The mission statement of Group Material—”to maintain control over our work, directing our energies to the demands of the social conditions as opposed to the demands of the art market”—cap- tures the spirit of this movement of politically motivated artists who sought to be socially site-specific as well, a spirit that has lived on in other groups like RePo History.

Thames & Hudson

 

 

The mission statement of Group Material—”to maintain control over our work, directing our energies to the demands of the social conditions as opposed to the demands of the art market”—cap- tures the spirit of this movement of politically motivated artists who sought to be socially site-specific as well, a spirit that has lived on in other groups like RePo History.

The resurgence of political art associations in the eighties revived interest in such precursors as the Art Workers’ Coalition, which was formed at the height of the Vietnam War in order to advance the cause of an artist union and to protest the absence of woman and minority artists in exhibitions and collections. The spotlight also fell again on engaged artists like Leon Golub, who updated his graphic paintings of the atrocities of American soldiers in Vietnam with the new subjects at hand, such as the mercenaries of the undeclared “dirty wars” of the eighties [2]. Intercut with this representation of politics, however, was a politics of representa­ tion, which led some artists to mimic Situationist strategies of

detournement in particular—that is, the reworking of public symbols and media images with subversive kinds of social mean­ ings and historical memories. Thus, from 1980 onward the Polish-born Krzysztof Wodiczko (born 1943) projected specific images at night, at first in guerrilla fashion, onto different monu­ ments and buildings redolent of political and financial power: nuclear missiles on war memorials, presidential pledges of alle­ giance on corporate buildings, homeless people on heroic statues, and so on [3]. His goal was to counter the official languages and to expose the suppressed histories of these architectures, with the result that under his projections they often seemed to erupt, symp­ tomatically, with repressed contents and connections. Others like Dennis Adams (born 1948) and Alfredo Jaar (born 1956) used similar strategies. In his site-specific bus shelters, Adams con­ fronted passersby with photographs of political demons who still haunt the present, such as the anti-Communist demagogue Joseph McCarthy and the Nazi executioner Klaus Barbie. In a related set of substitutions, Jaar displaced the slick subway ads that glorify businesses and banks at home with graphic phototexts that detailed their real work of exploitation abroad.

Agitprop appropriations

The most effective of these neo-Situationist interventions were made by the numerous artist groups associated with ACT-UP, the acronym of AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power, founded in March 1987 “to undertake direct action to end the AIDS crisis.” As sophis­ ticated in poststructuralist critiques of representation as the aforementioned artists, these groups (among them Gran Fury, Little Elvis, Testing the Limits, DIVA TV, Gang, Fierce Pussy) deployed different mediums and techniques depending on the occasion: bold posters of appropriated images and invented texts for specific demonstrations, subversive reworkings of corporate ads and newspaper pages for general circulation, video cameras to counter police abuse and media misrepresentations of ACT-UP

3 • Krzysztof Wodiczko, Projection on South Africa House, 1985 Trafalgar Square. London, dimensions variable

activities, and so on. In doing so, they drew on a wide range of art practices—the photomontages of John Heartfieid, the graphics of Pop art, the outrageousness of Performance art, the reflexivity of institutional critique, the image-savvy of appropriation art, and the caustic wit of feminist artists like Barbara Kruger. “The aesthetic values of the traditional art world are of little consequence to AIDS activists,” critic Douglas Crimp commented in 1990. “What counts in activist art is its propaganda effect; stealing the procedures of other artists is part of the plan—if it works, we use it.” Or, as a 1988 poster by Gran Fury put it succinctly, “With 42,000 Dead Art Is Not Enough: Take Collective Direct Action To End The AIDS Crisis.”

Some of these strategies were already at work in an anonymous poster that surfaced in downtown New York before the founding of ACT UP: the mordant and mournful “Silence = Death” (1986). These two words were set in white type on a black ground with a pink triangle, the Nazi emblem for gays in the concentration camps. With the simple strength of its conviction, this sign indicted governmental inaction and public indifference regarding the AIDS epidemic (spelled out in a series of questions and exhor- tations in fine print at the bottom); indeed it equated this passivity with murder. At the same lime, this sign turned the stigma of the

 

 

pink triangle into an emblem of proud identity—a characteristic transvaluation, in the political development of an oppressed group, of an abusive stereotype (a similar reversal was performed on the word “queer” during this time). Scores of signs followed. Many, like “Silence Death,” were made in various forms (posters, placards, T-shirts, buttons, and stickers), and all were used as tools for organizing and reporting, raising consciousness and support, surviving and fighting back.

