‘Last night it did not seem as if today it would be raining.’ EDWARD GOREY
Don’t Leave Me This Way: Art in the Age of AIDS opened at the National Gallery in November 1994. The exhibition captured the relentless onslaught of HIV/AIDS on our society. It exposed the gifted and passionate artistic response to the direct and searing impact of AIDS. Artists created work to empower and educate their audiences in the widest sense.
It was an exhibition which truly raged against the dying of the light – singing of the defiant joy to be found in the tenderness of life lived in the face of darkness. It was an exhibition that defined courage for the National Gallery.
28 years later … exhibition curator, Dr Ted Gott, reflects on Don’t Leave Me This Way: Art in the Age of AIDS.
What initiated the project? And how were you supported by Betty Churcher and Michael Lloyd?
As a young gay curator working at the National Gallery of Australia in the early 90s, I was not immune to either the spread of the disease HIV/AIDS or the AIDS-phobia and homophobia associated with it. Homosexuality had only recently been decriminalised – in Victoria in 1981 and in NSW in 1984 – and many people still felt threatened by this. In the winter of 1991, more than a dozen gay bashings occurred in Canberra, and the city’s only gay bar was vandalised and sprayed with vile graffiti.
In 1992 I became fascinated with artistic responses to the AIDS crisis worldwide, inspired by Douglas Crimp’s landmark book AIDS Demographics, which documented the visual art associated with AIDS protest activism in the USA. In 1993, working with Nancy Sever, Director of the Drill Hall Gallery at the Australian National University (ANU), I organised a small exhibition of Australian AIDS-educative posters, called Fighting Back: The Arts of AIDS Education.
Also in 1993, the Humanities Research Centre at the ANU, headed by Professor Graeme Clarke, organised a year-long ‘Sexualities and Culture’ series of conferences, and brought to Canberra leading American AIDS commentators Thomas Sokolowski, Carole Vance, David Halperin and Gayle Rubin. Meeting them was inspirational, as were conversations I had with Jill Matthews and John Ballard at the ANU. Together we discussed the rise of a new visual culture that was emerging globally in the face of the AIDS pandemic. Tom Sokolowski had staged some of the world’s most important exhibitions at that time at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery, and he encouraged me to think about a major exhibition that would include Australian responses to the social impact of the disease.
'At the time Betty and the Gallery’s Head of International Art, Michael Lloyd, were wanting to stage exhibitions that mirrored the collision of contemporary art with the fabric of life at the close of the twentieth century.'
From all of this came the impetus to propose to Betty Churcher, Director of the National Gallery, the staging of a major exhibition focused upon artistic responses to the AIDS pandemic and the moral panic it had engendered throughout the world. At the time Betty and the National Gallery’s Head of International Art, Michael Lloyd, were wanting to stage exhibitions that mirrored the collision of contemporary art with the fabric of life at the close of the twentieth century. I argued that the time was right for an exhibition that reflected the impacts of HIV/AIDS on the personal, social, moral and political fabric of Western societies. Betty and Michael enthusiastically agreed with my proposal and supported the project in every way. I pay tribute to their courage for doing so at that difficult time.
What set this exhibition apart in your mind from other exhibitions on HIV/AIDS?
This was not the first exhibition about HIV/AIDS to be held in Australia. Among its predecessors, both Imaging AIDS, organised by the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art and Linden Gallery in Melbourne in 1989, and +Positive: Artists Addressing AIDS, at the Campbell Town City Art Gallery in New South Wales in early 1994, helped shape my view of Australian artists’ responses to AIDS.
Aiming to show how HIV/AIDS and its attendant problems had infiltrated societies at every level, I proposed to the National Gallery an exhibition that displayed work in a wide spectrum of media – from painting, sculpture and photography, to installation, costume, community project works, computer imaging and video. As the first exhibition on this subject to be held at a national gallery anywhere in the world, the stakes were high.
This was a show which needed to address the impact of HIV/AIDS on many communities – and which was destined to be watched closely by those affected communities for the manner in which it represented them.
‘We’re here. We’re queer. We hurt. Wonderful exhibit. Thank you.’
Equally, because this was an exhibition of contemporary art, and not pure documentary, there were communities who were poorly represented or not represented at all. I was, for example, unable to find a single work of art addressing haemophilia and could find only one work discussing blood transfusion. Working before the arrival of the Internet, with a limited budget, limited travel opportunities and a short time frame, I was also confined to representing the impact of HIV/AIDS on western societies – the USA, England, France, and Australia primarily – research travel to Asia and Africa not being possible at the time.
