It's been nine years since the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome virus was identified, and at this point, most of us have a fundamental knowledge of the disease. For the most part, however, AIDS continues to be shrouded in a web of fear and misinformation. "Living With AIDS--a Collaborative Reflection," a multimedia exhibition on view at Otis/Parsons through Nov. 18, attempts to offer an enlightened view of the disease by countering AIDS paranoia with the real facts about the epidemic (which are plenty frightening).
Designed to galvanize the viewer into actively helping fight the disease, "Living With AIDS" also seeks to give a face to the depersonalizing statistics that make AIDS seem like an unreal abstraction.
The art community has been hard hit by AIDS and has responded responsibly, but great social problems don't necessarily spawn great art. Moreover, the nature of this work makes it impossible to measure it with the criteria usually employed in evaluating art--AIDS art has different goals in mind, and the pieces here work well on their own terms; they're emotionally moving and informative. In brief, we learn there are an estimated 10 million cases of AIDS worldwide; as of this summer 59,000 people died from it, and by the end of 1992 the death count is expected to reach 263,000.
We clearly have an epidemic on our hands, but "Living With AIDS" is as much about politics as it is about illness, because AIDS is an intensely political disease. AIDS has generated an ugly wave of homophobia, and ACT UP/L.A., an AIDS activist group (which took part in this show), is convinced that AIDS was allowed to mushroom into an epidemic because of homophobia. Openly discriminated against by the insurance industry, AIDS victims, the activist group says, have needlessly wasted away while Washington has dragged its feet in responding to the crisis. Governmental negligence in combating AIDS is a leitmotif that turns up throughout the show.
The exhibition breaks down into four sections, the first of which centers on "The Quilt," a massive ongoing project that has involved the efforts of 10,500 people thus far. Conceived in 1987 by Cleve Jones, director of the NAMES Project, the Quilt came into being as a means of affording a positive mode of expression for those touched by AIDS. Composed of 10,500 3-foot-by-6-foot panels, each commemorating an AIDS victim, the Quilt presently weighs in at 16 tons and is capable of covering 14 acres. Five panels are on view here, and through them we meet five very different victims: a boy with hemophilia, a New York writer, a one-time Olympic decathlon star, a U.S. Navy commander and a former drug user. These people are brought to life for us though the remembrances of those who survived them, and none is dismissable as a "type." That brings the disease a little closer to home.
Ann Meredith shows "Until That Last Breath: Women With AIDS," a series of portraits of female AIDS victims, while Kim Abeles, Peter Bergman, Russell Moore and Barbara McBane offer "Found Voices (Dedicated to People With AIDS)," a mixed-media installation centering around a large round table with a glassed surface. Encased within the table are personal items belonging to AIDS victims--postcards, souvenirs, jewelry--carefully arranged on a bed of purple satin that imbues the table with the sense of finality of a coffin. Taped interviews with PWAs (people with AIDS) complete the piece.
"Street Graphic Interventions," a photo essay by Diane Neumaier, documents a graffiti campaign executed by a guerrilla-art group in New York. The group plastered subway billboards with AIDS-related commentary (which city officials made a point of removing in a matter of hours). Also on view are photography projects done by members of a therapy group for PWAs. And "TheDistanceBetween," an installation by Russell Moore involving slides of AIDS victims superimposed on the American flag, which are projected onto a wall hung with six mirrors--the obvious point being that you could be the next person to contract the disease.
And that's the fact about AIDS that people seem most determined to deny. County Supervisor Pete Schabarum recently commented that "if you were to poll the man on the street, the vast majority would not have any interest in AIDS or AIDS funding." People with this disease aren't the only ones victimized by this lack of compassion. The poor, the elderly--any stripe of marginalized individual--all are basically in the same plight, as America devolves into a culture of coffee achievers obsessed with winning. There's no safety net for the sick or downtrodden in America anymore, and if you stumble and fall, you're simply shoved out of the way.
America has been trying to sweep AIDS under the rug for nine years, but as we learn in "Living With AIDS," there soon won't be a big enough rug.