illnesses less mysterious. The information isn’t overdone and is only occasionally intrusive, but the net effect of individuals conversing in medical shorthand about their own life and death is chilling.

Also chilling are the social ramifications of AIDS and the public’s rejection of its victims. Mothers give birth to infected babies or try single-handedly to maintain families after their husbands die. But often they are dying too and must struggle to pay the rent, prepare food and be there for the children. “Meredith” asks for all of us: “Who will take care of the children?”

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The large amount of text will undoubtedly put some people off, but the intensity of the subject almost welcomes the calming objectivity of the facts and figures. Perhaps ironically, the information lends a sense of control to something we can number and date--even if there is no containment or cure in sight.

Video interviews breathe even more immediacy into the exhibit. The coolness of the statistics coupled with the unromantic photography gives a sense of the arbitrary nature of chance and the unsophisticated bluntness of death. It is the women who make it personal.


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