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Art and World AIDS Day

Nov. 29, 2016
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I discovered Gustav Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder, Songs on the Death of Children, back in my college days. I liked them for their emotional drama despite the morbid content. Today I find them unlistenable. The opening line of one does haunt me at times like these:


“Oft denk’ ich sie sind nur ausgegangen / bald werden sie wieder nach Hause gelangen.”

“I often think they’ve only gone out / and they will soon return home again.”

There’s an art exhibit currently on tour, “Art AIDS America.” It contains more than 100 works by leading world artists from the mid-1980s to the present. It opens Dec. 1 at Chicago’s Alphawood Gallery and runs through the winter.

“Art AIDS America” won’t be coming to Milwaukee. Still, to our credit, we have our own extensive history of addressing the HIV/AIDS pandemic through visual and performance art.

In the early 1990s artist Tom Pawzun created a series of agitprop AIDS posters. One focused on pediatric AIDS, almost a taboo topic at the time. Another was a collage of familiar faces of local AIDS victims. Sold for $10 each, Pawzun donated all proceeds to the S.E. Wisconsin AIDS Project. Then, in April of 2005 I curated the Milwaukee Gay Arts Center’s (MGAC) first art exhibition, “Tapestries.” It featured panels from the NAMES Project—AIDS Memorial Quilt relevant to Milwaukee. A year later, I curated the “Saint Sebastian Project,” a show inspired by that famous martyr and patron of plague victims. The saint is traditionally depicted with arrows piercing his groin, armpit and neck, the sites of lymph nodes that would swell in infected victims. Over the following years, MGAC continued to produce HIV/AIDS-related art and theater.

In 2010 NAMES Project quilts hung at the Milwaukee Art Museum (MAM). Underwritten by philanthropist/activist Joseph R. Pabst, the selected panels were by famous fashion designers. Two years later, Pabst donated Taryn Simon’s Live HIV photograph of a bottle of active virus to MAM, stipulating it be shown on future World AIDS Days. Pabst himself appeared in a Jim Goldberg Polaroid marked “I have AIDS” in the museum’s 2014 exhibit, “Postcards from America.” And, last year he made another infamous donation, Eggs Benedict, Niki Johnson’s condom portrait of its papal namesake. The gift brought MAM both international repute and local scandal. After its brief public viewing, Benedict disappeared into storage. MAM does have HIV/AIDS-related works on permanent display. Although not as blatantly confrontational, they hang there nevertheless.


Meanwhile, Johnson, again using condoms as medium, launched her AIDS awareness project, Preservatif in Milwaukee on World AIDS Day 2014. On the same day, MGAC produced a theater program celebrating rather than grieving authors lost to the disease. Conceived and directed by Peter Mortensen, its intent to avoid a sense of mourning proved difficult. Under the circumstances, feelings of grief and loss were inextricable. Last season the Florentine Opera Company produced Jake Heggie’s Three Decembers, a contemporary work with an AIDS-related subplot.

But as much as art, as a tool and weapon, serves to warn and inform, its success depends on its accessibility to those who most need to hear and heed its message. One can only hope artists continue to repeat that message if for no other reason, to remember.


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