Pegrum: A Big Disease with a Little Name
4. Warnings and Fear
If governments and health authorities are tardy in educating the populace - refusing, like the American Congress from 1987 through to 1992, to fund any educational material which might "promote or encourage, directly, homosexual or heterosexual activity"21 - then artists are spurred on not only to combat official languor but to warn the community through their own art.
Put a condom on your willy!
Thus Madonna harangues her audiences in mock-humorous fashion during her Blonde Ambition tour which begins in 1990 in Japan. This comment has not only become famous outside her immediate fan base, large though this already is, but has even been re-used elsewhere, such as in FPI Project's "Going Back to My Roots" on the 1996 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras: The Party Anthems 2 dance album. The question with warnings is of course always their efficacy; how do you get through to your target audience? Here, the curious humorous rhyming couplet, performed during a world tour by a major youth role model, has successfully punched a small hole in the wall of silence. It is interesting to note that in the preface to her fantasy Sex book which caused an enormous scandal on its release in 1992, she specifically insists on the fact that in the real world "condoms are not only necessary but mandatory".22 In a similar semi-humorous fashion, the reigning queen of drag queens, the American RuPAUL, lists condoms as the third most important item in her drag purse.23 Because of RuPAUL's highly visible presence as a figurehead and to some extent role model in the gay club scene, it might be assumed that such a comment will be noticed by a wide audience.
The need to awaken people to danger has resulted in the creation of some highly interesting means of conveying the message. For example, Australian artist Brenton Heath-Kerr, whose "part sculpture, part costume" outfits were regularly seen on the Sydney gay dance scene, was commissioned in 1992 by the Victorian AIDS Council to create a costume called "Ken - The Safe Sex Character". It was composed of photographs of sections of the bodies of two male models combined with words (such as "SAFE", "FUCK", "CONDOM") and symbols (such as a plus and minus sign) on coloured squares, and operated as a kind of walking advertisement when it was worn on the gay scene.24
An examination of safe sex campaigns amongst the indigenous population of Australia points up some crucial issues in the design of this kind of material. A 1987 initiative of Aboriginal health workers with Australian government funding produced Condoman, who, cast as a superman-style figure complete with tights and cape, urged people to use condoms.25 He was dressed in the red, black and yellow colours of the Aboriginal flag, in order to increase his appeal to this section of the population. Elsewhere, the effects of AIDS on Aboriginal communities is illustrated in stylistically traditional or semi-traditional Aboriginal artworks; examples include Marrnyula Mununggurr's untitled 1993 bark painting (known as "The AIDS Story") which urges "Love me safely", or H.J. Wedge's 1994 "AIDS". The point is that different approaches are required to reach varying target audiences. What works well for young white fans of Madonna, or for the gay party scene, may not work well for other sections of the community. It is only by drawing on the cultural references of specific target groups, especially those which exist beyond the bounds of the American-dominated Western cultural responses to AIDS, that the message can be effectively communicated.
The concept of target audiences is commonplace in the world of advertising; and in essence that is what we are dealing with here. These works are not necessarily directly political in the sense of having party affiliations, but they are certainly a kind of propaganda in favour of a very definite outcome. Can advertising become art? This is a question which has been answered in the positive by many artists, especially since the days of Pop Art in the 1960s. Can art become advertising? This is a question we are forced to consider in the light of such safe-sex campaigns by artists. The answer, it would seem, is yes, and just as political, angry art was seen in the previous section to be erasing the boundaries between politics and art, and rendering political art acceptable, so too is advertising-style art gradually making itself acceptable.
Certainly one message which has reached audiences is that of fear, and a sense of the omnipresence of the AIDS virus. In a 1993 song, "Lola", which borrows its title from Marlene Dietrich, the German singer Pe Werner continually nods to her predecessor in the German cabaret tradition, but in writing of a prostitute finds herself confronted with an issue which forbids Dietrich's flippancy: "die AIDS-Angst klebt ihr an den Fersen".26 Whereas Dietrich's Lola prided herself on her freedom, Werner's is a victim of fear. In the eighties and nineties, love can kill. Thus Marie Niechwiadowicz's 1995 "Awareness" depicts a kiss in an image strewn with AIDS ribbons; while Glen Walls's "Infected 2" of the same year casts the photographer as Citizen Kane, against a background of sperm which tear through the placard bearing his name - is this a representation of the nature of the downfall of a nineties Kane? On a 1992 photograph, "Stephen #1", William Yang writes:
Even George Michael's "Fastlove" video accompanying the release of his enormously successful 1995 song of the same name, does, while extolling the freedom of a casual sexual lifestyle, include poignant references to the victims of such a life; one, a girl in tears; the other, a man looking suspiciously like an AIDS patient, who contrasts strikingly with the glamorous androgynous figures who otherwise people the videoclip.
