Madonna lived to tell

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Madonna lived to tell
Madonna attends the LaQuan Smith SS 2023 Collection Afterparty in New York, Sept. 12, 2022. (Rebecca Smeyne/The New York Times)

by Guy Trebay

NEW YORK, NY.- Shining out from the Instagram slag heap, amid the endless artificial intelligence selfies and reaction reels, is an account so quiet in presence and noble in intention that it is sometimes hard to believe it exists. The account, The AIDS Memorial, is an evolving testament, told in photographs, videos and user stories, to lives lost to a devastating and, it can occasionally seem, forgotten epidemic.

The stories and photos are of lovers, parents, children, relatives, acquaintances and friends taken by the disease, and they are edited — and more generally guided into existence — by one man, Stuart Armstrong, from his home outside Edinburgh, Scotland. To date, Armstrong has posted more than 11,000 of these tales, and if you are aware of them at all, that may owe to one woman: Madonna.

The 65-year-old singer was early among the 269,000 followers of The AIDS Memorial. And, if it did not inspire her outright, the Instagram account served as the basis for a showstopping element of her current “Celebration” tour, which comes to Barclays Center in New York in mid-December. That is, a photo montage depicting a fraction of the 40 million people who, according to World Health Organization statistics, have succumbed to the disease.

“One of the most successful and important works of AIDS art in our time,” writer Sarah Schulman — whose 2012 memoir, titled “The Gentrification of the Mind,” depicts 1980s New York in the grip of AIDS — said of The Aids Memorial. By extension, Madonna’s choice to deploy the montage early in each “Celebration” performance as a backdrop for a rendition of the 1986 song “Live to Tell” is as politically trenchant as it is deeply personal. The first image in what proliferates into a vast photo mosaic is of Madonna’s close friend Martin Burgoyne, a British-born artist who managed the singer’s first club tour and who died of AIDS-related complications in 1986 at 23.

“One of the things she was saying was that she wanted to pay tribute not just to friends and famous people but to all the people who were lost to the disease,” said Sasha Kasiuha, 29, a Ukraine-born director commissioned by Madonna to orchestrate the video effects. What she also aimed for, Kasiuha said, was an evocation of the terrors that prevailed in New York and elsewhere during the period from the disease’s first mention in The New York Times in 1981 as an unnamed outbreak of “rare cancer seen in 41 homosexuals” to the mid-2000s, when AIDS deaths peaked.

Not only did major American metropolises become graveyards, as Madonna (who did not respond to requests to her representatives for comment) posted to her own Instagram account, a significant number of those affected by the disease in the days when a positive HIV diagnosis equaled a death sentence, suffered dreadfully, becoming pariahs as they experienced what the singer characterized as destitution and abandonment by their families.

“Two generations of incredible artists were decimated, along with the audiences that understood that art ... all gone,” said DJ Honey Dijon, who has opened for Madonna on several “Celebration” tour dates. “I think of Madonna and what she lost and endured, and I think her perseverance is admirable.”

But it was not only artists, as Schulman said, or people of note. It was ordinary folks from all walks of life and of every gender orientation, so many dead (more than 100,000 in New York City alone) that even memory of them has tended to be erased. “It’s up to the living to carry their name,” she said.

Almost by default, the task of keeping those names and remembrances alive in a largely amnesiac culture fell to volunteers like Armstrong.

“I had a personal affinity for the subject, but I kept trying to avoid it,” he said, declining to elucidate. “I thought, I’ll just post a few and see what happens, and then it went on and on and on.”

The original 1,000 followers multiplied exponentially after the account was cited in i-D magazine in 2017, where Armstrong said of the disease’s casualties, “They just died and died and died.”

As the numbers grew, so, too, did the stories of women, men and trans people, celebrated or anonymous, some as famous as Freddie Mercury, others as obscure as John Schultz, a writer and apparent hell-rake whose best friend, Katrina del Mar, vividly remembered being eighty-sixed with him at nightspots — like Boots & Saddle and King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut — across the city.

“Huge emotional moment during Madonna’s #LivetoTell, her moving tribute to all those lost to AIDS especially those that had touched her life,” wrote Soft Cell singer Marc Almond on Instagram. “When Martin Burgoyne’s face appeared on a huge screen, I’m not ashamed to say that I had tears running down my face.”

There are tales of men like Bill Powell of Knoxville, Tennessee, “a savior of old buildings, stray dogs and lost souls”; of April Renee Dunaway, seen on Instagram and now in Madonna’s tour performances as a young mother, holding aloft her infant and posted to the account by her child, now the drag performer #trinitythetuck.

It was back in April that Madonna’s team began working quietly with Armstrong to contact and obtain from the original contributors consent to include personal images of their loved ones in the “Celebration” tour. Among the goals, Kasiuha said, was saving a community marginalized in life from being banished altogether from cultural memory.

“Younger audience born after the ’90s didn’t have to experience or know much about what was happening, that feeling of having friends, family all around them dying,” he said. “We wanted to go from the big, strong portraits to images that got smaller and smaller so you could begin to understand the scale.”

In all, there are roughly 300 of these, drawn from The AIDS Memorial. And at every performance, as a raft of YouTube videos attest, the emotional reaction has been similar. “People are overwhelmed,” Kasiuha said. “That was something Madonna emphasized. She wanted to remind people of how precious life is.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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