BY Evan Moffitt in Interviews | 27 JUN 24

Anya Gallaccio on the London AIDS Memorial: ‘It’s Really Important, a Big Deal’

The artist behind the winning design discusses taking up space, celebrating those lost and creating something Londoners can see themselves in 

BY Evan Moffitt in Interviews | 27 JUN 24

Grand monuments and solemn memorials are chock-a-block in London. Yet in a city quietly paved over the bones of the plague dead, few acknowledge the victims of viral epidemics. No imposing column commemorates those lost to the bubonic plague of 1665. Perhaps disease is immune to patriotic propaganda; perhaps governments are eager to ignore their repeated failures to care for the ill.  

It’s most welcome news for London, then, that the city will soon be home to a new AIDS Memorial, which will occupy a broad plaza in Fitzrovia. And it’s a welcome surprise that the artist commissioned to design it is Anya Gallaccio, an undersung YBA pioneer whose multi-sensory, ephemeral installations, while often substantial in scale, are anything but grandly monumental. Gallaccio’s design comprises a tree of life with rings poignantly removed, signifying a generational loss that’s still palpable today. But, Gallaccio is quick to note, the memorial will be a message to the present as much as to the past: more than 100,000 people in the UK are living with HIV, and infection rates are rising in certain populations. The epidemic continues. 

Anya Gallacio
Anya Gallaccio, 2024. Courtesy: © GW

Evan Moffitt What first appealed to you about the project to realise a memorial in London?

Anya Gallaccio HIV/AIDS is something that touched my life in terms of losing friends and family, both older people that I grew up with and then later people close to my age. I’ve been teaching in San Diego since 2008. I would ask the students to produce work around World AIDS Day on December 1, and I was shocked that so many were oblivious to the virus. It was fascinating and depressing because it mostly felt like I was educating them about something they knew little about. 

Later, I spoke to gay male friends about applying for the memorial commission. Many of them said they know how to handle HIV prevention by taking PrEP [a medication to reduce the risk of transmission], and that HIV/AIDS isn’t so prevalent anymore. This is just not true; straight kids aren’t necessarily having safe sex. The broader perception of AIDS is still that it’s a gay male disease. However, 53% of people living worldwide with the virus are women and girls. Again, it becomes about education as well as remembering those lost to the virus, particularly in the 1980s and ’90s, a devastating period.  

Anya Gallacio
Anya Gallaccio’s design proposal for the London AIDS Memorial, 2024. Courtesy: the artist and Rinehart Herbst

EM Absolutely. HIV/AIDS is an ongoing health crisis, an ongoing epidemic. It’s interesting to reflect on the way it was dealt with in the 1980s and ’90s when we’re currently in a public health crisis on many fronts.

AG That period was a combination of fun, pleasure, experimentation and discovery. I was thinking the other day about the press, too. I remember a lot of the reporting and awareness campaigns in the 1980s were terrifying; it wasn’t educational or productive. The response involved a huge community beyond the people at the heart of the virus. We must acknowledge the caregivers, nurses and doctors. Lesbians for example, were important in terms of providing care and giving blood when other people were too scared to. 

EM Yes, absolutely.  

AG There were also public figures involved in increasing the visibility of the virus, as well as somewhat lessening the stigma of infection, such as Princess Diana. The location of the memorial is close to the former Middlesex Hospital, where she opened the Broderip Ward in 1987. It was the first dedicated to the care and treatment of people affected by HIV/AIDS in the UK.

Anya Gallacio
South Crescent, Store Street, London. Courtesy and photograph: Ash Kotak

EM Could you talk about the symbolism of the tree in your design? 

AG The open call welcomed ideas of ephemerality. But my reaction was the opposite: HIV/AIDS is really important, a big deal. I felt that it needed a significant moment, not like a little thing on the corner. My design is not confrontational in its imagery, but it will take up space. To me, it’s about holding space for all these different communities impacted by the virus; not only the gay male community but also women, intravenous drug users, those with blood disorders and carers, some of whom have been sidelined in the history of the virus.  And of course, it’s about education too: this is an ongoing crisis. I thought: what is a form general enough for everybody to make it theirs? The tree is a symbol of life and longevity. We mark time with the rings of the trees. I’m obsessed with the big trees in America that are thousands of years old and withstand so much environmental impact. 

