HIV-Positive Visual Artist Andrew McPhail
When Coming Out About His HIV Status, Hamilton-Based Artist Andrew McPhail Was Stuck on Band-Aids -- 60,000 of Them
What moves you to create art?
A lot of the time it seems like tragic things inspire my art -- much of my work is about coming to terms with those things that are awful or damaging in life. I think that expressing the overwhelming stuff helps normalize it. You come to a point when you can live with it comfortably and it doesn't overwhelm you anymore.
What inspired you to make "all my little failures"?
I had been working on another piece with Band-Aids -- little organic shapes that I would pile in stacks. They looked anthropomorphic, like little body parts. I wanted to make a much bigger piece and I wanted to inhabit the piece in a way, so I thought I'd make something that I could wear. Around the same time, a girl in Mississauga, Ontario was killed by her father because she wouldn't wear her hijab to school. This had a big impact on me, so I decided to make a burka out of Band-Aids.
This lacy, flesh-like garment is made from 60,000 bandages that you systematically stuck together. How long did it take to create?
I've been working on it on and off for about the last four years. I keep thinking it's completed but then it demands to be a bit bigger. I'm starting new works, and I think that once my attention is absorbed with them, "all my little failures" will exist as it is.
I'm thinking of other things to do with Band-Aids. I want to make a tent. People can go inside it without having to wear it. That would take a lot of Band-Aids, so we'll see how that goes.
How have people reacted to "all my little failures" when you've worn it in public spaces as part of your performance art?
When it's in a gallery, the burka is displayed on a mannequin and I usually do some kind of performance at the opening of the exhibit. I've worn it out in the street and distributed Band-Aids to people or put Band-Aids on people. The performances are very open-ended, as anything can happen when you approach people in the street.
When I performed in Fredericton, people thought I was panhandling and gave me money, which was very nice. Some people thought that it was some kind of political action that had something to do with Iraq and the war. But the most common reaction people have is feeling uncomfortable because I'm covered, so they can't identify my gender. And I'm always like, "Look at my hairy legs. I'm a guy!"
What is the meaning of "all my little failures"?
It holds a lot of accumulated meaning for me, and hopefully that comes across to the viewer. Mainly it's about being covered and hidden but at the same time how your hiding calls attention to yourself and makes you extremely visible. I was thinking about that in terms of being a person with HIV and how if I didn't tell you I had HIV, you probably wouldn't know. A veil can at once hide you and reveal you -- similar to aspects of living with HIV and the degrees to which you can do that publicly or not.
Is it the first HIV-inspired piece you've done?
My work has always been informed by my status but this is the first time I've visibly addressed the issue. I wanted to be more open in my work about my HIV status -- and to do that I needed to come out more publicly as a person with HIV. When I started making it, I was thinking about hypochondria and the panic and nervousness I go through when I have to deal with a health-related issue, and how I try to talk myself through it and make myself feel better. It was that hypochondria that initially inspired the piece.
There's a kind of dark humour about the piece.
The work is somewhat humourous because when you see the excess, you think, "This guy's kind of insane." Some people think it's hilarious and some people think it's tragic, but I think that's more about the viewer than the piece. I wanted it to be both, because I think it is both.
What's behind the title?
"all my little failures" suggests blame and self-recrimination. It has a self-pitying tone, but in a mocking sort of a way. And my last name is McPhail, so phonetically it felt close to me.
I've been fascinated by them as a material for a long time. They're something everyone is familiar with, and yet they're kind of extraordinary -- the way they substitute our skin, the way they're a very human-like material. Also, they allude to the body and to damage in a very direct way, in a way most people understand. I think Kleenex alludes to grief in a similarly direct way.
Which brings us to your most recent installation, "CRYBABY." What's it about?
"CRYBABY" is made up of about 2,000 Kleenexes that are all hand-sewn together into a cloudscape. They're laid out on the floor, so it looks like a fluffy mass. Above them there is a toy plane wrapped in Kleenex. I wet the Kleenex in tears and molded it to the shape of the plane so that the plane looks like it's made out of Kleenex. It hovers over the big pile of Kleenexes.
Were they your own tears?
I'm not that much of a crybaby! I had to use artificial tears from a drugstore ... boo-hoo.
About two years ago I was on a flight to England and the man in the seat beside me had a heart attack and died. It was horrific, and I wanted to make a piece memorializing it, something that addresses the overwhelming nature of grief and how it's sometimes so big that you feel powerless in front of it. Kleenex and tears seemed like an appropriate medium to use. The plane and the cloudscape recreate that terrible situation for me. The title has a flippancy to it, so again there's a little bit of humour there. I've been working on it for about a year and a half now.
You draw, paint, sculpt, take photographs -- you're a real Renaissance man!
I just have an idea and I have to go to whatever medium is going to help get that idea across.
I'm still working on "CRYBABY" and I'm waiting to hear back about some opportunities I've applied for. I applied for a residency in South Africa to work with other people with HIV and make art together. That would be really fascinating. I think there would be lots of commonalities but also lots of differences in how we approach our health.
To read more about Andrew McPhail or to see some of his other works, visit www.bedhair.ca.