Visual AIDS Visual AIDS Visual AIDS 15h Annual Postcards From the Edge, January 25-27, 2013 The Body
Visual AIDS
Visual AIDS
  curator's statement august 2012 selection
      Visual AIDS


David Serotte
 
b l o o d b r o t h e r s
c u r a t o r :  d a v i d  s e r o t t e


Both members of the Frank Moore Archive Project, Albert J. Winn and Richard Sawdon Smith were introduced to one another through Visual AIDS. Recognizing that the artists' photographic self-portraits shared a number of similarities, Winn and Sawdon Smith quickly established a connection. Though both men focus the camera on themselves to address their experiences with HIV/AIDS, each artist comes from different national, cultural and generational backgrounds. With Winn living in Los Angeles and Sawdon Smith based in London, the two artists visited each other's homes, and there they executed several projects together. It is fitting that the results of this artistic alliance find a home in the very institution that made them possible. This web gallery provides an examination of how Winn and Sawdon Smith's solo works visually and thematically rhyme, as well as how their individual efforts inform their collaborative work, and vice versa.

Prior to their awareness of each other's art, Winn and Sawdon Smith each created multiple exposure photographs that share an almost uncanny resemblance in their sexually charged compositions. Though Winn's Psycho Drama -- Playing with Myself (1989) and Sawdon Smith's Safer Sex Series (2004) feature similar erotic imagery, each series transcends the pornographic, subtly expressing the complexities of the each artist's sexual identity. Winn created Psycho Drama during the rise of Robert Mapplethorpe's publicity, a moment which Winn associates with the mainstream's shifting perception of gay men as effeminate queens to exotic, leather-clad masters and slaves. Personally dissociating with the "dangerous" hypersexual homo, Winn chose to depict a more nuanced representation of gay male sexuality, revealing a multiplicity of contrasting selves: light and dark; carnal and tender; vulnerable and confrontational. Importantly, while Winn's series was conceived during the height of AIDS, the work precedes Winn's own HIV+ diagnosis. Conversely, Sawdon Smith was already living with HIV for almost ten years when he created Safer Sex Series. While Sawdon Smith's pictures ostensibly emphasize explicit sex acts, the images speak more to pain than pleasure. Safer Sex Series' playful title belies the anxiety of negotiating sexual safety within sero-discordant partnerships. In a sense, Sawdon Smith's work anticipates and critiques the practice of sero-sorting, in which people seek sexual partners of the same HIV status. These images of Sawdon Smith attempting to sexually engage with his own photographic ghost personify the anguish of this sero-segregation, begging the question, for who is the safest sex (with one's self/sero-group) truly best?

The inception of HAART (Highly Active Antiretroviral Treatment) established the possibility for people with HIV/AIDS to reduce their viral count to undetectable levels with virtually no discernable bodily changes. This medical breakthrough continues to present a double-edged sword for AIDS politics, simultaneously increasing the life expectancy of people with HIV/AIDS while obscuring one's past and present struggles with the disease. Yet, by incorporating their experiences with AIDS treatment into their work, Winn and Sawdon Smith have revitalized the politics of AIDS visibility, bringing the undetectable to the fore.

Following his HIV+ diagnosis in 1989, Winn took toxic medications, including AZT and Crixovan, which noticeably morphed his physique and caused chronic peripheral neuropathy, a painful and lasting condition. In contrast, Sawdon Smith began taking HAART in 2006, which left no apparent trace and minimized his Kaposi's sarcoma lesions. After the "cocktail" of AIDS medications entered Winn's life, he, too, began to lose the superficial signs of the disease, though he continued to suffer internally from AIDS-related complications. In response to receiving compliments from others on his apparent recovery from AIDS, Winn created Band-AIDS (1999), employing bandages to mark the physical manifestations of illness (lesions, scars, sites of medical procedures) erased by HAART. Captured against a copy stand grid used for documenting artifacts and archival materials, these photographs also invoke the myth that AIDS is now a thing of the past, with Winn's body as evidence to the contrary. Similarly, Sawdon Smith's artist book, Observe 1994-2011 (2012), renders visible the unseen and ongoing process of AIDS-related blood testing. Observe 1994-2011 intersperses images of Sawdon Smith's blood drawn by both syringes and tattoo needles, the latter articulating the hidden circulatory system so frequently scrutinized in clandestine medical rooms. By documenting these countless blood tests, Sawdon Smith transforms an invasive routine into a ritualized artistic practice. Winn has also refashioned this medical procedure into a personal custom, creating order from the chaos of AIDS. In order to participate in early drug trials, Winn endured frequent and exhausting blood tests, sometimes giving up to thirteen vials of blood at a time. To mentally cope with this brutal process, Winn imagined the tourniquet as tefillin, phylacteries worn around the arms and head during prayer, thereby reshaping this AIDS practice as part of his religious identity. In Akedah (1995), the leather strap of the tefillin snugly embraces Winn's bandaged arm, illustrating this marriage of Winn's HIV+ and Jewish selves. Through Observe 1994-2011 and Akedah, Sawdon Smith and Winn situate their medical battles with AIDS into their own subjectivities, including the disease in their lives in a way that doesn't solely define them.

