Pegrum: A Big Disease with a Little Name
5. Being Positive
"Positive" is the title of a 1995 work by Glen Walls, where a group of bare-chested smiling boys lie together, heads at the centre of a circle over which the word "Positive" is inscribed in red lettering. In the time of AIDS, such a picture, with its overtones of gay sexuality, cannot be perceived other than ambiguously. Such irony can be found in a number of artworks which prefer to put on a brave face, to laugh rather than cry in the face of the epidemic. David McDiarmid borrows from the old song "It's My Party and I'll Cry If I Want To" on his 1994 placard "It's My Party, and I'll Die If I Want To, Sugar" (a similar subversion is also used in Randal Kleiser's 1995 film It's My Party); on another placard, McDiarmid subverts a further commonplace saying by inscribing the words: "Don't Worry, Die Young, Be Happy, Make a Will"; on a third, he asks simply: "Honey, Have You Got It?"
But being positive means far more than these ironic-bitter smiles. For those who are infected with AIDS, it is crucial to find a way to live with the disease. Jayne, from Hervé Guibert's last novel, his 1992 Paradise, says to the narrator:
Yet living with HIV and AIDS does not mean forgetting them, but slotting them into a constructive self-image which must be built up in defiance of the constant threat of illness and death; and of the invidious stereotypes which have emerged from scare campaigns such as the Australian government's Grim Reaper; and also of what Susan Sontag calls the "psychic wound" caused by the fact that "[t]he very thing associated with life is now associated with death".32 In this latter category must be included not only the now dangerous practical function of reproduction, but also the general stigmatisation of love and sexuality in view of their possibly lethal ramifications.
Many of the most positive artworks are biographical in nature; here we might include Lynn Sloan's Faces of AIDS series of photographs, and Rosalind Solomon's Portraits in the Time of AIDS. These are not photographs filled with artificial happiness, but simply show ordinary people who are continuing to live their lives despite the presence of the HIV virus in their bodies. Artistically, these works are usually fairly traditional, as befits works aiming to convey a powerful message of support.
Other artists strike directly at the heart of the negative hype surrounding AIDS. Glen Walls's "Positive", mentioned above, is not necessarily about a disease undermining the smiling faces, but can be read in the reverse direction as smiling faces and young, still sexual bodies coming to terms with being HIV+. Photographer Reed Massengill comments on his own work:
Massengill is representative of a large number of visual artists. A 1993 photograph by Jamie Dunbar entitled "Posithiv Sex Happens" shows sex between two men, one of whose HIV+ status is clearly communicated through the drip attached to his arm. In his forthright 1995 In Defense of Beauty, the well-known HIV+ American photographer Tom Bianchi offers a rejoinder to those critics who dismiss his work as unrealistic and false:
Many such works borrow from classical traditions of beauty and link up with the widespread emergence of the male nude which has re-entered Western visual culture and advertising over recent years, as both the gay community and women have come into their own as consumers and begun to share the subject role enjoyed for centuries by heterosexual men. Often these works are not original per se, but rather by their very nature, as stated, subscribe to ancient canons of beauty.
There are many works on AIDS, visual and otherwise, which are, to quote novelist Edmund White, "moving and life-enhancing"35 and which serve the important purpose of giving hope and support to those dealing with the illness. But as the Pet Shop Boys remind us on their 1996 Bilingual album, the survivors also require support:
The images of hope constructed in the wake of AIDS are often very traditional in style, but this renders them no less essential and perhaps more effective than experimental and less universally accessible art.
31. H. Guibert. Paradise. London: Quartet, 1996, pp.43-44.
32. S. Sontag. Cited in S. Sontag & K. Fries. "AIDS and Its Metaphors: A Conversation with Susan Sontag" in L. Poague (ed.), Conversations with Susan Sontag. Jackson: U.P. of Mississippi, 1995, pp.259-260.
33. R. Massengill. Cited in A. Creagh. "Real Men" in Blue. Vol.7, February 1997, p.86.
34. T. Bianchi. In Defense of Beauty. New York: Crown, 1995, p.51.
35. E. White. In S. Todd & E. White. "Man of Letters" in Blue. Vol.00, February 1995, p.60.
36. Pet Shop Boys. "The Survivors" from Bilingual. Parlophone (EMI), 1996. The lyrics are printed in prose form, which is reproduced here.