ACT-UP groups knew that the ideological war over AIDS was fought through the media as well as in the streets, and with a mem­ bership of many artists, film- and videomakers, architects, and designers, they devised signs and events that not only critiqued and corrected the media but also played on its procedures and propen­ sities. Some used graphic horror, such as a 1988 poster by Gran Fury that showed only a handprint in blood red, the sign of a mur­ derer, with the texts “The Government Has Blood On Its Hands” above and “One AIDS Death Every Half Hour” below [4], Others used campy humor, such as a 1989 poster, also by Gran Fury, that substituted the word RIOT for the old Pop icon of LOVE painted by Robert Indiana in 1966 (the poster also responded to a prior substi­ tution, by the Canadian group General Idea, of AIDS for LOVE). Designed to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion, the uprising after an abusive raid at a Green­ wich Village gay bar that is often taken to mark the beginning of the gay-rights movement, this sign was at once a call to memory and a call to arms, with the captions “Stonewall ’69” above and “AIDS Crisis ’89” below. ACT-UP groups also targeted bureaucratic offi­ cials and reactionary politicians (from commissioners of health to presidents), as well as drug-company profiteers. The infamous 1988 election pledge of George Bush against new taxes—“Read My Lips”—became a different kind of promise altogether in announce­ ments of gay and lesbian “kiss-ins.” (When the group Gang substituted a beaver shot for the kissing couples, and added the words “Before They are Sealed,” “Read My Lips” took on yet another meaning—an indictment of the Bush gag-order against the discussion of abortion at medical clinics.) Such edgy appro­ priations were practiced by other artist collectives too, feminist groups like the Guerrilla Girls and antiracist groups like Pest, both of which posted statistically terse condemnations of sexual and racial discrimination in the art world and beyond.

A queering of art

Empowered by ACT-UP, many gay and lesbian artists began to explore homosexuality as a subject of art in different ways—Robert Gober (born 1954), Donald Moffet (born 1955), Jack Pierson (born 1960), David Wojtiarowicz (1954-92), Felix Gonzalez-Torres (1957-96), and Zoe Leonard (born 1961) prominent among them. (The death from AIDS of two of the six here is a small indication of the ghastly toll suffered by the gay and art communities.) In a sense these artists telescoped the different claims made by feminist artists of the first two generations, and “queered ’ them. That is, they

4 • Gran Fury, The Government has Blood on its Hands, 1988 Poster, offset lithography, 80.6 x 54.3 (31 3/4 x 21 3/4)

explored homosexuality not only as a subjective experience that was essential in its nature (precisely what its enemies denied), but also as a social construction subject to cultural and historical variation.

More gentle than many of the ACT-UP appropriators urged on by Crimp, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, who was also a member of Group Material, performed a queering of other artistic forms of the sixties and seventies. “In our case,” he once remarked, “we should not be afraid of using such formal references, since they represent authority and history. Why not take them?” And so Gonzalez-Torres did, with particular twists. He would arrange thousands of paper sheets, often lithographed with colors or images that bordered on kitsch (such as birds in the sky), in perfect stacks that recalled Minimalist volumes. Or he would spill thou­ sands of gaily wrapped candies in the form (or antiform) of Postminimalist scatter pieces. Or he would paint an elliptical list of historical events in homosexual rights on public billboards in the laconic manner of Conceptual art.

One such billboard appeared in 1989 at Sheridan Square in Mew York near the site of the Stonewall Rebellion. It consisted simply of a black ground captioned in while italics as follows: “People with

 

 

The US Art Wars

In 1987 a US District Judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by Richard Serra to prevent the General Services Administration, a federal agency, from removing his sculpture Tilted Arc (above), which

the same GSA had commissioned in 1981 for the Federal Plaza in downtown Manhattan. “To move it,” Serra argued persuasively of his site-specific work, “is to destroy it.” Nevertheless, two years later Tilted Arc was moved under the cover of night. This was hardly the first case of the seizure or outright destruction of an art work, nor would it be the last, but it did open a new era of marked intolerance toward the work of advanced artists.

Also in 1987 the artist Andres Serrano (born 1950) was awarded a $15,000 grant from the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art (SECCA) in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, which was funded indirectly by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), During his grant period, Serrano produced a Cibachrome photograph that showed a small plastic crucifix submerged in a bubbly amber liquid.