EM They’re repositories of knowledge.

AG Trees are so important in cultures worldwide; there’s so much symbolism there. My logic was to create a huge tree that will take up as much space as I can on that side of the crescent. I’ve removed some rings that will sit alone, upturned, to stand in for those lost generations. I call it a ‘halo’. In a way, it’s this section that looks like a monument. The trunk will be very low to the ground and might not be visible from a distance. 

Anya Gallacio
Anya Gallaccio, The Light Pours Out of Me, 2012, amethyst chamber, surrounded by hornbeam and obsidian, in barbed wire enclosure, installation view. Courtesy: the artist, Jupiter Art Land and Thomas Dane Gallery, London

EM Is it a specific kind of tree? 

AG Not yet, It will most likely end up as a composite of trees associated with life and knowledge. My crude idea is that the edges of the halo will be polished on the outside so people can see themselves in it. I’ve also been looking at nouns to be inscribed on the interior (auntie, carer, brother, lover, etc.) in different languages. The choice of stone, a traditional memorial material, brings with it a certain gravitas.  

EM So your design combines aspects of the monuments dotted around London with certain abstract, anti-monumental features. What does this choice mean to you?

AG There are many questions about whose histories are held in public spaces. Public space belongs to everybody. It’s powerful to embed something substantial into the city’s fabric.  The centre of the tree trunk can become a platform or a stage and potentially create opportunities on days such as World AIDS Day. It is about creating a space that can be activated by the people who want it.

There is a lot of love pushing the project forward and dogged determination to get it this far

EM You mentioned earlier the practical considerations of a major public commission. I’m wondering if there were new challenges that you had to deal with related to the site, the city and all the different stakeholders.

AG Camden Council is really on board with the project, so is the mayor. There is a lot of love pushing the project forward and dogged determination to get it this far. I’ve made it clear it’s not a work to be made by committee. However, to develop the design, it’s important to me to spend time with different community groups to listen and hear what they hope for out of this work. My hope is that this will generate other stuff, such as poetry slams or similar live events, so the work becomes a living and active space. The sculpture mostly isn’t elevated off the ground, so anyone should be able to access it.  Many people who lived through the worst years of the epidemic are elderly and frail.

EM It sounds like you want it to be a space where viewers can give it as much of their time as they want. There is something to absorb you, but it also offers very momentary, quiet reflection. The design is also figurative in a way. It might read, at first glance, to be abstract, but is perhaps more representational than much of your other work.

Anya Gallacio
Ash Kotak, Founder and Creative Director of AIDS Memory UK, with Anya Gallaccio at the winner announcement ceremony at Fitzrovia Chapel, London, 2024. Courtesy: AIDS Memory UK; photograph: Jeff Moore

AG Well, it is, and it isn’t. There’s often this quite subjective narrative or logic, whatever you wish, behind it in terms of thinking about process and cycles and regeneration, in terms of things decaying. Materials interest me; my fixation with stone is its monumentality. It has taken hundreds of thousands of years to form through geological events, and, like the tree, it has a history embedded into it.

EM Your work at Jupiter Artland in Scotland, The Light Pours Out of Me (2012), is made from stone. Did that inform this work?

AG Again, that was about making a place that is bigger than you but that is intimate. I wanted it to be something that you came across and weren’t sure if it was a folly, ancient tunnel or an artwork. It’s made from amethyst, a healing stone. I think a lot of the meaning we find in art is about what we project onto it. Whether people make this space meaningful or not meaningful, it depends on what you bring to it and what you want it to give back to you.

Anya Gallaccio’s survey ‘Preserve’ will be on view at Turner Contemporary, Margate, from 28 September 2024 – 12 January 2025. More information on the Memorial and AIDS Memory UK – Resilience, Resonance, Resonance here

Main image: Anya Gallacio’s design proposal for the London AIDS Memorial, 2024. Courtesy: the artist and Rinehart Herbst 

Evan Moffitt is a writer, editor and critic based in London, UK.