Presented in the lead up to World AIDS Day on 1 December is ‘Your Nostalgia is Killing Me!’, a program of contemporary film and video that reflects on AIDS cultural activism.
‘Your Nostalgia is Killing Me!’ marks three decades of artistic responses to HIV/AIDS, and highlights the intersection of art and activism in film and video relating to the epidemic. It brings together works that illustrate some of the critical positions linked with AIDS cultural activism — from the documentation of individual and collective trauma during the late 1980s and early 1990s, to rethinking issues of memory and representation in the contemporary setting.
The program takes place at an important moment in terms of AIDS visibility and cultural production. Since the mid-1990s, HIV has been recognised as a manageable illness, a shift in understanding that has been linked to a decline in the production of works dealing with the present-day experience of people living with HIV. Yet at the same time a form of nostalgia has led to a renewed recognition of AIDS in contemporary media, with the success of biographical films and documentaries revisiting the early days of the epidemic and the origins of the AIDS activist movement in the United States.
The program’s title is borrowed from the poster/VIRUS project by Canadian artist Vincent Chevalier and activist–academic Ian Bradley-Perrin, which asks us to rethink the cultural responses that have been canonised as part of the AIDS narrative. As writer Ted Kerr has described, the poster was an articulation that “their current life chances as people living with HIV were being reduced by a focus on AIDS of the past. The stigma, health, and social realities that they experience were being ignored in lieu of a look back.” Chevalier and Bradley-Perrin’s phrase is used here to incite a rethinking of the visual character of AIDS more generally, shifting the emphasis from gay men’s healthcare in the northern hemisphere to other histories and conversations taking place throughout the global south, where artists and filmmakers are responding to local issues of stigma, visibility and medical treatment.
Opening this week is the landmark film program ‘The Last of England: Thatcherism and British Cinema’. The free program begins with a special 20th anniversary retrospective of films by the acclaimed artist and filmmaker Derek Jarman. This major survey of British cinema continues at the Gallery’s Australian Cinémathèque, GOMA until the 25 June 2014.
We are all accomplices in the dream world of soul; it is not just personal, it’s general, we make these connections all the time. As Heraclitus said: ‘Those who dream are co-authors of what happens in the world’. Derek Jarman, Kicking The Pricks, 1996:108
Derek Jarman (1942–1994) is Britain’s most singular director and one of the most compelling artists to explore the moving image. In his short but expansive career, he completed 11 feature films that eschew conventional narrative and more than 60 Super-8 and 16mm montage films. His cinema tackled subjects of sexuality, history and politics without compromise and considered the creative process itself with a deeply affecting sensibility. In addition to his work in theatre and cinema, Jarman maintained his practice as a painter, wrote a series of memoirs and diaries, made music videos and was a passionate gardener. Twenty years after his death from AIDS-related conditions, his films, writing and paintings constitute more than ever, a vital statement against cultural conservatism and the will to be a self-determining artist.
Jarman studied painting at Kings College London and at the Slade School of Art and saw filmmaking as another form of painting. He applied his skills and interest in theatre and architecture to his role as production designer for Ken Russell’s films The Devils 1971 and Savage Messiah 1972, as well the Royal Ballet’s production of Jazz Calendar 1968. These experiences alongside his interaction with London’s gay social milieu gave him the confidence to begin developing his own projects and some of the first truly independent British features. While his filmography attests to a strong personal vision, Jarman also valued the collaborative process over individual control. Throughout his career he worked with a key group of creative collaborators, including producer James Mackay, actress Tilda Swinton, production designer Christopher Hobbs, composer Simon Fischer Turner and costume designer Sandy Powell.
Working with limited resources from the late 1970s to early 1990s, Jarman developed a unique cinematographic practice that turned those restraints into a signature aesthetic – what he conceived as ‘a cinema of small gestures’. Jarman enjoyed the autonomy and portability of shooting with his Nizo 480 and Beaulieu Super-8 cameras and filmed at 3-6 frames per second (as opposed to the usual range of 16-24) to extend the duration of film stock. This made for a more economical shooting process as well as developing a visual language similar to stop-motion photography, wherein images appear suspended in time or flicker beyond comprehension. Jarman experimented with different approaches to re-filming the fragile Super-8 stock and with the aid of U-matic recording technology, developed film/video hybrids that celebrated a new vocabulary of ‘magic realism’ created with the effects of video compositing/superimpositions and editing, saturated colours, and an emphasis on the material quality of film and video stock.
After publically disclosing his status as HIV-positive in 1986, Jarman worked under the spectre of death, writing and directing with urgency. His work took on a political dimension, aimed at tackling the cultural reversals occurring in British society under Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government. While he would refer to himself as ‘small-c conservative’, desiring the age of Shakespeare to escape the plight of England, his strident politics were always on show and his artistic vision was nothing short of revolutionary. Jarman’s storytelling was anachronistic, connecting the historical and contemporary through costuming, staging and dialogue, and throughout his career he sought to connect aspects of his personal history with public history. Music journalist Jon Savage has commented that Jarman’s subversive statements about British society ‘gave both his life and work a sharpened focus’ and made him ‘a standard for those who every fibre revolted against the power politics of the early to mid-1980s.’
