The recent exhibition, Imágenes Seropositivas. Prácticas artísticas en torno al HIV durante los años 90 (Seropositive Images: Artistic Practices Related to HIV During the 1990s) was a small show with a big title. It took place in La Ene, a museum occupying a sixty-square-meter, two-room flat in the downtown area of Buenos Aires, Argentina. Although open during the months of November and December 2017, it was by appointment only—usually one of the museum directors, or maybe one of the exhibited artists, would be available to unlock the door and attend to the space upon request. Curated by PhD candidate Francisco Lemús, Imágenes Seropositivas was a unique hybrid of historical survey and DIY exhibition.
The first room displayed two artworks: a series of five photographs and a video piece. Both authored by photographer Alejandro Kuropatwa, the latter was done in collaboration with the eclectic artist Liliana Maresca. During the early 1980s, Maresca produced sculptures and portraits in collaboration with another photographer, Marcos López, which bear a deep sense of awareness of her body as a tool of defiance but also as a place of memory—as both an intimate and public repository of experiences and histories. It was later in the decade, in 1987, that Maresca was diagnosed with HIV—the series of photographs displayed as one entered the space of the exhibition were taken in 1994. Maresca greeted the exhibition visitor half-naked, captured in a storyboard sequence that constructs a passionate dance piece, a ceremonial performance with which she appears to be shaking off HIV’s effects on her body.
In the video, it is Kuropatwa himself who is being portrayed. The footage shows him playing the host—smartly dressed and lively—as he shares the evening with the guests to his exhibition on the walls of his room at the Hotel Meurice in Paris in 1992. First diagnosed with HIV in 1984 and having struggled with the disease since, Kuropatwa planned this exhibition as his last one. Deciding to see himself off in style, he booked a suite at the luxurious hotel, mounted a one-man-show on its walls, and then invited friends, colleagues, collectors, and dealers to enjoy this evening of vernissage and farewells. The documentary film is titled El País de K (K’s Country), and it registers the event from the hanging of photographs across the room to the end of the party, when Kuropatwa is getting ready to die and lies in bed to say his last words in front of his guests. (He passed away more than a decade later, in 2003.)
Bright and yet somber, joyful but laden, these pieces conveyed a powerful “vitality”—the term is the one used by the curator to map connections between the two artworks in the room and across the exhibition at large. Lemús insists on the works’ energy because they both stress how resourceful these artists became when faced with accepting HIV’s worst consequences. Maresca’s dance and Kuropatwa’s video address what the artists believe to be an inevitable end with a kind of obstinacy—one rooted in fantasies, and above all, in the immortality of stylishness, almost as if it had the power to defeat death. And yet this fervent rush of energy was immediately brought to a halt as the visitor moved forward, through a short corridor, towards the second and last room in the exhibition. Nine posters were aligned on one of the corridor’s walls, arranged in chronological order. These are not artworks, but publicity that the NGO Fundación Huésped and the governmental department in charge of official advertising campaigns issued during the decade. The effect was simple and assertive: the tone that runs through these posters is far from Maresca’s and Kuropatwa’s vital language. Instead, they communicate down-to-earth—bordering on aggressive—warning messages. They portray a very different reaction to the unknown reality of the virus, compared to the vital impulse that overpowers the artists and artworks in the first room. Risk, fear, and aversion to that which is not controllable underpin the posters. In Argentina, the first cases of HIV were reported in 1982, but it wasn’t until the 1990s that it spread dramatically. The somewhat joyous mood of the first room appears to belong to a time before its time: Kuropatwa’s and Maresca’s work exist in a solitude where HIV/AIDS can be addressed intimately, facing the unknown with hope and a shy desperation. When the official campaigns begin later in the decade, this hopefulness seems disconnected, and is crushed as a result of the unreality it instills.