Mostly on the basis of its title, Piss Christ, Serrano was accused of “religious bigotry” by the Reverend Donald Wildmon, director of the American Family Association. Again in 1987 the Philadelphia Institute of Contemporary Arts received

$535,000 from the NEA to assist in a retrospective of the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe (1947-89), which contained five images of homosexual acts. Fearful of controversy, the Corcoran Gallery canceled the Washington version of the show. The exhibition then moved on to Cincinnati where Dennis Barrie, the director of the Cincinnati Museum of Contemporary Art, was charged with peddling obscenity. Led by Senator Jesse Helms, conservatives in Congress exploited the Serrano and Mapplethorpe controversies to call for the outright abolition of the NEA, an attack to which its supporters responded but meekly.

The greatest struggle concerning art since the Vietnam era was in full roar; and at least three lessons could be drawn from these events: public support for contemporary art had eroded drastically; the religious Right had exploited this failure for its own purposes; and a cultural politics of homophobia had gripped the United States. The work of other artists singled out by Congress also foregrounded homosexuality (for example, the performance artists Holly Hughes and Tim Miller). All such art was deemed antifamily, antireligion, and anti-American. A literalism dominated these battles from the start. Many thought of Piss Christ as an actual desecration of Jesus by urine. “The pictures are the state’s case,” the prosecutor declared of the Mapplethorpe images as if their crime was self-evident. For its part Tilted Arc was once likened to a terrorist device.

The immediate upshot of these cases was that Tilted Arc was destroyed, an antiobscenity clause was inserted into NEA contracts (unconstitutionally, it was argued), and the case against Dennis Barrie was dismissed. But there were other ramifications. Contemporary art became political fodder for the Right; when not associated with obscenity or scandal, it was ridiculed as hype, and so a waste of taxpayers’ money in this respect too, with the result that many liberal supporters also turned away from art. An enormous pall was cast over public art in particular, with the NEA (and other institutions such as Public Broadcasting Stations and National Public Radio) under almost constant assault. And tolerance toward non-nonnative sexualities was met with murderous reaction at a time when AIDS therapies cried out for massive financing.

AIDS Coalition 1985 Police Harassment 1969 Oscar Wilde 1895 Supreme Court 1986 Harvey Milk 1977 March on Washington 1987 Stonewall Rebellion 1969.” Sooner or later one realized that all of the dates were landmark events—associations and demon­ strations, trials and rulings, killings and uprisings—in the last century of gay life, but they were not in any order or sequence. The narrative was left to the viewer to construct, and the need to do so was underscored by the vacancy of the image, as if this history were always threatened by in visibility or illegibility.

The candy spills are ambiguous in another way. Untitled (USA Today) [5] consists of three hundred pounds of candies in gaudy red, blue, and silver wrappers heaped in a corner. The piece flies in the face of taboos in art against touching, let alone eating. It also brings together stylistic cues usually kept apart: a Postminimalist­ like arrangement (Robert Morris and Richard Serra, among others, did corner pieces) with Pop-like materials (the glitziness reminds one of Andy Warhol in particular), it even seems to undo, if only for a moment, the old opposition between the avant-garde

 

 

and kitsch. But these artistic allusions are complicated by more worldly ones. The subtitle points to the sugary news that the national paper USA Today delivers for our daily consumption, and consumption is literally foregrounded here, as a telling portrait of “USA Today” in another sense too. At the same time, the excess of the piece also conveys a sense of generosity, a spirit of offering so different from the cool cynicism of other uses of the readymade device by Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, and others. Gonzalez-Torres solicits our participation in the register not only of consumption but of gift-exchange. Like his paper stacks, his candy spills are listed as “endless supply,” which reminds us, in a utopian sense, that mass production once had democratic possibilities latent within it.

For all its spirit of offering, however, this art is also imbued with the pathos of loss. In Untitled (March 5th) #2 (1991), for example, two light bulbs are suspended, supported by their own intertwined cords—a simple testament to love threatened by loss, as one light must burn out before the other. (March 5 was the birthday of his partner, who died of AIDS in 1991, five years before Gonzalez-Torres himself.) And in a 1992 billboard we see only a black-and-white photograph of an empty double bed, ruffled where two bodies recently lay—an elegy to absent lovers that also condemns antigay legislation criminalizing the bedroom [6].

