No Respect | 2001 | 2000 | 1999 | 1998 | 1997 | 1996
Project Arts Centre, Temple Bar, Dublin

How did we get here?

The world has been made strange again. I'm listening to music; Larry Levan live at the Paradise Garage. It's a curious feeling, nostalgia for a past I never had. The set was recorded in 1979, at a time when I had barely set foot in a disco and would have died rather than done so. Having barely been able to fashion a viably hip identity in the final years of adolescence via punk and an obsessive relationship with art world prankiness, I was loath to put it at risk. Dance music, emerging as the lingua franca of the gay male world was to be mocked and held at arms length. As I listen now what strikes my ear is how unbelievably gentle and optimistic all this music sounds. Cher is singing "I'm in Heaven, seems like Heaven, so much Heaven" wrapped in airy strings. Even her desire sounds unforced, reflective and luxurious. So much seems possible - or is that just the present, always reconfiguring the past?

I'm looking at a catalogue from 1993. It's for a show called "Sick Joke: Bitterness, Sarcasm and Irony in the Second AIDS Decade". The show happened at Kiki, a miniscule gallery in San Francisco, owned and operated by Rick Jacobson. After working in ACT-UP, and organizing events and charity auctions, Rick had what seemed to be the whimsical idea of opening a gallery. He ran Kiki for a couple of years, curating shows about Yoko Ono, skate culture and shit among other things. Four years later Rick was dead, having left San Francisco to finish out his life with his family. "Sick Joke" was one of his finest ideas, a much needed corrective to the teary piety that had begun to replace disgust as the official American response to AIDS. It was one of the few art shows I have seen that was genuinely funny, as well as infuriating. I remember seeing it and feeling like I was part of something and getting away with something as well - reclaiming the full range of my experience from a culture that was already trying to muffle and edit it.

Where are those emotions now? Our lives are dotted with important moments - glimpses of possibility, explosions of freedom, shivery frissons of insight. They exist for individuals and also communities. Fleeting and crucial, they are the targets that art aims for, that we struggle to remember for ourselves and evoke in others.

If we date from Stonewall, the gay liberation movement is thirty-two years old. For two thirds of that time it has been shadowed and shaped by AIDS. It's now twenty years into the epidemic. AIDS has passed being a disease of gay men to one of the many afflictions of the world's poor. What seems to be happening is a apartheid of affluence as AIDS becomes a manageable long term condition for those with the financial wherewithal, and a short and brutish death sentence for those without it.

And in an American society that has become obsessed with abrupt and increasingly arbitrary decisions our country thinks - haven't we solved that epidemic thing? In one way we have - by letting those folks who were making the most noise die off and then throwing an expensive product at those left around. It's a solution we've used through out our history. Culturally, AIDS became a rallying point: a generation found their voice and their platform through confronting the many cultural issues surrounding the disease. For many young artists it was the first time that their work was connected to any real world concern.

The current party line among a certain self-congratulatory class of art critics is that identity politics and the work informed by them are "over". Acting as if methods of thought and analysis were like hemlines, moving up and down at the whims of professional talkers, these people wave their hands and express relief that artists are no longer shackled to any rigid dogma. In the same way that celebrities no longer bother with wearing red ribbons at award shows, artists are supposed to tuck away their frustration and slip into an attitude cool cynicism. This is another variety of American impatience - the desire to get it over with, to be past all the difficulty, to not look uncertain in the face of a dilemma. We have stopped asking of people that they come up with the right solution, merely that they act, and as quickly as possible. In the art world this has lead to a growing discrepancy between the time it actually takes to investigate an idea and the pace at which ideas are consumed. The resulting discrepancy leaves us bled dry, constantly casting about for the new before we've even come to grips with what is in front of us.

But we live in a fallow time - a time characterized by the emptiness left by many deaths, where ideas and directions are scant. It is a time where the work of most women and especially lesbians still remains inaccessible and undervalued - hard for young artists to see outside of major art centers, and often presented in ways that are decontextualized. That is what is in front of us. And what can we do with that? The artists in this show are confronting that fact. They are searching the past, both personal and cultural to find the armature of a new system of thought.

Most of the artists in this show have been involved in activism around issues of Queer empowerment and visibility. In that work the voice is urgent and in the present tense. Yet the voice they employ here is different from their usual public one. This work then deals with the consequences of our generation's rupture, but in a way that is more subtle and pensive than previously.

Most of Queer consciousness is not formed in relation to the biological family. Instead it's formed in relation to the cultural family, the family we find. And it is precisely that family that has been decimated in the past two decades. As the artists in this show enter their forties, they do so without the benefit of parents: artists in their fifties and sixties whose experience would provide mentoring as well as figures to push against, to argue with. So in some ways for us to look at childhood is to engage with the notion of parenthood; firstly to remember that time at which we actually had parents and then also to play with the notion of being parents. We are asking where did it all begin? And what do we want to pass down? Within today's art world there is a lot of willed childishness. Most of that work represents a retreat from the problems of our current state into a poorly imagined past filled with inconsequential naughtiness. It is an infantilism based on a false nostalgia. The works in this show are doing something different. They are examining the moments of childhood and adolescence in order to come to an understanding of the present.

While it may be disparate in form, all of this work focuses on the way that the intimate rubs up against the social. Casual objects are given resonance as we become more aware of the social forces that lurk behind their facades. This work reminds us that childhood is the time when objects exercise the greatest power over us. It imagines adolescence as the point at which we enter a universe of signs and codes and struggle with the dissonances between them and our own inchoate, bodily experience. Several of these pieces evoke the brutality, danger and exhilaration of high school. Yet none of this is offered in the sense of escapist regression. These are the actual pasts that haunt us, that shape and shift us. And those pasts have been examined with passion and bracing, corrosive humor.

After twenty years, contemporary artists have to exist with AIDS refracting through our lives - always flickering at the edges of our consciousness, too large to vanish, and yet difficult to see head on. There was a time when it was a field that an individual could master and respond to. Now it has become too global diffusing through the intricacies of genetics and geopolitics. In the face of this vastness many have turned to the particularities of intimacy. It is a mistake to imagine that this turning means that the problem is solved or has gone away, just as it would be a mistake to imagine that history is over.

The disc buzzes to a halt. Cher doesn't sound so simple any more. I think about Rick and how he would have deflated my maudlin tendencies, all the while imagining some new prank he could pull.

Nayland Blake


No Respect | 2001 | 2000 | 1999 | 1998 | 1997 | 1996