Select Page

CROSSING LINES

By: Meg Slater

Keith Haring | Jean-Michel Basquiat: Crossing Lines opened at the National Gallery of Victoria on World AIDS Day 2019. The exhibition has a significant focus on Haring’s efforts fighting against the extreme homophobia experienced by LGBTIQ communities in New York and across the globe, which increased exponentially in the latter part of the 1980s, largely due to the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat challenged many of the hierarchies and traditions within the art world. In under a decade, they redefined the role of art in public space and debate. From their earliest works executed in the streets and subway stations of New York City, to the monumental paintings and sculptures they produced in their studios as established and commercially successful artists, Haring and Basquiat quoted from their surroundings to address and critique the many injustices of their time. Crossing Lines is the first exhibition to present the work of these two highly influential artists in dialogue and provides new insights into each of their distinct and now iconic visual language, and their important artistic and socio-political ideas. Many of Basquiat’s works relate to the topic of race, and his experiences as a man of Puerto Rican and Haitian descent in a largely white art world. Basquiat’s interrogation of historical and contemporary contexts for racial discrimination finds its expression in several distinct and repeated symbols and forms, including the crown and the black hero figure. Audiences have the rare opportunity to see and explore Basquiat’s unique visual language, which samples from a vast range of source material, including anatomy, popular culture, fine art and ancient history.

Haring also devoted himself to messages of social justice in his paintings, sculptures, drawings and public works. A dedicated activist, he sought to raise awareness about major social and political issues, including the threat of nuclear warfare, the destruction of the natural environment, and discrimination against minority groups. Haring translated his lived experiences as an openly gay man into his artistic practice. His time spent dancing at Paradise Garage (a progressive discotheque and safe space for New York’s LGBTIQ community), love shared with romantic partners, and defiance in the face of the devastating and far-reaching impact of the HIV/AIDS epidemic are just a few of the experiences that Haring regularly recorded in his art.

Audiences will have the opportunity to see powerful works relating to these themes in Crossing Lines. Works from Haring’s monumental subway drawing project, which spanned five years and between 5,000 and 10,000 drawings, are a highlight in a section of the exhibition surveying early works by Haring and Basquiat. The latest drawing, from 1985, likely relates to the growing impact of the AIDS epidemic on the city’s LGBTIQ community. People are pictured flying out of a person’s head, each with an ‘X’ across their torso – a visual device used by Haring to mark figures as targets of injustice. This scene appears beneath the bold, underlined statement: ‘STILL ALIVE IN 85’.
Haring often initiated and participated in awareness-raising campaigns, and frequently donated works to benefit causes. For example, in 1986, Haring designed an invitation for an event thrown at New York’s Pyramid nightclub to raise money for medical treatment for Martin Burgoyne, an artist who died from an AIDS-related illness later that year. Haring’s original drawing for the poster, which was subsequently photocopied and distributed, will feature in a section of Crossing Lines dedicated to the important social connections and collaborations that characterised Downtown New York in the 1980s.

The final works by Haring in the exhibition are executed between 1985 and 1989. They represent a period when Haring began to rapidly lose many close friends to AIDS. In 1988, Haring learned of his own HIV diagnosis. In response to the impact of the virus, Haring introduced a new complexity into his works. He began to fill his canvases with great detail. In Walking in the Rain, the energetic and optimistic scenes typical of his early works are replaced with a dense web of existential and post-apocalyptic imagery. Haring has imagined a dystopian scene, where a large, insect-like creature appears to be roaming the ruins of a destroyed civilisation.

In recognition of the enormous contributions of Haring and the countless members of LGBTIQ communities around the world, Crossing Lines opened on World AIDS Day. A suite of programming was developed around the theme of Art for Change, which engaged community organisations such as Living Positive Victoria, the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives, Thorne Harbour Health and artists, activists, researchers and community members instrumental in raising awareness about the continued effects of HIV and AIDS across Australia and globally.

Keith Haring | Jean-Michel Basquiat: Crossing Lines is on until April 13, 2020. Meg Slater is the Assistant Curator of International Exhibition Projects at National Gallery of Victoria.

Photo: Keith Haring American 1958–90 Untitled 1986 ink on paper Collection of Larry Warsh.

