Art

“The AIDS Crisis Is Still Beginning,” Says Artist and Activist Gregg Bordowitz

In a retrospective at the Art Institute of Chicago, Bordowitz reflects on living as a queer Jewish man with HIV and challenges us to understand the AIDS crisis as both historical and contemporary.

Installation view of Gregg Bordowitz: I Wanna Be Well at the Art Institute of Chicago (2019) (All images by the author for Hyperallergic)

CHICAGO — In two areas of the Art Institute of Chicago, large yellow banners announce in red capital letters that “The AIDS Crisis Is Still Beginning,” one above the staircase near the Michigan Avenue entrance and the other within the artist’s retrospective, Gregg Bordowitz: I Wanna Be Well, currently on view in the Modern Wing. To visitors familiar with Bordowitz’s work, the banners will recall his 2002 installation, Drive, at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, where he premiered Habit (2001), a film that documents the routines of living with his HIV diagnosis since 1988 alongside footage of an AIDS advocacy group in South Africa. As a sequel to his formative film Fast Drip, Long Drop (1993), which incorporated recordings of ACT UP demonstrations in New York City, Habit (included in the retrospective) slows down the pace of political activism to examine the everydayness of living in the never-settled wake of an HIV diagnosis.

Bordowitz’s body of work directs our attention to what the cultural theorist Lauren Berlant terms “crisis ordinariness,” whereby “crisis is not exceptional … but a process embedded in the ordinary that unfolds in stories about navigating what’s overwhelming.” To complement the exhibition, Bordowitz published “Autumn U.S.A.,” a poem in twelves parts that is distributed in the first gallery, wherein he measures the circadian rhythms of “calamity and its repetition” with the refrain “I write every day.” This first comprehensive overview of Bordowitz’s thirty-year career not only situates his art within the precarious history in which it took shape, but also explores the many ways in which his arts activism continues to bear witness to the injuries of our historical present.

As a queer Jewish man living with HIV and a professor at the School of the Art Institute, Bordowitz has dedicated his life to AIDS activism while developing an art practice that, as he explained to Douglas Crimp in a 1989 interview, “exists both inside the galleries and outside, through other venues.” This retrospective works to elucidate these other venues. The exhibited objects shuttle between mediating the deeply personal nature of Bordowitz’s art and the milieu of its production. In addition to “self-portraits in mirror” (1996) — a series of daily drawings that Bordowitz used to document the year that protease inhibitors were introduced to treat HIV — the first gallery contains a vitrine with selections from the artist’s own personal archive (1983-present). These include photographs with Crimp, intimate notes with artist Jack Whitten, flyers from ACT UP campaigns, occasional poetry, political pamphlets, and other ephemera.

Installation view of Gregg Bordowitz: I Wanna Be Well at the Art Institute of Chicago (2019)

The second large gallery, which is organized around four interior rooms, primarily serves as a survey of Bordowitz’s prodigious video works, including Portraits of People Living with HIV: Episodes 1-9(1988-1992), a series of “video portraits” that he created for the Gay Men’s Health Crisis. One particular portrait follows Bordowitz as he probes the meaning of an island-hopping boat trip that he took with five gay male friends who cared for each other through their HIV support group. In a poignant moment of intimacy, a friend tells Bordowitz that he sees the trip as a way of “trying to make your life mean something in a very strange time.” The experience of dying — of the AIDS crisis as jammed in a repeated beginning — framed the portrait of their shared lives. The retrospective concludes with an installation of Bordowitz’s personal library, inviting you to browse the spines of the countless books with which he has spent decades making meaning.

Gregg Bordowitz performing at the Art Institute of Chicago (2019)

The opening weekend of I Wanna Be Well was accompanied by Some Styles of Masculinity, a three-night performance lecture that Bordowitz described as his “Charlottesville piece.” A self-proclaimed “artist who plays a comedian in museums,” Bordowitz ruminated on the rock star, the rabbi, and the comedian. Thinking aloud with an amazing energy of mind, he rolled out before us the palimpsest of the historical present.

On the first night, he toured the audience through a sonic history of downtown punk, its imbrications with Jewish identity, and how both contributed to the matrices of his own masculinity and sexuality; on the second night, he acknowledged that he never expected to be here, no less to be here on the occasion of his own retrospective; on the final night, he admitted that despite the designated theme of comedy, “I’m not feeling it.” Considering the ongoing global asymmetrical distribution of HIV treatment and the Trump administration’s 2017 plan to divest approximately $9 million from HIV care in order to fund ICE, Bordowitz asked, “Where’s the fucking punchline?” He left us to linger in the disquieting moment of that pause, wherein we learned that the collective experience of AIDS must be understood as both historical and contemporary. “AIDS touched and touches every issue,” Bordowitz reminded us.

Installation view of Gregg Bordowitz: I Wanna Be Well at the Art Institute of Chicago (2019)

Gregg Bordowitz: I Wanna Be Well, curated by Stephanie Snyder, John and Anne Hauberg, Robyn Farrell, and Solveig Nelson continues at the Art Institute of Chicago (111 South Michigan Avenue, Chicago) through July 14, 2019. 

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