Pegrum: A Big Disease with a Little Name
6. Fragmentation and Dissolution
In the age of AIDS, we might be forgiven for borrowing Barbara Kruger's 1989 statement "Your body is a battleground", which was originally inscribed in a feminist context, and extending it to the new war zone. As medical science battles the disease, and major struggles are fought around it between activism and apathy, between fear and hope, between gay and straight, new images of the human body are being generated.
Carl Tandatnick's 1993 "AIDS Virus on White Blood Cell/Grey (Virus) Border" is produced by traditional artistic techniques of silkscreen ink and paint on canvas, and is billed as art; and yet it resembles the kind of illustration we might expect to find in a medical journal or even possibly a health pamphlet warning of the risks of HIV infection. Perhaps even more striking is Brenton Heath-Kerr's 1994 "Homosapien", where the patient on the hospital bed attended by a nurse is represented by a medical diagram of the muscles and bones of the human body. Or what of U.K artists James Barrett and Robin Forster, whose 1992 X-Ray Series consists of haunting x-ray portrayals of male to male sex? Certainly the AIDS epidemic has resulted in a medicalised view of the human body and to some extent of homosexuality, and the attempt to capture this in art has meant a move away from classical and standard images of the body. On the one hand, some artists may be seen as protesting this medicalisation where nothing remains of love, emotion or personality - those things which form the essence of a human being - and yet, oddly enough, as Paul Freeman points out in respect of Barrett's and Forster's images, because the body is viewed from the inside and all the standard trappings such as looks, race, colour and age are removed, the sexual act is able to be viewed more honestly "without socially imposed psychoclutter".37 All of these medicalised images demonstrate a strange parallel with the AIDS virus itself: just as the latter involves a de(con)struction of healthy cells, here the traditional images of the body have been deconstructed.
From an artistic point of view this is particularly interesting as it dovetails with a much wider contemporary cultural movement where postmodern theory and art are themselves busy deconstructing the body and the limited images and functions into which it has been inscribed. Thus, for example, while the X-Ray Series is a memorial to AIDS, it also serves as a challenge to the limitations of traditional gay imagery. In 1990, under the name art2g0, Barrett and Forster also produced a series of photos of fragments of Michelangelo's David, playing on its special position in queer culture and pointing out "the ways the queer body has been reinscribed with HIV - severely medicalised, ruptured and fragmented".38 A similar effect is produced by Lex Middleton's striking 1992 "Gay Beauty Myth", where the slightly fragmented image of a male model of the type which has invaded billboards over the nineties, is juxtaposed with a very fragmented and elongated image of an HIV+ man.
In some ways the effect of these works is not so different from that of many other postmodern deconstructive images of the body - such as Nick Baldas's 1994 "Phrixus and Jason", where the artist fragments a De Vinci sketch with the aim of challenging the gay body aesthetic, or an image from Robby Payne's 1995 Attrition series which, with its marbled effect, attempts by the author's own statement to visualise the deconstruction and reconstruction of the contemporary body.39 This fragmentation of the body finds its (auto-)biographical parallels in contemporary novels such as Hervé Guibert's 1992 Paradise or Dale Peck's 1993 Fucking Martin, where the whole of a person's life becomes fragmented and non-linear partly as a result of exposure to HIV - but also partly because it is inscribed in postmodern culture.
If deconstruction of the body is high on the agenda of contemporary artists, what about reconstruction? This takes many guises, from genderfuck to androgyny, from hyper-maleness and hyper-femaleness to total facial or bodily re-invention. But perhaps the most obvious contribution of AIDS art in this respect is a play on artificial body coverings, including the foregrounding of the role of plastic - and particularly condoms - in human sexuality; examples include Cindy Sherman's 1987 "Untitled #179", where the floor behind a seated figure is littered with phallic symbols and condoms; or Masami Teraoka's 1988 "Geisha in Bath", where the geisha in question is opening a condom packet in the bath, while condoms are also inserted into the Japanese script on the wall(paper) behind her; or Arthur Tress's 1996 Condom Series where plastic toy figures, including people, animals and penises, are covered with condoms. Perhaps an even more striking statement is made by Australian photographer Philip Paratore's 1994 "Ascension", where a traditionally beautiful male nude - demonstrating the double heritage of the classical tradition and the gay male aesthetic - holds a plastic sheet which wraps the lower part of his body, including the genitalia which are visible but sealed off by this artificial screen. It might also be asked how far sexuality will retreat into cyberspace, where we are both protected by the plastic box through which cybersex is conducted, and able to recreate our bodies at will and "engage" in any sexual activity. "[I]f de Laclos had a modem", asks queer novelist Dean Kiley, "what wouldn't he have done with dangerous liaisons in the Web?"40 Indeed, is the web the only contemporary context in which dangerous liaisons are not too dangerous to contemplate?
Whatever the eventual outcome of so much artistic emphasis on the deconstruction of the human body, and in whatever form and with whatever new boundaries it is reconstructed, it is clear that artists responding to AIDS have played a major role in this arena which is at the forefront of contemporary avant-garde art. So AIDS can be seen to link up with current theoretical and cultural concerns, and it might be asked - though this would be the subject for a separate study - to what extent the deconstructive effects of AIDS have influenced and radicalised postmodern positions.
37. P. Freeman. "X-Ray Gaze" in Blue. Vol.00, February 1995, p.22.
38. J. Barrett & R. Forster. "Statuesque" in Blue. Vol.2, November 1995, p.8.
39. [Anon.]. "Robby Payne" in Black + White. Vol.19, June 1996, p.12.
40. D. Kiley. And That's Final. Leichhardt: BlackWattle, 1995, p.126.