The slogan “Silence=Death” remains one of the most recognizable images from the art produced during the AIDS crisis in America. Created by the activist art collective Gran Fury, it complemented a movement of creativity that held social change as its core. Now, over 30 years since the term “AIDS” was first recognized, the collective’s retrospective Gran Fury: Read My Lips at NYU captivates this tumultuous time in American history and shows us that, perhaps, we haven’t progressed much.
The iconic “SILENCE=DEATH” (1988) poster is on display, but relatively downplayed amongst the plethora of imagery, text and video presented in this show. Initially their art was meant to educate the public by dispelling common misconceptions about the spread of HIV (as in their “Kissing Doesn’t Kill” and “Women Don’t Get AIDS” campaigns) as well as combat the irresponsible complacency and ignorance of Ronald Reagan, the Catholic Church and neoconservative activists. Though reviewing it today (especially as someone born in 1989), the group’s work has catapulted itself into our cultural stratosphere, not only representing the continuing battle against AIDS but also the political function of art.
The murals and reproductions of Gran Fury’s work, from postcards to billboards, overwhelm the viewer, creating a collaged space that both holds a mirror up to society as well as shapes it. But it cannot help to be said that we’ve seen all of this before.
Since it’s basically a necessary unit in most Contemporary Art courses in this country, Gran Fury’s unique contribution to the art historical canon is probably familiar to most gallery-going aficionados, and even casual admirers of art have probably seen the “SILENCE=DEATH” slogans leak into pop culture. So my immediate reaction to the show was “Wow! Gran Fury… Oh. Gran Fury.” It’s all been done before. When I saw the flyer (which does not tout it as a retrospective) I had thought the collective worked up something new for the 21st Century, but it’s more of a “best of” compilation. In Madonna terms, I was expecting MDNA and got Celebration.
But as I continued through the exhibit, the disappointment dissipated. The more imagery I was saturated with, the more I was provoked to see that this is not necessarily a time capsule; the rapidly growing HIV infection rates here and across the globe should illustrate that we have not yet solved the problem of AIDS and, scarily, we seem to have cast it off, ignoring the pandemic much like the Gipper himself.
As our own John D’Addario reminded us here on Hyperallergic last year:
… the AIDS crisis is not over. On World AIDS Day, let’s also remind ourselves that Gran Fury’s original call to action is one still worth responding to.
It’s well-worn work, for sure, but its goal has yet to be reached. Hopefully this exhibition will not only inspire historical excavation in an incredibly turbulent period of our history, but also compel us to be active in the resistance against this political crisis.
Gran Fury: Read My Lips is on view now at New York University’s Steinhardt School Department of Art and Art Professions (80 Washington Square East, Greenwich Village, Manhattan) through March 17.