In 1988, the Neue Gesellschaft für Bildende Kunst in West Berlin was the first institution in Europe to host an exhibition on the human immunodeficiency virus and the AIDS crisis. Titled Vollbild AIDS – Eine Kunstausstellung über Leben und Sterben (AIDS Full Frame – An Art Exhibition about Living and Dying), the show brought together work almost exclusively by American, Canadian and German artists and activist groups, including David Wojnarowicz, Peter Hujar, Gran Fury, General Idea, Salomé and Marcel Odenbach. The catalogue published at the time shows how most of these works shared both an educational and an activist gesture. It was art clearly reacting to public shock in the face of the virus, often with sadness and outrage – after all, AIDS not only caught countless individuals unprepared, but also dealt a heavy blow to the gay rights movement in the west that had been in existence for less than two decades.
Twenty-five years later, Realismus Studio, the Kreuzberg-based group responsible for the original Vollbild AIDS show (whose members still include Frank Wagner, curator of The Eighth Square at Cologne’s Museum Ludwig in 2006), has staged a sequel in two parts at the same venue: Love AIDS Riot Sex I+II. The first segment ran from November 2013 to early January 2014, focusing on historical works from 1987 to 1995, and hence had the easier task. It may sound macabre, but many of the works of AIDS activism made in the late 1980s and early ’90s have aged rather well. General Idea’s ‘AIDS’ adaptations (1989) of Robert Indiana’s Love (1965) motif have lost none of their punch, and neither have bus posters like Gran Fury’s Kissing Doesn’t Kill (1989) which spin off Oliviero Toscani’s 1980s advertising photo‑graphs for Benetton. One reason why these works have forfeited so little of their appeal is that, in fashion and design, we’ve been in a ‘80s retro continuum for years. But beyond this, they also achieve something that is seldom seen today: they formulate protest in ways that are politically effective and eye-catching without simplifying the facts.
The second part of the exhibition opened in mid-January 2014 with the subtitle Kunst AIDS Aktivismus. 1995 bis heute (Art AIDS Activism. 1995 until today). This segment was more problematic; this period encompasses not only the global spread of the AIDS crisis but also the progress of antiretroviral treatments (at least for those privileged enough to have access to them). One might have assumed these to be far too broad a spectrum of topics to fit here in the space of the NGBK. Indeed, unlike the previous exhibitions, included were works from outside North America and Western Europe. However, many of those works in particular possessed only an indirect link to AIDS. As a result, one left with the opposite sense: that there were not enough directly AIDS-related works to fill the space.
There is the series Apt. 779 (2010–12) by the Russian photographer Irina Popova: beautiful, intimate, black-and-white photographs, recalling Nan Goldin, of a lesbian shared flat in Moscow. In the context of Putin’s criminalization of ‘propaganda about non-traditional sexual relations directed at minors’, the inclusion of these images initially seemed relevant – but what do they have to do with AIDS? The same applies to The Other Side of Venus (2011–12), a series of photographs taken in Hungary by Anna Charlotte Schmid: the young men and gay couples in the pictures look shyly into the camera, standing behind lowered blinds (while, presumably, a homophobic mob rages outside). Here, too: How much AIDS is there in these images? It seemed almost as if the curatorial team had only furthered the widespread misconception that gay people automatically have something to do with AIDS.
In fact, today there are urgent questions arising in direct connection with HIV and AIDS – like the rise, in recent years, in popularity of unprotected sex. Bareback porn films, both gay and straight, testify to this. Is the willingness to forego condoms only due to the fact that one pill a day can reduce virus levels sufficiently to make passing it on unlikely? Or is it about the thrill, or – alternately – an expression of annoyance with the ever-present imperative to ‘protect yourself’? ‘What are the ethical problems with bareback porn?’, asks an anonymous voice in Ei Arakawa and Sergei Tcherepnin’s video and sound installation In Search of Queer Sound (SEX conversations) (2014) over scrolling screens of thumbnail results from a Google image search for ‘bareback’. No answer is offered, and while in the video the question is briefly posed, in the context of Love AIDS Riot Sex II as a whole it was utterly drowned out.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell