Over the last few years, films like HBO’s The Normal Heart and David France’s documentary How to Survive a Plague have brought stories of AIDS activism to new audiences. Here dramatic public protest takes center stage in the ways that we talk about AIDS activism in the past and present. In the Museum of the City of New York’s exhibit AIDS at Home: Art and Everyday Activism, curator and historian Stephen Vider tells the story of the epidemic through moments that are often quieter and more intimate, but that carry no less gravity. Altogether, the exhibit forces us to rethink — that is to say, it queers — our ideas about home, AIDS, and activism.
AIDS at Home includes a wide range of materials, from archival documents and ephemera to documentary film and fine art. Visitors can watch Buddies for Life, a short documentary about the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) buddy program, in which volunteers provided help and companionship to people living with AIDS. Wire sculpture by the artist Eric Rhein, whose work pays tribute to friends lost to AIDS, sits on the wall alongside archival ephemera, such as a newsletter from God’s Love We Deliver, which began providing meals to people with AIDS in 1985.
The gallery space is divided into four sections, corresponding to the exhibit’s themes: “Caretaking,” “Housing,” “Family,” and “HIV/AIDS at Home Today.” Each section begins with a panel of brightly colored wallpaper, giving the exhibit a kitschy vibe that echoes some of the irrepressibly campy activism on display, like ACT UP’s protest at Trump Tower on Halloween, 1989. The wallpaper is not merely decorative, but rather engages the exhibit’s content. For example, a pattern by Avram Finkelstein (of ACT UP and Gran Fury) jabs at the profit-driven, better-living–through — chemistry ethos of the pharmaceutical industry, with repeated images of factories spewing smoke and pills handed down from on high.
In part, the exhibit asks what happens when AIDS “comes home”: how have people with AIDS and their loved ones coped with the day-to-day experience of illness? And what has it meant for HIV/AIDS to become normalized as a chronic medical condition by advances in treatment? But the exhibit also makes clear that notions of home and family can be complicated and painful for LGBT and queer people, a reality that has been magnified by HIV/AIDS. Many who died in the early years of the epidemic had been rejected by their biological families for being gay or transgender, and others were shunned once their illness effectively outed them to relatives. Many also found themselves homeless as declining health led to the loss of jobs and income. Gay men who cared for dying lovers sometimes afterward found themselves kicked out of rent-controlled apartments because they had no legal standing as domestic partners.
The exhibit deals with “home” in these various respects: as a set of personal connections, as a legal concept, and as a material place. The “Family” section includes photographic work by Luna Luis Ortiz, a youth educator with GMHC, who documents the chosen families of queer youth of color on Christopher Street and in the ballroom scene. Visitors also learn about the case of Braschi v. Stahl Associates, in which the New York Court of Appeals recognized a deceased gay man’s surviving partner as family, allowing him to stay in the couple’s rent-controlled apartment. In the “Housing” section, visitors can flip through a timeline of Housing Works (also available online), a group that combats AIDS and homelessness, and read trans artist Chloe Dzubilo’s account of living in a bedbug-infested facility for people living with AIDS.
Whereas other accounts may highlight protest and direct action around the epidemic, AIDS at Home instead focuses on the “everyday activism” of caring: both the supportive role of caring for and the emotional act of caring about, which have been historically feminized. In this way, the exhibit pushes us to think about what counts as political, and the ways that our ideas about politics remain shaped by binaries of masculine and feminine, straight and gay, and public and private. Several items, such as Jeffrey Scott Wilson’s HIV Sampler, also confront viewers with these questions. In the same way that the letters “HIV” interrupt the alphabet on Wilson’s embroidery sampler, Wilson interrupts the historically masculine space of the gallery with a mass-market “feminine” handicraft. The piece also evokes frivolity and innocence, with a simple outline of a house and wandering, uneven letters that suggest a child’s hand, which contrast sharply with the deadly virus that seems to have stopped the artist mid-stitch. Both the form and content of Wilson’s work thus ask us to think about what happens when “home” is invaded — or infected — by a queer contagion.
The arrangement of items also reflects the caretaking theme. At the very beginning of the exhibit, a doctor’s letter to photographer Peter Hujar, stenciled by his lover David Wojnarowicz with an outline of two boys kissing, sits above a copy of Hujar’s home care plan, written less than two months before his death. The image of a passionate embrace defies the sterility of the letter underneath, claiming gay sexuality as an expression of love at a time when many associated it instead with death. Across the room, wallpaper by the living artist Carl George abuts a painting by his best friend Hugh Stevens, who passed away in 1995. Like the men in Steers’ Bath Curtain, the items seem to hold each other, reassuring, comforting, mourning. But the tenderness of these images sits alongside a latent anger — Wojnarowicz’ piece is taken from a larger series titled Fuck You Faggot Fucker, while the reclining figure in Steers’ work twists in apparent agony. AIDS activism, the exhibit reminds us, was born of both love and rage.
In the middle of the gallery space, a cubicle houses Six Days from Forty, an installation Lori Grinker created in memory of her brother, Marc, who passed away in 1996. In what is perhaps the exhibit’s single most haunting work, Grinker conjures her brother through artifacts of his life and illness — photographs, notebooks, treatment records — displayed as print and in glass cases on one wall of the cubicle’s interior. A wooden bench along another wall invites visitors to observe a conversation with Marc from late in his life, which the artist has recreated. She asks questions about his treatment and how he is feeling, which play over audio, while his answers appear only as text that materializes on a video screen and then evaporates. The track of Grinker’s questions — absent her brother’s answers — echoes throughout the gallery, evoking a sense of loss that resonates through the rest of the exhibit, literally and figuratively.
And yet, AIDS at Home is hopeful. The stories the exhibit tells are those of pain and loss, but also of resilience. In an era of both mass protest and dire threats to AIDS programs, these stories are also urgent. To borrow an ACT UP slogan, the AIDS crisis is not over; this summer AIDS activists were key players in the grassroots fight against the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. (Full disclosure: I joined Housing Works and other groups in several acts of civil disobedience on Capitol Hill surrounding the healthcare debate.) In the midst of mass action, AIDS at Home invites us to reflect on activism in the intimate and everyday. In doing so, it reminds us not only to recognize the personal as political, but to create community and care for one another in the streets as well.
AIDS at Home: Art and Everyday Activism (through October 22, 2017)
Museum of the City of New York
1220 Fifth Ave at 103rd St.
New York, NY
Dan Royles is an Assistant Professor of History at Florida International University.