In Andrea Bowers' latest video installation, "The Weight of Relevance," the camera pans repeatedly across seemingly endless rows of folded fabric, sections of the AIDS Memorial Quilt stacked in a warehouse in Atlanta.
The Los Angeles-based artist became interested in the quilt a year ago after reading an article in The Times about how the once powerful political symbol has faded from public consciousness. "I'm interested in the relationship between art and activism and archival process," Bowers says. "So I thought, 'Wow, this is the perfect project for me to investigate.' "
The quilt began in 1987 with a single 3-foot-by-6-foot panel (roughly the size of a grave) and now comprises more than 46,000 pieces commemorating loved ones who died of AIDS. Weighing 54 tons and including more than 91,000 names, it has not been displayed in its entirety since 1996, when it blanketed the National Mall in Washington.
For her current exhibition at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, on view through next Saturday, Bowers contacted the Names Project Foundation, the Atlanta-based nonprofit that administers and maintains the quilt. She struck up an e-mail correspondence with staff members and eventually persuaded them to let her spend five days videotaping the storage facility and conducting interviews. She also created a scrapbook of related articles and images, which appears in the show. But the exhibit's centerpiece is a three-channel video projection that juxtaposes footage of the folded panels with shots of staff members talking about the quilt and issues such as the disease's changing demographic.
"Over 51% of the people getting AIDS today are women," says Bowers, "and in the United States, it's mainly black and brown people -- and particularly African American women." Bowers sees a direct link between shifts in the disease's demographic and dwindling media attention, and for her, the warehousing of the quilt is both metaphor and evidence of this indifference. "It's like a re-silencing of the disease," she says.
Bowers is also interested in the tension between the quilt's role as an activist statement and its status as a historical document. "It's been designated a National Treasure," she says, but the people on the Names Project staff "don't want to institutionalize it, because then they're afraid it will never show." The foundation keeps sections of the quilt circulating for exhibition while supporting a constant cycle of preservation and repair.
A second video, "Continual Maintenance and Mending," shows full-time seamstress Gert McMullin, who has cared for the quilt since its inception, cleaning and mending the panels. Bowers was struck by how many of the caretakers and activists involved with the quilt are women. As a feminist, she says, her work is about "bringing attention to the fact that art and politics have always been connected, and particularly women's craft and political activism."
The exhibit includes examples of Bowers' own craft: detailed drawings of the quilt panels, both folded and unfurled. "I think it's a way of internalizing and learning the information," she says. "I really believe in a '70s feminist notion of information coming through the body. Information just doesn't go straight into your head. You have a body, a sensorial experience, and that affects what you learn."
"It's as though she's taking all these immeasurable, indigestible ideas that we can't handle," says Eungie Joo, director and curator of the Gallery at REDCAT, where Bowers had a solo show last year, "and using her body as the mediator." Joo adds that it's "a political act to place herself in the service of recording or giving a voice to this activist history that is disappearing."
Although Bowers considers herself an activist in her personal life, activism is the subject, rather than the intent, of her artwork.
"At one point I had to decide, 'What do I think should be subject matter for art?' " she recalls. "And for me it was a political subject matter. That was just what was extremely meaningful to me and what I was interested in."
This confluence of politics and art is a fairly recent development for the 42-year-old artist.
After receiving a master of fine arts degree from CalArts in 1992, Bowers became known for conceptual works on punk and working-class subcultures and the dynamics of crowds.
Although politics was always in the background of this earlier work, it came to the fore in 2003 when she made a video documentary about a tree-sitter's campaign to save an old-growth oak in Valencia.
Since then she has created work about abortion rights activists, nonviolent civil disobedience training, innocent deaths in Iraq and now AIDS.
"A big part of my artistic process is looking back at history and reconsidering it, particularly the role that women have played," she says. "I think about art as being part of history, an historical record, and I think these things should be a part of that history."
Bowers' artistic practice overlaps with her involvement with progressive groups, including women's health clinics and the Sierra Club. Some of the organizations she has worked with have used her research and videos in their own programs or have invited her to give lectures.
She also requests that a percentage from the sale of her work be donated to a charitable cause. "Very often we give a courtesy discount; usually it's 10%," says gallery owner Susanne Vielmetter, who has represented Bowers for the last year. "So I ask collectors, instead of us giving them the 10%, would they be willing to give this 10% to the Names Foundation?" Vielmetter says the idea has been well received.
"When I work with an organization, I like to try to give back to them in some way," Bowers says. By giving voice to otherwise neglected histories, it's likely that she already has.
'The Weight of Relevance'
Where: Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, 5795 W. Washington Blvd., Culver City
When: Through next Saturday. Closed Sundays and Mondays.
Contact: (323) 933-2117, www.vielmetter.com