The most visceral pieces in Brooklyn-based artist and activist Hunter Reynolds’s solo show Survival AIDS at Lower East Side nonprofit art space Participant Inc. are not, as one might expect, the blood spattered newspaper clippings screaming ominous headlines posted on the walls of the gallery. Rather, it’s the packing tape mummies collapsed on the floor and suspended from the walls that are the real shockers. The bodies missing from their cocoons seem to have only recently burst out, resurrected.
Survival AIDS is a retrospective of more than two decades of Reynolds’s work, so named because the artist has been living with HIV since 1984. Since 1987, Reynolds has been a member of ACT UP, the New York-based AIDS advocacy group, and the artist also co-founded the affinity group Art Positive in 1989, which is active in combating homophobia and censorship in the arts. Yet rather than being an artist who works in activism, each of Reynolds’ art works is a piece of activism in itself. Behind these works is the constant specter of the disease, and Reynold’s own life as a gay man living with HIV.
The mummy cocoons strewn across the Participant Inc. space are actually the wrappings of Reynolds’s mummification performances, during which the artist is completely coiled in colorful tape and plastic; the only gap is a space left over his nose to breathe. At the end of the gallery is “We Die in the Streets” (2011), a huge composite photograph of Reynolds during one of the mummification performances superimposed over a tumultuous black and white shot of an AIDS rally.
Recalling Egyptian mummies, the “skins” — or are they chrysalises —bring an immediate image of death, but also of importance. When Egyptian royalty were mummified, it was to preserve their body for eternity and stave off the decay of mortality. Each time Reynolds performs the mummification pieces, he seems to be both dying and being reborn, surviving the disease that has yet to claim him. Unlike many of his contemporaries who never emerged from illness, like Robert Mapplethorpe and David Wojnarowicz, Reynolds survived the height of the 1980s AIDS pandemic that, at the time, seemed a death sentence.
Overlooking the grounded mummies are photo quilts derived from Reynolds’ early 1990s Blood Spot series, in which the artist would extract his own blood and drip it over paper. For Survival AIDS, the spots were layered over New York Times clippings concerning HIV/AIDS and the LGBT community collected by Reynolds between 1989 and 1993. Originally presented as his Dialogue Tables and Activist Media Installations, they were scanned by Reynolds for this exhibit and stitched into Photo Weavings for Survival AIDS series. The sewn tapestries are an archive of frenzied headlines about the AIDS crisis, the obituaries of those consumed by the disease, and the growth of LGBT activist movements out of the 1980s. Some of the photo tapestries just have massive blood spots, others are formed into images, like a unicorn over articles on gay pride alongside those on gay bashing. In another is a photograph of Reynolds during a mummification performance reclined over a trail of blood.
One drawback to an exhibit of performance-based art is that the work displayed is a kind of castoff of the original event. The mummies ripped open and laying on the floor make you more curious about what escaped from the cocoons, rather than the crinkled skins of worn tape themselves. Yet even empty, they still hold a lingering reminder of the power of survival and persistence.
Hunter Reynolds: Survival AIDS runs through June 4 at Participant Inc. (253 East Houston)