Pegrum: A Big Disease with a Little Name
As I put down the telephone and the world it carried on.
Somewhere else, someone else is crying too,
Another man has lost a friend, I bet he feels the way I do.4
Thus singer Jimmy Somerville opens his 1987 "For a Friend", an attempt to capture his grief over an AIDS death; he concludes the first stanza:
All I want to do is kiss you once goodbye.5
The sentiments expressed here are echoed in the work of many other singers; in her 1992 "In This Life", Madonna also regrets not being able to farewell a friend:
Gone before he had his time
And I didn't have [a] chance to say goodbye.6
This sense of overwhelming sadness at AIDS deaths is one which artists have attempted to capture not only in song, but in every conceivable medium. Sadness, in fact, is the simple but moving name given by William Yang to his 1996 book of photography which deals amongst other subjects with the impact of AIDS on Yang's friends and acquaintances who for the most part belong to the Sydney gay scene. Many AIDS works of course focus primarily on one individual (as do these songs by Jimmy Somerville and Madonna, and as do sections of Yang's photographic album) and are often chillingly biographical or even autobiographical in nature. For instance, Robert Mapplethorpe's 1988 "Self Portrait" with a skull-topped walking stick is a stark statement on the approach of death sensed by the photographer. Another photographer, John Dugdale, 70% percent blind in one eye and completely without vision in the other as a result of AIDS, has produced a collection entitled Lengthening Shadows Before Dark, which contains numerous self-portraits, alone and with friends, produced via the antiquated cyanotype process which creates a blue twilight atmosphere.7 In one 1994 image, a figure bends over the naked photographer; the title reads "My Spirit Tried to Leave Me". The value of such works must be seen primarily in their elegiac nature, giving vent to intertwined feelings of grief, loss and emptiness. While many of them are very powerful, rarely do they seek out new artistic techniques or media, preferring to find solace in the ability of traditionally established and understood art forms to communicate these feelings to others.
Many similar attempts have been made by novelists; a case in point is the Australian Timothy Conigrave, whose posthumously published Holding the Man records the slow death of his lover. At the end Conigrave can only conclude hopelessly in Italian: "Ci vedremo lassù, angelo."8 In the face of AIDS, a large number of people cast their eyes up to Heaven; but many artists find no solace there. The powerful ending of one of the first major AIDS films, Norman René's 1990 Longtime Companion, is made all the more stark because it plays with the concept of resurrection, only to shatter it almost immediately and leave the three surviving characters standing alone, forlorn, on a windswept coast. In his song "Streets of Philadelphia", composed at the request of director Jonathan Demme as the theme of the 1993 AIDS film Philadelphia, Bruce Springsteen also rejects the idea of Heavenly intervention:
It's just you and I my friend9
Some artists, sensing the paucity of realism in conveying their emotions, have recourse to traditional and very emotive symbols which serve as a vehicle for their elegy; so it is that David Edwards's "Untitled (AIDS Pietà)" of 1992 borrows from the tradition of religious art but alters the roles; here the Virgin Mary is represented by a man in a habit, while Christ, it might be assumed, is his dead lover. Employing symbols of a very different kind, American artist Adrian Jones creates his 1991-1993 Flower Series, which is laden with all the cultural associations of flowers (freshness and new life, but also funerals); while Ross Bleckner's 1987 memorial to AIDS entitled "Knights not Nights" is an abstract work reminiscent of a starscape, an inky black background punctuated with points of light. Such usages of symbolism or abstraction certainly require more inventiveness from an artistic standpoint than do most standard biographical or autobiographical works, yet once again, since their primary aim is to communicate powerful emotions in a universally accessible way, it is not to be expected that they will step far outside traditional artistic approaches which are widely understood.
Many artists in fact successfully combine an individual focus with a mass focus; this is to some extent true of a number of the works already discussed. A further obvious example is Duane Michaels's 1991 "The Father Prepares His Dead Son for Burial", where the artist photographs a young man, his body covered in a sheet beneath which the outline of the penis is clearly visible, a statement perhaps on both the perception and the reality of the link between love and death. Michaels attaches a script about a father's grief which, although expressed here in the individual case, is patently relevant to many parents and families worldwide. Some artists work from the individual through to the community; thus the American John Cole strikingly juxtaposes the individual and the group in his "Candlelight Vigil for AIDS, Trafalgar Square, London" of 1986, where his camera zeroes in on the despair of two men surrounded by the blurred faces of other mourners. A combined individual-mass focus is also the purpose of the various AIDS quilts assembled around the world, where panels dedicated to those who have died from AIDS by their friends - who range from Christian Lacroix and Gianni Versace through to average people - are assembled into a whole which serves as a memorial to all who have died.
Conservative critics such as Arlene Croce argue that many AIDS works are examples of "victim art", in other words "self-declared cases of pathology in art [which] have effectively disarmed criticism" and which are "undiscussable" as art;10 and yet it is apparent that such works are an effective means of communicating with a wide audience and are invaluable for those who are attempting to make sense of the tragedy of AIDS in human lives. Indeed, many artists ask explicitly, like Madonna, "What for?"11, or like Boy George, "How could you go and die[?]",12 or comment, like the writer Aiden Shaw, on "how barbaric, how absurd" it is to die "from having sex".13 At the every least, such questions are implicit in most elegiac AIDS artworks, which represent an attempt to find meaning, indeed to give meaning to the suffering and death caused by this disease. In a world of such tragically foreshortened lives, a whole new sense attaches itself to the old adage of Hippocrates: ars longa, vita brevis.
4. J. Somerville. "For A Friend" in T. Gott (ed.), Don't Leave Me This Way: Art in the Age of AIDS. Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 1994, p.113.
5. J. Somerville. "For A Friend"...
6. Madonna. "In This Life" from Erotica. Maverick/Sire (Warner Bros), 1992.
7. B. Long. "Presence" in Blue. Vol.4, 1996, p.114.
8. T. Conigrave. Holding the Man. Ringwood: McPhee Gribble, 1995, p.286.
9. B. Springsteen. "Streets of Philadelphia" from Greatest Hits. Columbia (Sony), 1995.
10. A. Croce. Cited in M. Sordi. "Angels, Critics, and the Rhetoric of AIDS in America" in W.E. Cain (ed.), Reconceptualizing American Literary/Cultural Studies: Rhetoric, History, and Politics in the Humanities. New York: Garland, 1996, pp.187, 189.
11. Madonna. "In This Life" from Erotica. Maverick/Sire (Warner Bros), 1992.
12. Boy George. "Il Adore" from Cheapness and Beauty. Virgin (EMI), 1995.
13. A. Shaw. Brutal. Brighton: Millivres Books, 1996, p.128.