Never one to allow his personal and public life to diverge, Jarman was one of the few openly Queer filmmakers during his lifetime and was unapologetic about his quest to represent homosexuality onscreen. Taking cues from filmmakers Pier Paolo Pasolini and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, his films are dominated by stories of exiles and outsiders – from Saint Sebastian to William Shakespeare, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Benjamin Britten, Wilfred Owen, Christopher Marlow and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Jarman’s project was to re-mythologise the importance of these homosexual artists, writers and intellectuals within cultural history and make visible through his work a strong Queer sensibility within the history of British art and film. Driven by the knowledge that his time was limited, Jarman was also an outspoken activist and used his life and work to negate the stigma associated with living with HIV and rally against the threat of Section 28, the 1988 British law introduced by Thatcher’s government that legislated against the promotion of homosexuality. He died of bronchial pneumonia shortly after his 52nd birthday on February 19, 1994. Jarman’s parting words in his last memoir At Your Own Risk: A Saint’s Testament (1993) read:
I am tired tonight. My eyes are out of focus, my body droops under the weight of the day, but as I leave you Queer lads let me leave you singing. I had to write of sad time as a witness ― not to cloud your smiles ― please read the cares of the world that I have locked in these pages; and after, put this book aside and love. May you of a better future, love without care and remember we loved too. As the shadows closed in, the stars came out. I am in love.
Drawing together works from the Gallery’s contemporary collections, ‘Earth and Elsewhere’ features artists whose works frame the past and help shape our understanding of the delicate and often paradoxical synapses between memory and history, empathy and reception. The exhibition tracks a path across the planet’s surface and atmosphere, mapping an interpretation of the human condition through a series of poetic and philosophical associations. From fissures in memory, to structures of interpersonal relations, and the in-between spaces that have the capacity to transport us from here to elsewhere, the exhibition is presented in three interconnected constellations of works — ‘The cracked earth’, ‘Personal cosmologies’ and ‘Farewell to the sea’ — that begin on the ground before taking to the stars.
The exhibition was inspired by Patricio Guzmán’s poetic film essay Nostalgia de la luz (Nostalgia for the Light) 2010, which positions memory as central to understanding the human condition. Set in Chile’s Atacama Desert, the film features three interconnected searches into the past: astronomers study distant stars and solar systems located billions of years ago; archaeologists exhume and study carefully preserved human remains and artefacts; and a group of women search for Chile’s desaparecidos ― loved ones assassinated during Augusto Pinochet’s 17-year military dictatorship whose bodies are believed to have been scattered in the desert. Nostalgia de la luz unites these different attempts to connect with the past by balancing that which defines one’s personal experience of the world with the larger narrative of how and why we remember.
Like Guzmán’s film, ‘Earth and Elsewhere’ asks why we are drawn to, and grounded by, acts of remembrance. This question is connected to the creation and reception of art itself, conjoining the processes of retaining and reviving impressions of the past with the motivations for making physical that which cannot be reconciled by memory alone. Art becomes a site in which the experience of memory is given primacy, and to borrow Guzmán’s expression, embodied as a ‘fragile present moment’ when he ends Nostalgia de la luz with the suggestion: ‘Those who have a memory are able to live in the fragile present moment. Those who have none don’t live anywhere’.
‘The cracked earth’ brings together works that make symbolic connections between bodies and landforms, revealing the imprint of lived experience and the complexities of returning to a past which is now beyond our grasp. Some artists excavate individual and collective trauma by showing the earth broken and damaged, while others summon spectres from the past to make visible the gaps in social and political histories. The body’s material presence is given primacy in works that record its imprint and allegorise the fragility of land with the bodies that inhabit it. ‘Personal cosmologies’ examines the larger world of emotions constructed through personal exchange, confession and participation, with artists’ structures and archives recovering lost pasts or imagining repositories for individual and collective memories. Other works in this section encourage activities in the gallery space that make empathy the subject of art itself. ‘Farewell to the sea’ considers the vastness of the earth’s liminal spaces: the sea and the sky are recurring characters in the final section, as are metaphors for the dissolving of physical and psychic boundaries and the infinite possibilities offered by abstraction.
‘Earth and Elsewhere’ stresses the importance of the past ― indeed, that we have no future without the past ― and highlights our collective desires to seek objects and images that connect us with it. The exhibition queries what binds these questions of personal and social desire to bigger ideas about our place in history and the universe. From the experiences of trauma seen on the ground, the exhibition ends by looking outward, above and beyond, as an alternative means of understanding and reconciling our relationships with the past, present and future. For, as Guzmán urges, “the matter of our bodies is the matter of the stars. We belong to the Milky Way – that’s our home, not just the Earth.”
The exhibition also features work by Sadie Benning (USA), Latifa Echakhch (Morocco/France), Tracey Emin (England), Guan Wei (China/Australia), Emily Jacir (Palestine/United States), Anish Kapoor (England), William Kentridge (South Africa), Dinh Q Le (Vietnam), Lee Mingwei (Taiwan/USA), Jose Legaspi (The Philippines), Jorge Mendez Blake (Mexico), Rivane Neuenschwander (Brazil), Henrique Oliveira (Brazil), Mitra Tabrizian (Iran/England), Chandraguptha Thenuwara (Sri Lanka), Judy Watson (Waanyi people, Australia), Sharif Waked (Palestine) and others.
‘Earth and Elsewhere: Works from the Contemporary Collection’ opens at GOMA on Saturday 25 May with a curatorial talk and a welcoming performance by artist Dadang Christanto in relation to his work, For those: Who are poor, Who are suffer(ing), Who are oppressed, Who are voiceless, Who are powerless, Who are burdened, Who are victims of violence, Who are victims of a dupe, Who are victims of injustice [pictured] 1993.