Despite these limitations, I tried to talk about and to many different communities in Don’t Leave Me This Way. The exhibition was deliberately orchestrated, in both the selection of works and their installation, to take visitors through a distinct emotional and ‘instructional’ experience.
Don’t Leave Me This Way presented over 200 works on the subject of HIV/AIDS by more than 100 Australian and international artists.
Instead of a catalogue, Don’t Leave Me This Way was accompanied by a book of critical essays about artistic, social and political responses to HIV/AIDS in the Western world. This book enabled the inclusion of works that were too large to be physically accommodated within the exhibition itself – such as William Yang’s 17-image photo essay documenting the decline in health and death from AIDS-related complications of his friend Allan. A conference for 250 attendees was also held over the exhibition’s opening weekend. And my intern during the exhibition, Lucina Ward, now Curator of International Art at the National Gallery, curated an extraordinarily comprehensive season of video and film responses to the AIDS crisis, which were screened in the National Gallery’s public theatre throughout the exhibition’s run.
Looking back, can you speak to the impact this exhibition had on the art community, and your own curatorial practice going forward?
Don’t Leave Me This Way considered issues such as grief, loss and memorialisation – political art of the streets – the mapping of the body in the age of AIDS – sexual politics, stereotypes and prejudice – and art and censorship. It invited viewers to reflect on joy, love, fear, pain, strength, fallibility, hatred, heroism and hope.
Following its opening, Don’t Leave Me This Way received an average 8,000 visitors per week over its four-month run – people were drawn to Canberra from all over the country by the massive media attention the exhibition received.
‘This exhibition should be seen by every Australian. AIDS is a disease which affects everyone and is an issue which everyone needs to address. It will not go away. This exhibition is the first to show a real and true account of AIDS. It goes beyond politically correct.’
The response to the exhibition was overwhelmingly positive, and from a wide variety of communities. One indicator of this positive response was the fact that, despite the presence of much sexually explicit and potentially controversial imagery in the exhibition, the National Gallery received only one letter of complaint, which was penned three weeks before the exhibition even opened by an alarmed citizen who had not yet seen the show. During the entire run of the exhibition, the Gallery had just a single telephone call complaining about any aspect of the show (this caller was offended by the presence of the word ‘Fuck’ in one of the works).
A comments book was placed within the exhibition, visitors directly recorded their responses. At the conclusion of the show this had swelled to two volumes, containing hundreds of comments on the exhibition and its rationales.
‘Exactly what galleries should be about, commenting on contemporary issues, evoking anger, tears, discussion. In this exhibition, Silence = Engrossment – people really study the works and read the captions. This exhibition works and moves!’
From these comments books, and observation of the visiting crowds, it was evident that the exhibition reached out to people suffering from post-AIDS grief, and offered a healing catharsis for many visitors. For the first time, National Gallery security staff were face-to-face with visitors openly weeping within the exhibition, hugging each other, or simply quietly touching each other for emotional support. As an indicator that public grieving was ‘OK’, tissues and comfortable leather armchairs were placed in a small ‘time out’ area at the centre of the exhibition spaces, where signage also directed visitors to a separate and quiet reading room for further processing of their experiences.
‘A hook in the heart’
Can you share your memories from the exhibition that still stand out in your mind?
The opening of Don’t Leave Me This Way, which took place for 1500 guests at the unusually late hours of 9pm to midnight on a warm Saturday evening, was a celebration of diversity and survival. The party atmosphere was superbly leavened by Brenton-Heath-Kerr’s final performance work. Brenton stunned the opening crowds by mingling amongst them encased in a full latex body suit that imaged the ravages upon the body of a person in the final stages of dying from AIDS-related complications. Brenton himself succumbed to the disease shortly after this brave and moving performance.
My own favourite response to Don’t Leave Me This Way: Art in the Age of AIDS was penned by journalist Marion Frith in the Canberra Times several days after the show’s opening. Frith wrote:
'Two men are standing in front of a photograph of a young man who had died of AIDS and whose father has buried him. A woman in a Maggie Shepherd outfit stands beside them. "You’re not the artist are you," she asks. "No," one of them answers, wiping a tear from his cheek. "I’m just a poofter who’s HIV-positive." She looks stunned, then reaches out and touches his arm. "And I’m just a woman, [she says], who until tonight was a bigot".'
Dr Ted Gott is Senior Curator of International Art, NGV.
This story has been published as part of the National Gallery's 40th Anniversary. For more visit 40 Years.