Gender trouble

Like many of his generation, Gonzalez-Torres was influenced by poststructuralist critiques of the subject. Yet his art is concerned more with the making of a gay subjectivity than with its unmaking, for the simple reason that such a deconstruction would assume that gay identity is secure and central in a way that cannot be

assumed in our heterosexist society. In his art, then, Gonzalez- Torres attempted to carve out of heterosexual space a lyrical-elegiac place for gay subjectivity and history. In her art Zoe Leonard finds such places in moments of “gender trouble” within straight society. In a 1992 poster made with the ACT-UP group Fierce Pussy, Leonard simply refrained a 1969 photograph of her second-grade class in Manhattan with the typewritten question “Are you a boy or a girl?” This is typical of her twofold tactic: to trouble gender, to expose what she calls the “the bizarreness” of its categories, and to construct a gay identity out of this trouble, to invent a lesbian history in the “place where expectations fall apart.”

Leonard plays with this “bizarreness of gender” in her photo­ graphs of a Preserved Head of a Bearded Woman (1992) found in storage at the Musee Orfila in Paris. (She often searches the backrooms of medical and natural history museums for such “specimens.”) Yet the true bizarreness here is not the woman’s; for Leonard “it is her decapitation, the pedestal and the bell jar. What is disturbing is that someone or some group of people thought that was acceptable.” And so Leonard photographs the “specimen” in such way that she seems to gaze back at her spectators, to put them on exhibit. A similar reversal occurs in the photograph Male Fashion Doll #2 (1995), a toy that Leonard found in a flea market in Ohio. She describes him as “a little drag queen,” with the face and body of a girl, as “usually rendered in plastic, completely sexless and pink,” but with a little mustache drawn on him—a figure of gender trouble that Leonard reframes as a question for us.

“I wasn’t interested in re-examining the male gaze,” Leonard has remarked; “I wanted to understand my own gaze.” But the objects of desire and/or identification of this gaze are not readily found in heterosexual culture—a vacancy that she seems to figure in her

5 • Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled (USA Today), 1990 Ped, silver, and blue wrapped sweets, dimensions variable

6 • Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Billboard of Bed, 1992 Installed at a New York Location

 

 

7 ♦ Zoe Leonard, Strange Fruit, 1992-7 (detail) 295 banana, orange, grapefruit, and lemon peels, thread, zips, buttons, needles, wax, plastic wire, and fabric, dimensions variable

photographs of mirrors that reflect an empty glare more often than any image. As with Gonzalez-Torres, then, Leonard responds to the need not only to critique what is given as identity or history but also to imagine other kinds of constructions. This mandate may lead to archival work, to historical invention, or to both. For example, in her Fae Richards Photo Archive (1996), made in conjunction with the 1996 film The Watermelon Woman by Cheryl Dunye, Leonard helped to construct, through different genres of photographs artificially aged in the darkroom, the documentary life history of an imaginary woman, a black lesbian of the early 1900s who performed in Hollywood “race films.” “She is not real,” Leonard attests of Fac Richards, “but she is true.”

Along with her gender troublings and historical imaginings, Leonard has also worked toward an art of AIDS mourning, and in this project she is joined by such artists as Robert Gober and Gonza­ lez-Torres. Her Strange Fruit is a poignant instance of this coming to terms with loss: a community of hundreds of fruits whose peels she sewed back together once the fruit was extracted [7]. Inspired in part by her friend David Wojnarowicz, who once cut a loaf of bread in half, then stitched it back together with blood-red embroidery thread, Strange Fruit alludes not only to the old slang for homosexual but also to a Billie Holliday song about lynching— about hatred and violence, death and loss. “It was sort of a way to sew myself back up,” Leonard has commented; but the stitched peels attest more to holes than to healing, more to “the inevitability

of a scarred life” than to the possibility of a redeemed one. In this regard they are pathetic in a profound sense, “repositories for our grief.” This mnemonic model of art, this nonredemptive idea of beauty that allows for aesthetic sublimation but also works toward social change, is an important offering of artists like Gober, Gonzalez-Torres, and Leonard.

FURTHER READING Anna Blume, Zoo Leonard (Vienna: Secession. 1997) Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York Routledge. 1989) Douglas Crimp (ed.). AIDS Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism (Cambridge, Mass MIT Press, 1908) Douglas Crimp and Adam Rolston (eds), AIDS DEMOgraphies (Seattle: Bay Press, 1990) Lucy R. Lippard. Get the Message? A Decade cl Social Change New York Dutton, 1984) Nancy Spector, Felix Gonzalez- Torres. (New York: Guggerheim Museum, 1995)

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