David Wojnarowicz of ACT UP demonstrates outside the offices of the New York City Commissioner of Health, 1988. Photograph by t.l. litt
© t.l. litt
When does an epidemic begin, and when does it end? It’s now commonplace, at least among those privileged enough to have received the COVID-19 vaccine, to talk of a “postpandemic world,” as if nearly nine thousand people worldwide weren’t still dying every day from the virus. The novel coronavirus’s origin may be a subject of debate in right-wing conspiracy circles but, like most other viruses, it was likely around long before it was ever observed in humans.
This year marks the first anniversary since COVID-19 became a global pandemic, and forty years since AIDS was first reported. The latter milestone has occasioned a number of retrospective exhibitions, including More Life at David Zwirner in New York, though as a timeline on the gallery’s website acknowledges, deaths from AIDS-related complications were recorded in the US as early as 1969, fifty years after scientists believe it jumped from nonhuman primates. These dates tell us much about who was considered worthy of attention; no one seemed to notice AIDS until it affected middle-class white gay men. The Zwirner timeline focuses heavily on the institutional controversies that followed artists who engaged with HIV/AIDS as their subject matter, particularly after 2000, when protease inhibitors made HIV manageable for those with financial means and access to health care. Yet at least fifteen million people have died from complications of the virus since then, mostly in developing countries. As artist and activist Gregg Bordowitz reminds us in the epitaph to his current survey at MoMA PS1, “The AIDS Crisis Is Still Beginning.” COVID-19 may never end.
More Life is a historical show, although AIDS is not yet history. Its selections safely invest in the established canon. At Zwirner’s two Chelsea locations, two cinematic masterpieces—Marlon Riggs’s Tongues Untied (1989) and Derek Jarman’s Blue (1993)—will be familiar to many. Several vitrines contain materials from the Silence=Death and subsequent Gran Fury collectives: ephemera, including the iconic “Silence=Death” poster that the groups wheat-pasted around New York and distributed at protests until their disbandment in 1995. At the gallery’s Upper East Side jewel-box space, a selection of photographs by Mark Morrisroe, the late punk prince of Polaroid photography, likewise showcases the work of a widely acknowledged genius. Little unifies these disparate artists save the virus that ended their lives—and, perhaps, a particular sensitivity to the evanescence of light, that essential ingredient of film and photography.
Blue is a poetic conflation of an ophthalmological condition with the anatomy of cinema. Toward the end of Jarman’s life, Kaposi sarcoma lesions—a common complication of HIV/ AIDS—developed on his pupils, causing flashes of blue to interrupt his vision. The entire seventy-five-minute run of the film is a single frame of International Klein Blue, the rich azure developed in 1960 by Yves Klein, then best known as the creator of The Void (1958). Jarman plumbed the blue void for centuries of poetry and song, recited by the artist and his friends, in which the color of sea and sky is charged with meaning. By using his own literal vision as the subject for a film, Jarman frames light as the force that animates both our bodies and our cameras. The intense hue seared itself into my eyeballs and made the outside world seem sepia-toned for some time after I left the gallery, as if I had come face to face with my own mortality.
Still from Marlon Riggs, Tongues Untied, 1989
Courtesy Frameline and Signifyin’ Works
Donna Binder, Women of ACT-UP demonstrate at NIH, 1990
© Donna Binder
Blue eyes haunt Marlon Riggs, too. Throughout Tongues Untied, the filmmaker narrates his own painful journey from shame to self-acceptance as a Black gay man, including his years of fetishizing white men. “I was intent on a search for my reflection—love, affirmation—in eyes of blue-gray-green,” he says, only to discover that, by pursuing those eyes, he had rendered himself “invisible” in the process. The film interweaves Riggs’s story with poetry written and performed by Essex Hemphill, among others, and sketches of Black gay life that are alternately tender, comic, and devastating. In one sequence, from footage purportedly on loan from the “Institute of Snap!thology,” a group of men demonstrates how to communicate through diva snaps, which can serve as both punctuation and prose. Anti-gay and racist slurs interrupt moving reflections on Riggs’s attempts to articulate his own identity. If Tongues Untied concerns itself with light, it sheds some on what society would prefer to shroud in darkness; released the same year that legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw introduced “intersectionality” into the lexicon of critical race theory, the film confronts the challenge of speaking to, and making visible, an identity that is doubly marginalized.
In Camera Lucida (1980), Roland Barthes proposed that every photograph has a punctum, a “sting, speck, cut, little hole” that centers our attention. His first example, notably, was the hand of a young Black boy resting on the thigh of a French colonial explorer in an 1882 photograph—a “speck” of interracial homoeroticism that seems, at least for Barthes, to cut through whatever else the picture was intended to relay. In Blue and Tongues Untied, these cuts come from body parts—eyes, lips, fingers—that both articulate and absorb the world around them. Their power to do so can be transferred to the devices of film and photography: cameras enable these filmmakers to isolate and reproduce aspects of their physical experience so that we may briefly inhabit them.
Cuts can be found all over the surface of Mark Morrisroe’s large-format “sandwich prints,” Polaroid double negatives that he layered one atop the other. Their rough edges seem to mimic Morrisroe’s own scars and the scruffy scenes he photographed with affection. The selection on view at Zwirner includes several iconic self-portraits, as well as images of his friends Jack Pierson, Tabboo!, and Lynelle White. There are drag antics and painterly views of the sky, fuzzy with clouds or darkening at sunset. Light in these photographs always seems to be fading, and it’s tempting to see them as talismans of Morrisroe’s own life, which ended when he was barely thirty.
More life, tragically, is the one thing these artists wanted but wouldn’t have. Still, by staging such a resolutely retrospective exhibition, Zwirner chose to ignore the work of artists still living with and fighting against HIV/AIDS. In the process, a particular history of the epidemic has been retread. Women are also notably absent from the show—not just from these three exhibitions but also another four shows of work by Ching Ho Cheng, Frank Moore, Jesse Murry, and Hugh Steers, due at the gallery’s London and New York spaces in September. It’s an immense amount of time and space to afford such a narrow view of history. As Sarah Shulman argues in her monolithic new book Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP New York, 1987–1993 (2021), the voices of gay men—and particularly white gay men—have prevented many others from being heard. The AIDS crisis is still beginning, and how we address it now may affect if it can ever end.
More Life is on view at David Zwirner’s New York galleries through August 3, 2021.