When did the future switch from being a promise to being a threat?
Chuck Palahniuk, Invisible Monsters, 1999.
The bodies we inhabit are not impermeable; they do not come into the world packaged with assurances of forever. We accept that with time our body will degenerate and breakdown. We hope that this will happen at a remote point, as if our mortality is on the horizon, signposted somewhere just beyond our focus. We don’t have to look for signs.
In a doctor’s surgery is a poster for HIV/AIDS awareness; the patient is told: ‘Look behind you, this is you now’… This is what he became when he was informed of his bodies’ inhabitation by an incurable virus.
For the generations brought up with the discovery of HIV/AIDS, its symbolism was depicted by images of the deathbed, the tolling bell and the tomb. The emaciated body, the vials of blood, the shock that Oliviero Toscani used to sell you jumpers by Benetton. Strategies were engaged by artists that articulated ideas beyond these narrow parameters. General Idea’s AIDS (A Project for the Public Art Fund, Inc.),Derek Jarman’s Blue, Karen Finley’s Written in Sand and Felix Gonzales-Torres’ Untitled (Perfect Lovers) brought a humanity to picturing AIDS/HIV. Time brings transformation. Time has brought medical breakthroughs and better drugs. It has brought with it adherence to medication schedules that render the virus undetectable within the body, and life expectancy projected at near normality. The conversation we have about HIV/AIDS needs to refocus on life not death, challenge preconceptions and address nuances of language and symbols.
Throughout Ian Richards’ residency at HALLE 14 his work has been built around extensive research into the current life experiences of HIV+ people. The artist has elicited responses through conversations with populations in Leipzig, Birmingham and gathered research from worldwide participants. The work he has developed is now reinserted back into the public arena – the city of Leipzig through billboards, site-specific text, and distributed as postcards, hand-stamps and tote bags to form oblique poems. Acts of disclosure from HIV+ people on fallibility, infection and the future are placed site specifically by Richards, the work public yet opaque. This space between knowing and unknowing will open up other readings; in the work Unprogrammed | Programmed: Please take a seat in the waiting area (2015) the text sited at the bus stop will build its own relationship with the world from the HIV+ man who travels from it to his clinic. Here the link between diagnosis and daily life is underlined as a routine, a continuum.
In the video Undetectable | detectable: Don’t die of ignorance (2015) the image and soundtrack from the 1986 British public information campaign is removed, leaving subtitles to describe the psychological impact of the advert that heralded an apocalyptic monolith for AIDS. The resulting text is then projected onto an amended songsheet, in which the Irving Gordon classic Unforgettable takes on new form as Undetectable. This act of layering reveals the complexity and depth of the work, and articulates the shifting conditions of this subject.
Work made by Richard’s since his return to the UK has focused on the binary nature of diagnosis, in the work Unfold / fold: Lucky Dip (2015) you are invited to pick a folded card in a bowl, which when unfolded reveals itself to be either ‘lucky’ or ‘unlucky’. In the work Unmarked | marked (2015) the terms always, sometimes, never, no entry and needs discussion are picked at random to be stamped onto the hands of visitors. Terms that indicate sexual preferences and disclosures made by men on GPS enabled dating apps. In the context of Shout Festival in Birmingham the presence of these hand-stamps was actively commented on by a public who understood them; as the work moves into other territories the words will become more oblique, the viewer more curious as to the context they have been placed in.
For this iteration of the exchange at HALLE 14 Richard’s text works occupy public space in the city of Leipzig, the billboard work Unseeing | seeing: Describe It visualizes the appearance of the HIV virus from a variety of individual perspectives, imagining it at one point looking like either pacman, macramé or, just, like any of us. Across the city; and in particular in the AIDS Hilfe Remembrance Garden, plaques have been installed on public benches as the series of works Unknowing | knowing each vocalizing the moment of diagnosis with deadpan humour. These works indicate an incessant presence; one that is routinely unseen and uncommented on. A subject without discussion becomes a stigma for all of us.
Richards, a British artist born in 1974, takes a multidisciplinary approach linking art, natural science and social engagement. His work inhabits diverse forms including: graphics, installation and public art. For this residency he has explored site specific interventions in public space that articulate lived experience of HIV.
For more information about Ian Richards please see www.ijcrichards.com
Text by Cathy Wade, July / Nov 2015
This article was first published on New Art WM - www.newartwm.org