There are many ways of looking at HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) and AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome). Different perspectives are based upon where people stand personally in relation to the epidemic. This opening section of the exhibition encourages the viewer to shed any preconceptions or prejudgements about HIV/ AIDS and the people who are affected by it.
Some of the works in this room aim to 'image' the virus, HIV, in either painted or sculptural form, and are a reminder that HIV/AIDS is caused by a microscopic virus, not by someone's belonging to a particular race or class or having a certain lifestyle. Other works reinforce the fact that people who are HIV-positive are not somehow different, but share a common humanity with the rest of the world.
The works in this room ask the viewer to come to a new understanding of the way in which this virus can affect anyone. HIV/AIDS does not discriminate — people do.
HIV /AIDS strips people of their immune systems, exposing those affected to one opportunistic infection after another. In this war of attrition, the human body — the site of invasion — becomes a defiant battleground. At times, it is also the focus of a strident clash between morality and sexuality. As such, the body is central to much of the art addressing HIV /AIDS.
The frank discussion needed to educate people in the fight against HIV/AIDS has brought to the foreground bodies that a conservative society would rather not see, bodies that may be sexually different, ethnically different, or drug-using. Some of the works in this room speak both of and to these 'bodies', and ask for understanding of their particular situations.
Certain of the works here visualise in symbolic form the depersonalisation the human body can suffer when hospitalised; others image the body as a site of extreme beauty but also of extreme fragility — flower imagery captures this duality.
More than any other issue in recent memory, the AIDS crisis has provided the tragic impetus for public art. A host of groups, from government bodies to private activist organisations, have taken their individual AIDS statements and causes to the streets. The costumes from the Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras displayed here show this well; they are lovingly worked statements of survival in the face of adversity. This room contains many examples of artistic statements about HIV/AIDS which have 'crossed over' from art spaces into the public arena of everyday life, demonstrating the vital role played by the visual arts in HIV / AIDS education.
In the United States, the clever use of short, memorable, and immediately readable graphics in demonstrations by activist groups like ACT UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power) has served to keep many social and financial issues surrounding AIDS before the American public. The best of these graphics are shown here, along with a selection of Australia's public education posters promoting safe sexual practice, safe injecting, and community awareness and support.
The Australian Memorial AIDS Quilt Project, established in September 1988, began as a focus for the grief of the gay community; it has now travelled beyond the borders of gay cultural expression to embrace all AIDS-bereaved communities in Australia, offering an important public site for shared mourning and remembrance.
Other works in this room show the instructive 'shock' and cathartic release triggered by AIDS humour. Their black comedy stems from a defiant gay ghetto sensibility which seeks to open up a dialogue about the emotional and political issues that shape the lives of people living with HIV/AIDS.
The diverse cross-section of works in this part of the exhibition shows the far-reaching impact of HIV/AIDS on individuals, families, artists and communities around the world.
ROOM 4, SECTION A
In recent years, particularly in the United States, fundamentalist critics have attacked any work about AIDS and human sexuality as 'pornography, even 'obscenity.
The works in this room address issues of human sexuality and argue that, instead of being censored, these issues need to be discussed openly and freely if the fight against HIV/AIDS is to be won.
Bodily fluids are depicted in some works and used as a medium in others. Artistically, these works discuss the manner in which semen and blood, traditionally subjects of poetic or heroic evocation, have become loaded with new questions and meanings in the light of HIV/AIDS.
The purpose of safe sexual practice is to prevent transmission of certain bodily fluids (such as semen and blood) from one person to another. Certain works in this section of the exhibition address the needs of women to empower themselves sexually by insisting on safe sex and the use of condoms and dental dams; others speak openly of the dangers of unsafe sex in the age of AIDS. These works seek to offer a new perspective on safe sex.
ROOM 4, SECTION B
This final section of the exhibition asks the viewer to consider that people with HIV/AIDS are people first, and people with a life-threatening illness second.
It contains a variety of photographic portraits from the past decade, and shows a range of ways in which the camera can depict PLWHAs (People Living With HIV/AIDS). In years past, people living with HIV/AIDS were 'imaged' photographically as desperate, near-death subjects. Opinions have varied as to whether such photographs exploited their illness, or helped draw vital attention to their health problems.
With what is known of HIV/AIDS today, and with modern health and lifestyle approaches, people who are HIV-positive can lead rich, fulfilling lives for many years before facing serious illness. There are photographs here which attempt to tell us just that. Some of these are portraits arranged in collaboration with a sympathetic photographer; others are self-portraits, as in the Australian examples which close the exhibition.
The main problem for these people living with HIV/AIDS is often not immediate illness but the prejudice, fear and misunderstanding of the wider community. Their photographs ask the viewer to overcome ignorance and distrust, and share in a new knowledge and understanding of life.