In order to detect the layers of meaning in Sawdon Smith's triptych, Blood Brothers (2006), one must examine the artists' solo works that inspired each panel. In the right image, Winn peels back a bandage from Sawdon Smith's arm to reveal a lesion. Here, the bandage from Winn's Band-AIDS highlights a present sign of illness on Sawdon Smith's otherwise healthy looking body, reiterating the political need to openly own one's HIV status. The triptych's left panel stems from Sawdon Smith's diptych, Listening to Myself (2002), a work that expresses the artist's desire for personal agency in managing his own health. Winn and Sawdon Smith listening to each other's hearts through stethoscopes forms a wordless dialogue between the artists, intertwining their empathetic and biological links. The central image depicts the men physically bound at the arm by a red ribbon. In Sawdon Smith's Red Ribbon (2004), the same crimson band wraps around Sawdon Smith's eyes and chest, resembling the iconic AIDS ribbon. This piece sheds a critical light on the symbol originally designed to demonstrate compassion for people with AIDS and their caregivers. However, as Sawdon Smith elucidates, the work's meaning is as ambiguous and fluid as the AIDS ribbon's current purpose:

Is the figure burdened by the memory of so many loved ones lost, or does it represent a personal memorial? Has the person become defined by their illness? Does it highlight the fact that stigma around AIDS still exists? Has the ribbon become such a powerful symbol that the people it was intended to represent are not recognised? Has it become sign rather than substance? Is it just another logo that drugs companies can stick on their advertising to suggest that they care?1

This ambivalence towards the AIDS ribbon's function expands further in the triptych's central image. By physically and symbolically uniting the two men, the ribbon could serve as an emblem of their solidarity and fraternal bond. Or, does the ribbon awkwardly force Winn and Sawdon Smith together, constricting their mobility as individuals and reducing them to a monument of AIDS? This tension between empowerment and imprisonment questions the current benefit of the AIDS ribbon and other "positive" tokens of AIDS culture. With many people today living in the fantasy of a "post-AIDS" era, Winn and Sawdon Smith remind us of the importance of bringing representations of AIDS back to their origins: bodies.

The exhibition ends with a photograph from Winn's recent series, AIDS Tribal Markings (2005). The work depicts Winn in a medical room after receiving facial injections to alleviate painful cranial wasting due to toxic AIDS medications. Refusing to disguise his illness through cosmetics, Winn boldly displays the surgeon's pen marks as a kind of tribalistic scarification, linking him with a community of long-term survivors. While not actually visible in the picture, Sawdon Smith's presence appears in the use of color photography, as well as the inclusion of the red ribbon. Now, the AIDS ribbon is imbued with the history of Winn and Sawdon Smith's collaboration, which, like their own artistic partnership, merges a new narrative with one that came before it.

  1. Smith, Richard Sawdon, "In the Archive: Out of the Closet." unpaginated.


b i o g r a p h y

David Serotte is an independent curator living and working in New York City. He received his B.A. in Art History from Skidmore College. He has worked for The New Museum, Artists Space, Tacoma Art Museum and The Tang Museum. Recently, he served as a curatorial assistant for Jonathan Katz's upcoming exhibition Art, AIDS, America. He is a Baltimore native and a proud member of the Legendary House of Revlon. You can contact him at dserotte@gmail.com.

 

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