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Migros Museum of Contemporary Art opens an exhibition about loss, remembrance, activism and art in response to HIV/AIDS
General Idea, White AIDS (Wallpaper), 1990. Sammlung Migros Museum fr Gegenwartskunst. Screen print on paper, Dimensions variable.

ZURICH.- The extensive group show United by AIDS—An Exhibition about Loss, Remembrance, Activism and Art in Response to HIV/AIDS sheds light on the multifaceted and complex interrelation between art and HIV/AIDS from the 1980s to the present. It examines the blurring of the boundary between art production and HIV/AIDS activism and spotlights artists who have been leading voices in this creative discourse, which remains vital today. The presentation gathers positions that illustrate the diversity of the (artistic) response to the HI virus and AIDS, with an explicit focus on works that address themes such as isolation, transformation, and the inexorable passing of time and mortality in relation to the politics of the body and representation. Since the introduction of highly active antiretroviral therapy in the second half of the 1990s, AIDS has widely come to be seen as a phenomenon of the past, with little significance for the life of our societies today. On the global scale, however, deaths due to complications from AIDS still number almost one million per year. Divided into four chapters, the exhibition seeks to untangle the complex and diverse narratives around HIV/AIDS and discuss their fragility in a contemporary perspective.

Since the outbreak of the pandemic in the 1980s, over 76 million people have contracted HIV, and around 35 million have died from the conditions associated with the syndrome. The development of the so-called highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART), which came into wide use in the mid-1990s, has turned HIV infection into a chronic but manageable disease. Yet it is too early—and would be irresponsible—to speak of an end of HIV/AIDS: as the data compiled by UNAIDS shows, the disease still affects millions of people around the globe. The high rate of incidence within marginalized groups (male homosexuals, intravenous drug users, sex workers) that were already targets of social prejudice has reinforced stigmas that have proved a major challenge in overcoming the AIDS crisis and still inform preconceptions concerning AIDS today.

The onset of the crisis in the 1980s politicized many artists, those personally affected by the disease, but others as well. Their work reflected the menacing new reality in which they lived and addressed the personal and social repercussions of a phenomenon that felt cataclysmic in a way that is hard to imagine today. These multifaceted and complex interrelations between art and HIV/AIDS are explored in the exhibition’s first three chapters in the downstairs galleries. The first section is a meditation on disappearance and effacement and the almost impossible task of visualizing the void left by a plague that erased lives and entire communities. The second section focuses on the art scene in New York as one of the epicenters of the crisis; the third surveys the intervention as a key format of creative activism in the 1980s and 1990s, especially in the oeuvres of the artists associated with ACT UP. These pieces highlight that art functioned and still functions in this context as both activist strategy and medium of remembrance, as a vehicle of outrage and an instrument of reflection. The fourth chapter turns the spotlight on positions in art that, almost four decades after the “insidious” disease first alarmed the Western world, contemplate its impact from a contemporary perspective and scrutinize the ways in which societies respond to the HI virus and AIDS today. At a time when many progressive social accomplishments, including the right to sexual self-determination and autonomy, gender equality, and the widespread embrace of ethical and moral values untainted by nationalism and racism, have come under attack from ultraconservative circles that push for a rollback, the exhibition United by AIDS is meant not only to stimulate reflection and educate audiences about the history of one of the central struggles of our time; it is also an inspiring reminder of the transformative potential inherent in art.

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