Probably the most recognizable artwork in the exhibition was Cóctel (Cocktail, 1999): a different series of photographs by Kuropatwa that flirt with portraying HIV’s compound medication frivolously, using pop, advertisement-like imagery to set the mood. The ad aesthetics are attractive—steering clear of the intimidating tone of the aforementioned governmental campaigns. Ken Barbie doctors toy with pills and remedies, raising the medication in what could be interpreted as a “Eureka” gesture; while in other photos, it is Barbie who poses seductively with an HIV vaccine or has homosexual intercourse inside a lavish circle of tablets. Famous not only for being one of the first local artworks to address HIV/AIDS openly, in its complex treatment of the disease’s drugs as desirable goods, Kuropatwa successfully depicts the neoliberal conditions pulling the strings behind the epidemic crisis. The four photographs chosen for display in Imágenes Seropositivas had never before been shown—they are part of a larger series, and its most iconic images belong to private and public collections. Even if the whole series is irreverent in its tone, the photos chosen for this exhibition are probably cruder than other better known works. In the space, they were joined by a Xerox copy of a text published by the artist as a paid-for announcement in the local newspaper in 1997—“La gente con sida debería tener la misma oportunidad que yo” (People With AIDS Should Have the Same Opportunities As Me). Kuropatwa’s candid plea for a broader access to medication is honest, inspiring, and deeply moving. For those who were denied this cocktail (Indinavir+3tc+D4T), the HIV/AIDS positive diagnosis meant trying out endless combinations of tablets only to get by day to day, but without any guarantee of being able to live with the virus—in Kuropatwa’s own words: “I wasn’t speaking anymore, I didn’t know what drug to take and I was actually having over 60 pills a day… I was afraid of dying.” The artwork and the piece of documentation shown side by side gave insight into the artist’s dual approach to the subject—in one case, ironic, in the other, frank—and to the multiple ways in which his obsession with the medication that kept him alive impacted his practice.
On the facing wall, a framed T-shirt with the words “Yo tengo Sida” (I have AIDS) and a table displaying related objects, provided entry points to a 1993–94 artwork—whose author was a fictional advertising agency called “Fabulosos Nobodies” (Fabulous Nobodies), integrated by artists Roberto Jacoby and Kiwi Sainz. Again complemented with a piece of text that the viewers could grab and take with them, these objects documented the public campaign that the agency launched in the midst of the AIDS crisis in Buenos Aires. The T-shirt’s colors and typography present a friendly declaration, introducing the component of solidarity into the discussion on the epidemic. The performance or public campaign was the mere act of wearing the t-shirt, breaching the taboo that dominated in society at large when it came to admitting that one had the virus. The accompanying material, posters, leaflets, and other graphic pamphlets also bear messages that extend bridges across different sectors of the population—notably, one that states that discrimination is based on the generalized belief that AIDS equals the other. The performance piece looks to discuss the underlying issues that HIV/AIDS victims face: its capacity to divide society and enhance elitism.
The artworks of the second room shared the space with a selection of videos from official TV footage and other kinds of broadcast media on the subject of HIV/AIDS. One such clipping is from a hugely popular lunchtime show, where a celebrity TV presenter, Mirtha Legrand, hosts selected guests at her table and discusses a variety of topics. On this occasion, it is the use of condoms, with AIDS activist Alex Freyre demonstrating how one should be applied for protection using a banana. Hilarious—especially since, most probably, the exhibition-goer did not expect to encounter any such material—it is also revealing to watch that most of the other guests at the table listen attentively and are finding the demonstration informative and useful, despite their abashed discomfort and pretended disinterest. This material completes a narrative of dual approaches that was present throughout Imágenes Seropositivas. Multidisciplinary and multipurpose, the exhibition disclosed the diverse and layered expressions through which HIV was discussed in Argentinean culture during the 1990s. In its engagement with artistic output as well as graphic and television advertisements, it managed to present the tensions that this subject provoked at the time, bringing the official discourse into a dialogue with the artistic one. Displaying these elements together, the curatorial proposition was to encourage an understanding of the practices as social documents of resistance. While the official strategy communicated fear and insisted on the application of protection measures over anything else, the art would encourage a familiarity with the virus. A case in point is the text that sits next to the performance material—“Proyecto fallido para un folleto sobre Sida” (A Failed Project for an Aids Brochure) by Roberto Jacoby, published in November 1993—in comparison with the first of the posters, from 1992. Both materials address the use of condoms as an important prevention measure. Jacoby tries to reach out to his readers by putting together a list of the most common excuses to avoid using condoms—from “it destroys my erection” to “she doesn’t trust me, she asks me to wear a condom”—while the billboard instead uses a threat: an image of five condoms arranged to form an Olympic Games logo bears the end-line “Be very careful with the other games.”