QUEER PERFORMANCE, HIV ACTIVISM AND FERAL QUEER CAMP

By: Alyson Campbell

Learn about the contrasting histories and legacies of ACT UP New York and Melbourne through an exciting partnership between academics, artists, activists and ‘feral’ queer campers at this year’s Midsumma Festival. ‘Feral’ is defined as ‘having escaped from domestication and become wild.’ I have been pondering this concept for a number of years now, and the Feral Queer Camp to be held at Midsumma in 2020 is a direct outcome of this thinking.

The feral is intricately interwoven with work I have been lucky enough to do in partnership with Living Positive Victoria and people living with HIV. When Melbourne hosted the International AIDS Conference in 2014, Living Positive Victoria and the Victorian College of the Arts supported me to create a new work for the arts strand that sat alongside the conference. I led a pilot work made with students called GL RY. We used the idea of the glory hole as a metaphor for transmission and transformation to ask: what histories, secrets, stigma, information, art, affects might slip through a small hole? Part installation, part performance, the structure at the heart of GL RY hosted durational performance, video work, storytelling, information, intimate one-on-one encounters and impromptu cabaret spectaculars.

We had a tiny budget and less than six weeks to make the work, so I was scrambling for resources, particularly a venue. When I met my mentor and dramaturg, Kim Davis, an artist and activist living with HIV, she generously offered to share the public space she had organised for her Pink Pos caravan project. When I talked to her about my concerns about our lack of knowledge and our right to be making work about HIV, Kim gave reassurance and support about the importance of being an ally. One of her ingenious strategies to help us was her suggestion that she could be our ‘feral neighbour’: when we felt out of our depth we could call on her and her team for advice and information. I wrote in some length about this in a chapter on women and HIV and performance in Viral Dramaturgies: HIV and AIDS in Performance in the Twenty-First Century (Palgrave, 2018), explaining how Kim’s use of the word ‘feral’ had really stuck with me: “What does that mean, to be the feral neighbour? In this case, that those of us studying and working in the academy do not hold the answers to the embodied experience of living with HIV as a woman in Australia today; that our neighbours held this knowledge and were willing to share it through conversation”. This offer had a huge impact on me.

I began to consider my own position as a queer person within the elite environment of academia, to struggle more and more with the inequalities that saw me tenured, salaried and privileged in all sorts of ways connected to being in an institution like the University of Melbourne, while other members of our queer communities are excluded from it and places like it. I have become ‘domesticated’ within academia and, if I am to remain there, I have to remember what that means and use everything at my disposal to make the university more welcoming and accessible for queer students and scholars while also, perhaps, taking the resources I have access to (funding strands, spaces, equipment, etc.) out from the institution. In other words, to ‘go feral.’

As a result, the first Feral Queer Camp was held at Outburst Festival in Belfast in 2018 and a second in 2019. The Camp aims to build capacity in developing and talking about both queer performance and queer theories outside of the usual academic papers, books and conferences, through partnerships with queer arts festivals and a ‘feral cohort’ who would see performances together and meet regularly to discuss them. In each case, my collaborator Stephen Farrier and I have encountered brilliant, bright minds hungry to be part of a queer arts community, willing to share their knowledge and experience and to engage critically and generously with the work they were seeing and the artists they were encountering.
I think it is exciting and important that Living Positive Victoria is part of this Feral Queer Camp at Midsumma with us, not only because the organisation has been instrumental in the genesis of the idea, but because queer performance and HIV are interwoven in deep and meaningful ways: the DNA of queer performance is threaded through with the performance modes, venues and communities that emerged in the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 90s; and performance, along with other arts, offers powerful ways into understanding the experience of living with HIV, not least the ongoing stigma that far outweighs the physical impact in a place like Australia.

During Midsumma Festival 2020, a panel conversation at Hares and Hyenas will feature Living Positive Victoria’s Brenton Geyer and activist Monica Pearl from ACT UP New York. Monica will also be delivering Teach-In: Assemble, Advocate and Activate. To join the Feral Queer Camp or find out more visit midsumma.org.au. Dr Alyson Campbell is Associate Professor at the Victorian College of the Arts, Melbourne University and the co-editor of Viral Dramaturgies: HIV and AIDS in Performance in the Twenty-First Century (Palgrave, 2018).

