Art, artists and AIDS in New Zealand

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Wednesday 17 December 2014
Ron Brownson

http://assets.aucklandartgallery.com/assets/media/blog-artists-aids-nz.jpg

 

Isn’t it frustrating that there are few ways to easily review historic broadcasts of New Zealand’s documentary film and television? Little of this material is straightforwardly accessible. While some thematically-based vintage moving image material is available, only a small amount is published online. One reason that vintage television material is difficult to access because of the demands of copyright.

We seldom encounter exhibitions which profile panels from New Zealand’s AIDS Memorial Quilt with moving images. So, I am grateful to curator-at-large (and photographer) Gareth Watkins for assembling Thirty; firstly for Ngā Taonga Sound and Vision at Wellington. A revamped and expanded version of the show is currently showing at their Auckland office until February 27 2015.

Thirty is a type of exhibition we infrequently encounter. I have never seen before a multi-part documentary about AIDS and its effects on New Zealanders. You can download the Auckland exhibition’s catalogue here. The Auckland exhibition includes additional material on women and AIDS.

The New Zealand AIDS Memorial Quilt was initiated in 1988 and is already dedicated to loved ones who died from AIDS related illnesses. The quilt is a multi-part artwork held, on deposit, by the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. As a large-scale community-based memorial the quilt consists of 128 hand-crafted panels. All the panels can be viewed online. I have been wondering if the Memorial Quilt is actually the largest scale public art project yet attempted in New Zealand. Almost all of the AIDS Memorial Quilt was created by amateur artists.

On Monday 1 December, World Aids Day, I recalled that it is three decades since the first death caused by an AIDS related condition in New Zealand. AIDS has shaken up the art world everywhere. When City Gallery Wellington showed Robert Mapplethorpe’s exhibition (9 December 1995 – 20 February 1996) most visitors were aware before they visited the show that the artist (1946–1989) died of an illness caused by the AIDS antivirus. I wondered then, as I do know, if the manner of Robert's dying made people more curious about his art?

In New Zealand, during 1988, Fiona Clark made a multi-part artwork with photo-albums that address AIDS. These five albums remain one of New Zealand's most moving artworks dedicated to the lived presence of AIDS . Fiona's images are unforgettable and were created collaboratively with the people in the photographs. Her approach as an artist was ahead of its time locally and the significance of what she achieved is not yet widely understood. Written comments were added by each person to the album pages; reading these comments is like hearing the voice of each person speaking directly to you. Unlike Mapplethorpe’s art where the effects of AIDS are only apparent in his late self-portraits, Clark’s work is upfront and direct because it is so personal. Fiona and I will be holding a public conversation about her important 1988 project early next year.

The first exhibition in Auckland to address AIDS was Implicated and Immune – Artists Responses to AIDS (18 September – 18 October 1992) curated by Louis Johnston for the Fisher Gallery (now Te Tuhi) in Pakuranga. The show included artwork by John Barnett, Jack Body, Fear Brampton, Lillian Budd, Malcolm Harrison, Lesley Kaiser, Richard Killeen, Lily Lai’ita, Stephen Lovett, Richard McWhannell and Jane Zusters. The visitor programmes for this exhibition were the first occasion when local artists and commentators spoke publicly about AIDS and contemporary art. Early in 2015 Michael Lett Gallery will reprise the Fisher Gallery exhibition and return our attention to AIDS and artist responses.

For me, the combined effect of seeing the documentary footage included in Thirtyis of a documentary collage focused totally on AIDS and its effect in New Zealand. This show is in fact built into one overall multi-part documentary presenting more than 180 minutes of ‘found’ footage, almost all of which has been publicly broadcast.

I recall the conversations I had during the early 1980s with the late Bruce Burnett, Nigel Baumber, Kerry Leitch and Neil Trubuhovich. This was at a time when amost nothing was being broadcast on local television about AIDS in New Zealand. Gareth Watkins's sampler now lets us review how AIDS was later publicised by on TV. This is a show that marks the 30th anniversary of the first New Zealand death from AIDS with respect. It is tough viewing yet it reveals the imminence of AIDS as an ongoing reality.

Image credit: 
Altered Lives 2012
In the Blink of An Eye produced by Bronwen Gray, animated by Sue Lim. 
Stills Collection, The New Zealand Archive of Film, Television and Sound Ngā Taonga Whitiāhua Me Ngā Taonga Kōrero. 

With grateful thanks to Fiona Clark. I appreciate the assistance of Gareth Watkins and Paula Booker of The New Zealand Archive of Film, Television and Sound Ngā Taonga Whitiāhua Me Ngā Taonga Kōrero, Wellington.