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It’s easy these days to forget the strange confluence of cultural factors which brought gay rights into the American mainstream. Chief among these is the AIDS epidemic which, at its peak not so long ago, terrorized and polarized the American public. Art and entertainment created in response to the epidemic played a crucial role in increasing its visibility: in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, you might have learned about AIDS through Rock Hudson, Magic Johnson, the B-52s, Robert Mapplethorpe, Life Goes On, or all five (as I did). The artists of this time period—many politically demonized, like Mapplethorpe, David Wojnarowicz, and Karen Finley—created work relentless in its exposing of societally-sanctioned homophobia and visceral in its processing of personal and public grief, confusion and anger.
It should surprise no one that art of the AIDS crisis is currently undergoing reappraisal and canonization (and I’m sure rising in sales price). That it is happening twenty-odd years after the fact keeps with the structure of historical impulse; revisiting only after the cool remove of temporal distance.
Welcome though this belated recognition may be, it leaves me suspicious. And so I entered MOCA’s Tongues Untied warily, while appreciating the timeliness of this exhibition occurring at a moment when casual misuse of PrEP and the recession of AIDS as a death sentence threaten the hard-won gains of the safe sex movement.
MOCA’s exhibition trades survey for snapshot, focusing on works shown at MOCA during the peak of the AIDS crisis. In doing so, Tongues Untied evinces a smattering of voices rather than a cohesive identity—mirroring an essential characteristic of the political dimensions infusing much of the work on display. The potent cocktail of politics, anger, mortality, and impotence in the face of a monolithic illness (and a largely indifferent America) produced a polemicized art which fused sexuality, scatology, and the funereal.
So what of the politics? Gran Fury’s aggressive reworking of the language of propaganda display adjacent to a recording of Ron Vawter’s searing monologue on the subject of homophobic lawyer (and early AIDS victim) Roy Cohn (1995). Elsewhere, Adam Rolston takes Prince’s “pocket full of horses” a few steps further, stacking entire boxes full of (now-expired) Trojans on the gallery floor. In the near-artless purity of its safe-sex politics, Rolston’s and Gran Fury’s work provide both contrast and context for the subtleties of much of the exhibition’s remaining work.
John Boskovich and Nan Goldin each reject the presentation of the AIDS victim as a sanitized martyr, instead portraying their outcast subjects as messy, contradictory, and occasionally transcendent. In so doing, Goldin and Boskovich portray the interior and social worlds of their subjects without apology and with grace rather than stridence. Goldin’s photographs of rumpled bed sheets and graffiti skeletons getting it on allude much more than they declare. Boskovich is both more aggressive and more subjective at once, capturing drug use, sex, Valley of the Dolls and a host of other minor events unfolding in the small hours of the night.
Felix Gonzales-Torres goes even further, pushing beyond the figurative in the oblique, minimal animism of Untitled (A Corner of Baci) (1991) and the gentle, poignant allusion of Untitled (March 5th) #2 (1991). The latter consists of two 40-watt light bulbs hanging side by side, their cords trailing down and over to the nearest outlet. Positioned at the top of a staircase, this piece lends itself to a variety of readings: as testicles (figuratively), as the provider of intimate incandescence for an upstairs room (the site of potentially lurid happenings), as two bodies transfigured into everyday objects that still retain body-like warmth. Gonzales-Torres skirts the rim of direct meaning despite the aching simplicity of his material palette.
It is Karen Finley who provides the exhibition with a striking and singular balance between the political and the aesthetic, particularly in The Black Sheep (1990). On two cast bronze panels a long poem is inscribed, reading as both an organizing philosophy and a valedictory address to the “black sheep” community of AIDS victims and their loved ones. The panels are the sort you might see in a corporate lobby listing bigwig donors, their cast names heavy, present, important. In Finley’s hands, the simultaneous gravity and familiarity of this material becomes imbued with particular resonance, directly and powerfully addressing dignity, dying and the prejudice of her contemporary moment:
Sometimes, some Black Sheep are chosen to die
so loved ones, families, countries and cultures can finally say
Your life was worth living
Your life meant something to me!1
Similarly, the exhibition’s video centerpiece, Marlon Riggs’ Tongues Untied, interweaves direct address with nuance, and poetics with blunt, sometimes wooden politics. Riggs’s voice-over poignantly asks, “Where is my reflection?” (In the media, as I pass away?). As a black gay man, Riggs did not see himself reflected in his own community or the larger public. In the unevenness of Tongues Untied—in its protests, doo-wop singers, street-voguing men, and ponderous, singular rumination—Riggs captured a crucial quality of life as experienced through art: its miraculous paradox and selective clarity. Tongues Untied acts as a nagging voice throughout the rest of the exhibition (literally—you can hear it from every corner), a veering, wandering reminder of the search for “simple shameless brazen truth.”2
That the AIDS epidemic’s massive death toll acted as the catalyst for both great art and expanded gay rights is, perhaps, the silver lining of catastrophe. Ultimately, the social repercussions of AIDS and of public indifference to the crisis often overwhelms contemporary artworks yoked to the twin bridle of politics and aesthetics. In 1992, United Colors of Benetton ran a highly controversial ad, Pieta3, showing dying AIDS activist David Kirby surrounded by family in his hospital room. The photograph is striking and strange, Kirby’s lifeless, wooden appearance contrasted with the middle-American averageness of his grieving family. The power of its politics and its artistry, however, are undermined in an oily manner by the appearance of the United Colors of Benetton logo, the ad’s only text. That the ad raises awareness of a deadly illness as it draws one’s awareness to a particular brand is central to its arresting disquiet.
Tongues Untied, though less unruly in its stew of politics and art, does its works a great service simply by allowing them to be heard, seen and experienced. The preciousness of the work, particularly as an outcome of its relegation to a specific and always-receding historical moment, fuse with the candor and rage of its politics. The politics of Tongues Untied which feel inarguable, even exhausting now, were anything but at the time, and herein lies the exhibition’s major strength: the quiet framing of a moment not so long ago that somehow feels very different from our own.
This essay was originally published in Carla issue 2.