In a climate already charged with fear, is the best strategy to play on these fears? Is fear the answer to communicating the safe sex message? Many governments and health bodies, anxious not to "promote or encourage" sex, initially thought so, and thus began a series of initiatives such as the Australian Grim Reaper campaign. Unfortunately, the effect of such advertising was often less to convince people of the need to have sex safely, and more to stigmatise and ostracise those who had already contracted the disease. The Grim Reaper, for example, borrows heavily from the Medieval symbolism surrounding the Black Plague of 1346-1353, and plays into the hands of the conservative lobby who view AIDS as a plague which is somehow deserved by those upon whom it is visited.
What this has meant for artists trying to convey a safe sex message is that although fear and shock can be very valuable allies, they must be used extremely carefully if they are to produce the intended results, in other words to educate rather than to stigmatise. Nonetheless, a considered use of shock and fear has produced some of the most effective works of the AIDS era. For example, in 1991 Mathew Jones creates an artwork consisting of a white mattress, entitled "Over My Dead Body"; Ross T. Smith entitles a 1990-1992 work "L'Amour et la mort (sont la même chose)"; while Michele Barker's 1992 "Lets Fuck" shows these words imprinted in red over the image of a face and a gun pointed at the viewer. These works, while highlighting the dangerous connection between love and death in our time, avoid metaphors of plague and do not focus on a specific section of the population.
It is highly interesting to see how art has become infused with the urgency of advertising. But ultimately, of course, who better to advertise than advertisers? Some of the most startling, shocking and controversial images of recent years have in fact been produced under the direction of the "terrorist of advertising"28 Oliviero Toscani, responsible for many of the controversial advertisements of the Italian clothing company Benetton. One example is a photographic collage of hundreds of faces; stepping back, the viewer notices the word AIDS faintly traced into the construction of the picture. Another advertisement series, more shocking, shows a well-sculpted chest and forearm bearing the stamp "H.I.V. POSITIVE", or a posterior carrying the same message. These images both foreground and challenge the metaphor of plague, and are effective because Occidental viewers naturally recoil before the obvious reference to the branding techniques of Hitler's Germany. Another advertisement shows the image of an AIDS patient on his sickbed; widely displayed, this functions as a challenge to the tendency to shut away people with AIDS, especially the most ill, from everyday societal concerns . In issue no.7 of the Benetton magazine Colors, which brought it international attention, the viewer finds full-page images of blood, semen and vaginal fluid (as the locus of the HIV virus), as well as a startling image of Ronald Reagan as he might look with KS lesions on his face.
At this juncture of art and advertising, the question of commercialism will inevitably arise. Despite the strong protest value of Toscani's advertisements, is AIDS ultimately just a way of selling more clothes? Can we put any faith in such a campaign by an international company which uses it to vend its wares? Tibor Kalman, editor of Colors, has the following to say:
This of course sounds like a summary of what we have said about art and its power of communication, and is a clear indication of the extent to which art and advertising have overlapped in the AIDS era. Nonetheless, the question of the extent of commercialism present in such campaigns will doubtless remain controversial and ultimately, perhaps, unresolvable. Therefore, let us give the final word to Toscani himself; he wanted, he says,
21. Cited in C.S. Vance. "Afterword: The War on Culture Continues" in T. Gott (ed.), Don't Leave Me This Way: Art in the Age of AIDS. Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 1994, p.103.
22. Madonna writes: "This book does not condone unsafe sex. These are fantasies I have dreamed up. Like most human beings, when I let my mind wander, when I let myself go, I rarely think of condoms. My fantasies take place in a perfect world, a place without AIDS. Unfortunately the world is not perfect and I know that condoms are not only necessary but mandatory. Everything you are about to see and read is a fantasy, a dream, pretend. But if I were to make my dreams real, I would certainly use condoms. Safe sex saves lives. Pass it on" From: Madonna. Sex. London: Martin Secker & Warburg, 1992, unpag.
23. RuPAUL. Lettin [sic] It All Hang Out. London: Warner, 1995, p.79.
24. T. Gott. "Agony Down Under: Australian Artists Addressing AIDS" in T. Gott (ed.), Don't Leave Me This Way: Art in the Age of AIDS. Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 1994, pp.6-8; quotation from p.6. Heath-Kerr worked with photographer Peter Elfes on this project.
25. T. Gott. "Where the Streets Have New Aims: The Poster in the Age of AIDS" in T. Gott (ed.), Don't Leave Me This Way: Art in the Age of AIDS. Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 1994, pp.204-206.
26. Pe Werner. "Lola" from Los! Intercord, 1993.
27. W. Yang. "Stephen #1" in Blue. Vol.00, February 1995, p.127.
28. [Anon.]. "Oliviero Toscani: Die Werbung ist tot, aber sie lächelt noch" in Die Zeit: Magazin. No.12, 15 March 1996, p.11. [my translation]
29. T. Kalman. Cited in P. Paschali. "True Colors of Benetton?" in Attitude. Vol.1, no.3, 1994, p.8.
30. O. Toscani. "Die Werbung ist tot, aber sie lächelt noch" in Die Zeit: Magazin. No.12, 15 March 1996, p.15. [my translation]