Ecstatic Antibodies at the Street Level Gallery. Glasgow.


Free Radicals

Ecstatic Antibodies presents alternative images to challenge popular stereotypes about AIDS, providing one of the first major artistic responses to the current crisis. Sue Wilson reports.

Government and mainstream media response to the AIDS crisis has so far tended to depict sufferers as powerless victims and/or immoral perpetrators. and as ‘deviants'. sexual or otherwise. from some narrowly defined ‘norm‘. At the centre of Ecstatic Antibodies is an active intervention in this process ofofficial image-making. The multi-media exhibition. by fourteen lesbian and gay artists. sets out using photography. installation and video to challenge the hostile. doom-and-despair-laden imagery

which has shaped public attitudes to HIV/AIDS. It I

does this by creating both a forum for alternative representations and a space for usually marginalised groups Black people. lesbians and gay men to express their reactions.

The unavoidable fact that sex plays a central role in the crisis has both generated crudely ‘moralistic' responses (AIDS as God’s punishment) and. paradoxically. acted to exclude virtually all errotional or erotic content from ‘responsible‘ debate. Acceptance of (especially homosexual) love and desire upsets the underlying notion that sex is somehow to blame for the disease; couching discussion in pathological or abstract terms reinforces the comfortable belief that it has no direct bearing on ‘normal' people‘s lives. Many of the works in the exhibition challenge these perceptions with defiantly assertive depictions of tenderness or passion; several also confront the Moral Majority head on by mixing homoerotic with religious imagery. Sunil Gupta’s No Solutions. for instance. juxtaposes shots of himself and his lover with comments from a government medical director and sensual Hindu iconography; Tessa Boffin‘s Angelic Rebels employs images of winged female figures to argue for the importance ofsafe sex in protecting sexual freedom.

While presenting positive. celebratory images of

lesbian and gay sexuality. and offering alternatives

to popular perceptions of peOple with HIV/AIDS as pitiful victims. the exhibition does not obscure or sanitise the immense suffering the epidemic has caused. Many of the works express the feelings of pain, fear. isolation. loss and despair experienced by those closest to the disease. as well as anger at the treatment they have received. ‘Seldom has a

Anoelic Rebels: lesbians and salersex society so savaged people in their hour of loss.‘ writes Douglas (.‘rimp. an author on the cultural impact of AIDS. and the destructive effect of this violence is illustrated in such works as Nicholas Lowe‘s installation (Safe) Sex Explained. Vertical acetate sheets rc st on ground littered with crumpled pages from gay porn magazines; slide projections are shone through. illuminating a text: the impact is one of bitterness and desolation. David Ruffell‘s grotesque mask-like faces. all staring eyes and gaping or screaming mouths. convey some sense ofwhat must be the horror of living with a fatal illness. The aim is to shock. to shake the viewer out of any cosy sense of immunity and into a greater understanding; after all. says Nicholas Lowe. ‘somebody might turn round to me and say that's shocking. that‘s awful [but] I'm always being told I‘m shocking. I‘m disgusting.‘ By expressing a powerful collective (though diverse) response to the crisis. while provoking strong reactions in the viewer. Ecsatic Antibodies also raises the wider question of art's relation to social and political issues. Given that AIDS binds the personal to the political perhaps more tightly and painfully than ever before. any idealist notion ofart as elevated above petty human experience. pure and separate. offers precisely nothing to those living with the enormity of the tragedy. The


powerofofficial misrepresentation. and the

' effects of the callous ignorance it encourages.

make it imperative for artists to grapple with and subvert dominant images and attitudes. exposing their distortions and omissions. As Douglas (‘rimp says ‘We don‘t need to transcend the epidemic; we need to end it.’

The banning of Ecstatic Antibodies from a local council gallery in Salford. following protests about 'pornography‘ and fears ofprosecution under Section 28. ironically points up the desperate need for artwork which participates energetically in the struggle against AIDS; such a climate of hostility and misunderstanding only assists its spread. The works in the exhibition. with their wit. courage and compassion. demonstrate how the gay community is leading the way in forging a creative and challenging response to the disease. Assuming current predictions are accurate. many of the rest of us may soon be turning to them for help. Ecstatic Antibodies is at Street Level Gallery. Glasgow. from 9 Mar—l4 April.

A one-day conference on media representation of HIV/A IDS will be held at Glasgow School ofxi rt on 4 April; phone 552 215/ ((‘atriona

: Grant/Martha McCtt/loclt ) for more details.

A book to accompany the exhibition is published by Rivers () ram Press at £8. 95.

The List s 21 March 1991 49