Challenging Representational Strategies in the Second Decade of the Epidemic 

 

Paul Sendziuk

 

According to The Age newspaper's critic, Bruce James, the Art in the Age of AIDS exhibition in Canberra marked "a shift in the prevailing aesthetics of AIDS from fatality and from the medicalisation to which it commonly surrenders". He surmised, "it is now considered more conducive to cultural production of an original kind to affirm the living in advance of memorialising the dead" (The Age, 30 November 1994). Yet in challenging the stigmatising representations of people with AIDS and 'high risk' groups, the work of artists and activists on display in the National Gallery of Australia constituted a new mythology which, for different reasons, could be considered to be equally stifling and disempowering. Their images left little room for those people who were very sick to speak, for gay men and HIV-positive individuals to admit occasional episodes of unsafe sex, and for death and the afterlife to be discussed. 

 

Yet in Australia the new, inclusive, 'AIDS aesthetic' had softened community attitudes, and political and public support for the work of community-based AIDS organisations was increasing. Artists working in the second decade of the epidemic thus felt at greater liberty to speak honestly about AIDS and communities at risk, and in the process challenged the representational orthodoxy that had been enshrined in the Art in the Age of AIDS exhibition. Well-known as well as underrepresented U.S. and Australian contemporary artists -- in particular photographer William Yang, visual artist Maree Azzopardi, film-maker Lawrence Johnston, and author Eric Michaels -- portrayed of people with AIDS and addressed themes that might have been regarded by their predecessors as 'politically incorrect': death, disfigurement, unprotected sex, and transgression. 

 

In America, debates about how best to represent the epidemic predated and were much more bitter than those taking place in Australia. Prominent critics decried the advent of 'victim art', while artists were variously championed or vilified by AIDS activists according to their aesthetics and political outlook - the reaction to the productions of Bill T. Jones's dance company and exhibitions by the photographer Nicholas Nixon is instructive in this regard. Their stories provide a counterpoint to those of Australian artists who, on the whole, were well received by activists and the communities most affected by AIDS. 

 

If using this information, please use the following citation:
Paul Sendziuk, 'Challenging Representational Strategies in the Second Decade of the Epidemic', The Art of AIDS Prevention, www.aidsart.org; accessed <insert date>

 

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4. Artists Respond to the AIDS Crisis in South Africa

 

5. The Art of AIDS Prevention

 

Eric Rhein
Eric Rhein

'Jeffery with Leaf', silver gelatin print, 10" x 8", 1993.

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Albert J. Winn
Albert J. Winn

'Band-Aids (Neck)', silver gelatin print, 20" x 16", 1999.

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Alberto Velasco
Alberto Velasco

'Untitled', colour pencil on paper, 11" x 8", 1996.

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Eric Rhein
Eric Rhein

'Jeffery with Leaf', silver gelatin print, 10" x 8", 1993.

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