Transmissions: Archiving HIV/AIDS – Melbourne 1979 - 2014
As part of AIDS 2014 a unique exhibition is taking place. Rachel Cook speaks with co-curator Michael Graf about Transmissions: Archiving HIV/AIDS – Melbourne 1979 - 2014.
These days in Australia, where HIV is not a ‘death sentence’, it is difficult to imagine the terror that ran through the gay community in the early days of the virus. That terror was of course compounded by the fact that many authorities dragged their feet in implementing action against the disease because at the time it was simply thought of as a virus that hit gays and drug addicts.
Australia’s response to the epidemic became exemplary due to the fierceness of many LGBT activists and their allies. Melbourne in particular was home to some of the most audacious protests, such as that on June 6, 1991, when members of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) pulled up the flowers from the Melbourne Floral Clock (near the NGV) and replaced them with white crosses. Or the ‘die-ins’ that took place at Flinders Street Station – here, activists would lie down en masse to symbolise the scale of death occurring from HIV/AIDS.
This month sees the 20th International AIDS Conference, held in Melbourne, and as part of the Cultural Program a unique exhibition is taking place: Transmissions: Archiving HIV/AIDS – Melbourne 1979 - 2014.
[Image] An ACT UP poster forming part of the Transmissions exhibition. Photo: Supplied
The central theme of the exhibition is the response from Melbourne’s LGBT community to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. It will contain artworks from this period as well as activist, government and other cultural responses – some of the works have never been exhibited before.
Michael Graf is co-curator of Transmissions, along with Russell Walsh. Both Graf and Walsh have spent the past seven months trawling through the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives (ALGA) and the University of Melbourne Archives, where they have discovered some of the most moving and unique stories in Melbourne’s LGBT history.
“We wanted to focus on some of the cultural responses to the crisis,” Graf says. “The main part of that has been Ted Gott’s exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia in 1994: Don't leave me this way: art in the age of AIDS. That exhibition became an incredibly important event for a lot of people. The NGA actually thought they would get 10,000 people through the space in four or five months – they got 140,000 people.
“It became a kind of pilgrimage for people from Melbourne and Sydney and other places around Australia. They went to Canberra specifically to see that exhibition. It was the first time a national gallery anywhere in the world put on an exhibition about HIV/AIDS.”
Transmissions includes copies of the visitors books from Don't leave me this way: art in the age of AIDS. As the exhibition became a place where people remembered those they had lost, they poured their emotions and their experiences of the exhibition into the visitors books.
“There are some extraordinary accounts,” Graf says. “They had this experience in a national gallery to actually grieve.”
[Image] A campaign poster from AFAO, VAC-GMHC. Photo: Supplied
Graf and Walsh also tracked down artists from this exhibition. While many concede that Don't leave me this way has been long forgotten, the milieu surrounding Transmissions is that it is time for this work to be considered again.
“They [the artists] have also said this is the perfect time to remember it,” Graf says. “Sometimes these things have to wait until they have receded enough back into history before they can be looked at again.”
Graf and Walsh also focused on an earlier exhibition in Melbourne in 1989: Imaging AIDS. In looking at the works between the two exhibitions and more recent works, Graf says it was interesting how the work had changed over time.
“The work was always clearly split between either issues around health promotion and activism and then the more nuanced and metaphorical response to do with memorialisation, which had less of a clear message but was more aesthetic. That dichotomy continues, but it does change.”
In one of the more moving discoveries at the archives, Graf came across the holdings of Australian historian John Foster. Foster wrote a “very beautiful AIDS memoir” called Take Me to Paris Johnny. The book detailed the life and death of his partner, Juan Cespedes, who was a Cuban refugee and dancer with New York’s Joffrey Ballet. Foster and Cespedes had met in New York in the 70s. When Foster came back to Australia they continued a long distance relationship before Cespedes eventually joined Foster.
“Juan came to Australia and within a year or two passed away from AIDS,” Graf says. “You look at the holdings and this is something that remains of someone’s life packed up in a series of boxes. It is very moving to be looking at photos, reading personal letters looking at medical records, looking at all of the correspondence about Juan’s death. There is paperwork about ordering a headstone and then there are two pairs of ballet shoes, too.
“We have tried to remain very neutral, but you can’t not be affected by these things. It also makes you reflect on your own life and where will all your things end up and who will be looking at them in 20 years time?”
Graf hopes people visiting Transmissions will take away the richness of these collections. He also hopes they attract a younger audience as well as those who will remember what life was like in the gay community at the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
“We’re hoping people might be inspired to access places such as the Australia Lesbian and Gay Archives and for a younger generation of people in Melbourne to be exposed to this incredible important history.”
[Top image] D-Day June 6 1991 (ACT UP)
Transmissions: Archiving HIV/AIDS – Melbourne 1979 - 2014, July 14 26, 2014, The George Paton Gallery, University of Melbourne. aids2014.org