During the 1990s, the artistic community of Buenos Aires saw a growing list of artists—Kuropatwa and Maresca, but also Feliciano Centurión, Omar Schiliro, Santiago García Sáenz, and Sergio Avello, among others—develop their work whilst fighting the virus. However, the material on display in Imágenes Seropositivas is partial and does not include a full spectrum of practices. Even if the title suggests a broad scope—Artistic Practices Related to HIV During the 1990s—the exhibition is limited to exploring only a few names. What could seem like a curatorial oversight (or a pretentious title) instead becomes valuable information for understanding the institutional apparatus behind the exhibition.
The acknowledgements paragraph at the end of the curatorial leaflet discloses the precarious structure that is, at the same time, the show’s condition of possibility: “The exhibited works and documents belong to the archives of Alejandro Kuropatwa, Roberto Jacoby […] This project wouldn’t have been possible without the help of Liliana Kuropatwa [the photographer’s niece], Roberto Jacoby and Kiwi Sainz […].” It is thanks to the sharing and collaborating of the exhibited artists, friends, and colleagues that the show is assembled. In its precariousness—and consequential partiality—the exhibition stands as a unique institutional enterprise.
It is remarkable that an exhibition that is relevant to local and global art histories would be left in the hands of the voluntary collaboration of individuals. There hasn’t been another local exhibition with a similar scope to that of Imágenes Seropositivas. The first Latin American retrospective of Canadian collective General Idea toured from Fundación Jumex in Mexico City and reached the Museum of Latin American Art in Buenos Aires (MALBA) in the beginning of last year; it was followed closely by a relevant batch of individual retrospectives—Sergio Avello and Liliana Maresca at Buenos Aires’ Modern Art Museum (MAMBA)—that could be cited as precedents or connected shows, however tangential. Amongst the most prestigious institutions in the city, MALBA and MAMBA are museums that occupy impressive buildings, guard substantial collections, and organize their public programming on a considerable budget—private funds in the case of MALBA, mostly public for MAMBA.
Imágenes Seropositivas, however, took place in a very different institution. The Nuevo Museo Energía de Arte Contemporáneo (New Energy Museum of Contemporary Art, known by the shorter name of La Ene) opened in 2010. It has assembled its collection since—it did not become a museum to protect a given group of historical artworks but, inversely, its contemporary collection is an ongoing effect of its institutional constitution. As such, it amounts to twenty-six pieces in 2018, and its storage space is an external hard-drive. The artworks belong to the collection insofar as the artists have given authorization to set these up and display them. La Ene owns the copyright permission to reproduce them, and therefore stores instructions or files that may be reprinted indefinitely. By creating the works anew each time they are shown, the institution remains perennially site-specific—it can be fully present in its two-room space in Buenos Aires, and anywhere else in the world.
La Ene sets out to question the basis of the museum of the twenty-first century, anchoring its critique in its local institutional history. Buenos Aires’ Modern Art Museum was founded and directed by poet and critic Rafael Squirru in 1956 but was a homeless institution until 1960. Squirru famously took over commercial art galleries and urban public areas to host exhibitions and events as part of the museum’s incipient program during the 1950s. His “ghost museum,” as it was nicknamed at the time, had its inaugural show on board a touring boat—an event that was approached as the topic of one of La Ene’s exhibitions. Also part of La Ene’s genealogy is André Malraux and his visit to Argentina in 1959—a time when his famous essay “Museum Without Walls” had been published in its two first editions (1947 and 1951). Unquestionably, assembling an institutional collection on a hard-drive is inscribed in a tradition of gestures that have sought to reposition the collection’s need for physicality—and they start with Malraux’s practical reimagining of the museum. In the 1950s, it was Squirru himself who welcomed Malraux into the country, and the subject of Buenos Aires’ Museum of Modern Art came up between them. The story goes that when Malraux inquired about the possibility of visiting the young museum, Squirru’s legendary reply was: “Le musée, c’est moi.” In 2013, artist Leonel Pinola used a cultural merchandising aesthetic to register this moment in Argentinean art history, one that is at the same time an ideology orchestrated by one person, as well as a landmark for local institutions and their charter. The artwork—a T-shirt—is part of La Ene’s collection.
