Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 25, 2018
Sophie Junge Art about AIDS: Nan Goldin’s Exhibition Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing Berlin: De Gruyter, 2017. 352 pp.; 28 color ills.; 40 b/w ills. Hardcover $126.00 (9783110453072)

Eight years after the first cases of AIDS came to light in the United States, and six years before combined antiretroviral therapy was introduced, the photographer Nan Goldin organized the exhibition Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing at Artists Space, New York. This event, an outcry from an East Village community besieged by the AIDS epidemic, is at the core of Sophie Junge’s detailed study Art against AIDS. Consequentially, the book does not open with an introduction but with installation shots of the 1989–90 exhibition.

The photographs detail the sculptural works, paintings, photographs, collages, and drawings spread out within two spacious rooms: human silhouettes and models of bodies (Kiki Smith, Greer Lankton), painted electrocardiographs (James Nares), bloody bedsheets (Ramsey McPhillips), and fragmentary pictures taken of limbs and sections of skin (Peter Hujar, David Wojnarowicz) set the tone of the show. Thirty-nine portrait photographs put on display the artists themselves. Two of them—Vittorio Scarpati and Mark Morrisroe—and catalogue author Cookie Mueller died in the year in which the exhibition opened, two others—David Wojnarowicz and Darrel Ellis—only a few years after. Hujar’s works were shown posthumously. All six died of AIDS-related causes. However, Goldin’s exhibition did not focus primarily on the AIDS-affected body. It was an effort to show positive images of sexuality outside heteronormativity, and thereby counter the silence and paranoia that characterized the lack of a viable political response to the AIDS crisis by the governments of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. Nevertheless, Witnesses was not an expression of political protest or activism. The exhibition’s premise was centered around personal affliction with the AIDS epidemic, collective mourning, and survival, which gave a sense of urgency to Goldin’s endeavor, but makes the enterprise of the art historian all the more difficult: “artworks about AIDS . . . do not fit into the usual categories of style and epochs” because they are marked by the individual reactions of artists to imminent crisis (36).

Junge meets this challenge with an austere precision that marks one of the great strengths of her study. She differentiates rigorously between self-representation and external portrayals of the queer community and people with AIDS, disentangles the subjects of homosexuality and AIDS (which were conflated in the contemporaneous press), and uses non-artistic press photos as well as other exhibitions about AIDS for comparison. The debates around Witnesses are deeply in need of analytic clarity since the reception of the show has been shaped by a messy controversy between Artists Space and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). After characterizing the exhibition and its goals, Junge’s second chapter delineates the events of the culture wars that took place in advance of Goldin’s show: fundamentalist Christian groups mobilized against the display of photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano, in two separate instances, because of what they perceived to be “obscene” content. Even more than the images themselves, it was the fact that their display was (in Serrano’s case indirectly) funded by the NEA that sparked the wrath of Christian fundamentalists, and led Senator Jesse Helms to amend the guidelines for NEA grants to ban vaguely defined “indecent or obscene art” from being eligible for funding. In light of these conflicts, the director of Artists Space contacted the NEA prior to the opening of Witnesses in order to prevent further dispute, yet she achieved quite the opposite. Public controversy was raging even before any of the show’s contents were publicly visible. Since the NEA’s suspicions were based only on presumptions and apprehensions, the debate quickly subsided after the opening—still, the small show had received national attention. Like the selection of the artists for the exhibition, the outrage resulted not from the qualities of the artworks but from the identification of the participants as people with AIDS, Junge concludes.

In her third chapter Junge addresses the photographs in Goldin’s exhibition and their approach to the self-representation of homosexual men and people with AIDS. In confrontation with press photographs, it becomes clear that Goldin’s objective to “present a differentiated vision of sexuality” (181) was fulfilled by the pictures of David Armstrong, Morrisroe, and Wojnarowicz. But in the depiction of people with AIDS, there are only slight differences to be found. The press drew a sharp line between “guilty” and “innocent” victims of the disease, and framed people it perceived as guilty—homosexual men and drug addicts—as outsiders, trying to separate them from the general population. While in the exhibition the topos of guilt was absent and the hanging “erased the borders between the sick and the healthy” (218), the pictures themselves, singled out, are found to be similar in composition to photographs that were condemned as voyeuristic and stigmatizing. These similarities lead the author to question the criteria of judgment that were involved: Why did photographs by Nicholas Nixon, a heterosexual photographer with no personal contacts to communities affected with AIDS, elicit criticism, when very similar photographs taken by people with AIDS were accepted? The press reactions to Witnesses centered not so much on the way people with AIDS were represented but on who represented them. Because the artists in Witnesses had “insider status” (220), critique did not focus on the quality of their works. Such questions were considered inappropriate, and the lack thereof, Junge concludes, put the artists who had personal experiences with AIDS “in the privileged position to make authentic statements about the epidemic, giving them an exclusive right to be heard” (221).

Thus, the reconstruction of the debates around Witnesses and the analysis of the representation of homosexuality and people with AIDS confirm the initial hypothesis of the book, that “[a]rt about AIDS was used as a label that imparted identity and rested solely on the personal experiences of the artists” (249). Therefore, the final chapter investigates the “artistic field” from which the exhibition emerged, in a sociological fashion based primarily on Pierre Bourdieu, and harbors the author’s most provocative thesis: “the artists in Witnesses used their illness to distance themselves from the outside world, thus creating an exclusive and elitist group” (259). The elitism and exclusivity of Goldin’s community, and more generally the discourse around AIDS, are raised as a single argument but need to be distinguished as two different aspects. A certain exclusivity becomes historically palpable when Junge describes the perception of AIDS in the United States at the time. The epidemic was treated as a problem isolated from the general population, constructing a sharp duality that the self-representation in Witnesses could not overcome. Rather, it presented a closely knit community that was not open to others and, crucially, situated the moral authority to talk about AIDS only with the people afflicted. The establishment of binary structures based on essentialist notions of identity is rightly critiqued, but accusing the exhibition of elitism diminishes the potential of such a critique. The personal histories of the artists in Witnesses, especially the milieu of child prostitution and addiction that marks the biographies of Wojnarowicz and Morrisroe, cannot be transformed into a plausible notion of “elite.” Despite the possibility of the spectacularization of such experiences, they need to be acknowledged. Not only could the critique of binary identifications and authenticity be brought to full force through an acknowledgment of the personal experiences of artists, but workable notions of embodiment and enactment could be developed, as, for instance, Mechtild Widrich did in her work on performance and reenactment (recently, “Freiheit des Schmerzes: Politische Kunst und Zirkulation von Daumier bis Ai Weiwei,” paper presented at the NCCR eikones Annual Conference, Basel, September 2017).

Junge’s late-formalist unease with artists’ personal experiences is evident from her method, which seeks to avoid a “lapse into subjective, biographical testimony about personal involvement“ (36) and has therefore “consciously avoided personal statements by the artists with AIDS in the show“ (38). It also keeps her from lifting the precise analysis of discourses and photographic representations onto a new methodological basis. While Junge’s rigor in comparison and clarity in contextualization sets standards for the approach to contemporary art, the methodology of the book remains a well-informed patchwork of theories. This set of methods is clearly at its best when it comes to the intersection of discourse, photography, and representation. It falls short, however, where the exhibition as a spatial constellation and a topological understanding of boundaries and corporeality comes into focus. Questions of situatedness and embodiment as limits to discourse and representation remain open to discussion.

Barbara Reisinger
PhD candidate, Department of Art History, University of Vienna