Photo: Members of ACT UP Melbourne demonstrating at Parliament House, Canberra, during the early 1990s. Photo courtesy of the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives.

FINDING THE WORDS

By: Stefan Joksic

For Word AIDS Day this year, Stefan Joksic shared his story of living with HIV and finding the words and the strength to talk about it.

Sharing a story, having the voice and finding the courage and words to speak about HIV is something I am grateful for. It’s difficult not having the words. Born to a migrant family from Yugoslavia, where even being gay was hard to accept, being a queer man was something so foreign that it was beyond words, ineffable. From this circumstance, I figured myself out from a very early age. I had to take on a sink or swim, crawl or crush approach to life to find self-acceptance and pride in who I am. I learnt the crucial words to describe my sexuality, my loves, my heart and myself. Having volunteered and worked in LGBTIQ organisations, represented my queer university colleagues and other grassroots groups, there is deep joy in finding my community and being part of something that can help them find their own words, to sing.

Sometimes it can be hard to open up and be vulnerable. And sometimes, it’s difficult to disclose your HIV status, not only because you are afraid, but because the other person might be. The first time someone disclosed their HIV status to me, I was in my early twenties. I was dating a beautiful man named Daniel* and one day, he asked me to sit down with him. I still remember clearly where we were. Which park bench, the warmth, the fragrant spring breeze and the solemn gentleness of that moment. He even had information at hand: pamphlets about HIV; what a viral load means, and a cute booklet about sero-discordant relationships and the common questions and answers that couples might have. I had kept myself informed of the reality of what HIV meant. But when someone you are really smitten and intimate with brings HIV to an immediate reality – nothing prepares us for these moments.

I seem to remember everything about that day, except how I reacted. Years later, living overseas, sharing stories and news about our lives, we reconnected. I was now HIV positive too and we were reflecting on certain things… “You were open, respectful. Really calm and great about it,” he reassured me. “I just wanted to give you those pamphlets and hide. I was so scared you would get up and walk away.” I was relieved, but hearing his fear of rejection in that moment, that looming possibility of being discriminated against when you’re most vulnerable, is what stays with me. Something we share beyond a virus is this blunt dread of being shunned, even when we are our most open and honest, and perhaps because of it.
I am grateful to Daniel for sharing his status with me that day because I know just how scary it was for him back then. It’s scary for me too, sometimes. In the years before I was diagnosed, there had been immense progress around treatments, cultural-awareness and new benchmarks for accessing anti-retrovirals. However, the thing that surprised me – what I could not have been prepared for – was not the virus, it was not that I was successfully treated and undetectable, and it was not my own reaction to the diagnosis…but other people’s reactions. When I share my status, I am still sometimes surprised how it is that something that I live with can bring about such fearful and, sadly, often hurtful responses in someone else.

So when I was diagnosed with HIV in my mid- 20s, it was a time to find my own words again. A process of self-acceptance that I think we all come to. A time in our lives where we reckon with ourselves, between the world and us and whatever it is that coaxes or plunges us in that direction. I was and will always continue to be vulnerable – regardless of my status but also because of it.

My diagnosis and living with HIV has led me to understand that I have so much strength in being vulnerable, open and authentic with everyone I meet – starting with my status, right down to what I think and how I feel. All of this has been made easier for me because of people like Daniel. Strong and resilient sisters and brothers out there, beautiful and wise elders that have held my hand, that have reassured me when I didn’t know how to speak up, or when I didn’t have the words or the emotional strength to process rejection and challenge the stigma I would encounter. Owing to them all, I have learnt to remain authentic, honest with myself and others even when there might be so little understanding and there is always someone ready to listen and hold what we share about ourselves. Sharing a little story and my reflections with you all – finding the words – is all part of the bigger picture: that every journey counts.

*Daniel’s name has been changed to protect his privacy. Stefan’s story is adapted from a speech he delivered at Melbourne’s community launch of World AIDS Day 2019, reflecting on the theme ‘Every Journey Counts’.

Photo: Stefan Joksic captured by Dean Arcuri.