Understanding the institution that hosts Imágenes Seropositivas provides further insight into the limitations and incongruences that traverse its curatorial project and display conditions. It is hard to strike a balance between praising La Ene for stepping up to be the contemporary art museum in the city and holding it responsible for doing so. A broader discussion, one that ponders the insufficiencies of other local institutions and how these cascade into La Ene’s role, would need to be undertaken in order to analyze this institutional project with weight—and that exceeds the scope of this text.
With all that in mind, this exhibition missed an opportunity to include the larger spectrum of practices its survey-like subtitle appears to promise, and instead limits the display to less than a handful of (famous) names. Exclusion dynamics, that traction to create unrepresentative canons, are not new to the culture of AIDS—nor to Western art history in general. The narrow inclusion perpetuates a writing of history that delivers but a peephole view of HIV/AIDS artistic practices and risks a fetishization of the subject matter—so distant from the virus’ reality at the time, and even more so if we consider the people who are still fighting it today. Was the show wide-reaching and accessible? Was it rooted in a tug of war between institutional apparatuses and an effort to affirm that “the museum is me”? If museums are entitled with a history-writing authority, do they bear a responsibility of opening up this prerogative? What does it mean that someone would have to email someone in order to see the exhibition? How is this an echo of possible stigmatizing practices the artists themselves may have been interested in tackling?
Imágenes Seropositivas can be read as the case of the non-institutional museum presenting a non-survey exhibition in the void of its constituent liberty. The DIY element traversing both the venue and the show gives this exhibition its power. The curatorial proposition could be realized thanks to a fascinating reunion of unconventional structures, and it offered this exhibition during a time that is prone to exploring HIV/AIDS-related art practices. In their atypical nature, the small survey show with the big title and the tiny space that calls itself a museum deliver without proselytizing.
Catalina Imizcoz is an editor and researcher based in London and Buenos Aires. Specialized in exhibition studies, her research investigates the publications that have shaped the field with a focus on critical histories of exhibitions. She has been published by Kunstlicht Journal, Revista Caiana, and Third Text. She has contributed to publications such as Vitamin C: Clay and Ceramics in Contemporary Art (London: Phaidon, 2017) and The Middle of the World (Paris: EmpireBooks, 2017). She works at Phaidon Press, on the Art and Photography editorial team.
2 Fundación Huesped is an Argentine organization with regional reach throughout Latin America that has been working since 1989 in the public health field from a human rights perspective focused on HIV/AIDS, STIs, as well as sexual and reproductive health. See https://www.huesped.org.ar/institucional/english/.
3 One of the best known (also titled Cóctel, 1999) depicts a rose with a pill gently laid on its budded petals, with a dreamy pink background and a soft light setting the mood. The treatment here is more clearly recognised as advertisement, and the image is less bitter.
4 xhibitionary canons are a relatively new academic undertaking: a disciplinary prop that emerged together with the growing interest in curatorial studies and then developed into one of the backbones of the nascent field of exhibition studies. [see Catalina Imizcoz, ‘Fieldwork: Extending the Study of the Exhibition Across Geographies’, available here]. If one such canon could be sketched of the exhibitions around the subject of HIV/AIDS, in the West, it could start with Group Material’s 1984 exhibition ‘Timeline: A Chronicle of U.S. Intervention in Central and Latin America, AIDS Timeline’ as an important precedent, followed more than thirty years after by ‘Aids in America’ (Bronx Museum and Tacoma Art Museum, 2016)—notably, with its surrounding controversy around the substantial omission of Black artists. The latter was accompanied by a cluster of smaller shows in New York City and the rest of the country that same year, ‘A Deeper Dive’ and ‘Person of Interest’, among others, as well as the Peter Hujar at the Morgan Library and David Wojnarowicz at the Whitney Museum of American Art. In the United Kingdom, a germane allusion to the subject was done in ‘Positive Living: Art and AIDS in South Africa’, which took place at Birkbeck University in the end of 2015. Arguably related is the show on Queer British Art held at Tate Britain in 2017—which opened the space to minorities strongly connected to the HIV/AIDS crisis. Spain has had shows like ‘Perfect Lovers’ in 2014, anticipating much of the curatorial work that happened elsewhere in the following years.