Writing for Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museums

Responses to AIDS: Personal Political

Kiki Smith, Untitled (1986), twelve clear glass bottles, 20” × 10 ½” × 10 ½” each
David Wojnarowicz, America: Heads of Family, Heads of State (1989-90), mixed media installation

In Kiki Smith’s untitled work from 1986, twelve glass bottles are embossed in Gothic print indicating the intended contents of each to be different bodily fluid. Smith regularly explores the body in her work directly or uses the vocabulary of the body to think about it in a psychological, social, and/or cultural way. From afar the clear glass bottles appear empty but each has a mirror inside, so upon close inspection the viewer can see themselves inside each container. The choice to include the viewer or the public in this empty space intended for abject material usu
ally found inside the human body can be read as a subtle and somber commentary on the AIDS epidemic that was on the rise in New York in the mid-1980s.

Another approach to making an artistic statement about AIDS was the direct and emotional one often employed by David Wojnarowicz. Lining the walls of the room are the images of conservative politicians leading the back wall where an image of a young boy is surround by text describing discrimination and violence against homosexuals. These are probably not the first thing one would notice when entering the room; a box or stand covered in newspaper articles chronicling the AIDS epidemic support two televisions above which a paper-mache head with the word queer in red paint on its forehead hangs blindfolded. On the gallery floor, surround the pedestal lays a skeleton on a pile of sticks and flowers as well as houses made of fake money, illuminated globes, and a voodoo doll among other things. This condemnation of the political conservatives and critique of the social morals of a nation at large may speak more directly than the work of Smith but both artists are grappling with the AIDS crisis.