Last Tuesday I arrived in Barcelona to begin the next leg of my research through MACBA, Barcelona’s contemporary art museum and a great incubator for queer-related programming, including AIDS-specific archival material. Though I haven’t yet started at MACBA (that happens tomorrow), I’ve begun having conversations with men in Barcelona and I’ve seen both the permanent AIDS memorial and a reconstructed memorial by Keith Haring outside of MACBA, which directly references SIDA, the Spanish acronym for AIDS. The following reflection relates to Keith Haring, remembering, and how to confront nostalgic feelings.
It seems Keith Haring is everywhere these days, and I’m not quite sure how I feel about that. Of course I celebrate the painstaking reconstructions of his murals, like the one outside of MACBA. All done in red, there’s urgency to the image of a snake with the word SIDA underneath it, as it chases after a group of people. But when I see Keith Haring on sneakers, t-shirts, phone cases, even a windbreaker I own, I wonder if we’re simply remembering him without taking into account the consequences and social impact of his art. Keith Haring suddenly becomes a vibrant but socially inoffensive artist who died from AIDS. And that is far too reductive.
Keith Haring was such an interesting character because, yes, he did manage to manage to run circles with clubs kids and party types, but he was also featured on Nickelodeon. He started gaining international prestige at the same time he would go into impoverished, mostly black neighborhoods in cities like Philadelphia, working on community-supported murals that are still freely accessible. Maybe his images didn’t have the same hard edge or anger of other artists, but it was frenzied, socially aware, and, as he grew closer to dying, all the more representative of the personal struggles he faced.
So, in that respect, it seems Keith Haring is now reduced to something less than the sum of his individual parts. He’s become a disembodied symbol for the failures of nostalgia. And part of my work with Viral Legacies is to try and embrace a new kind of remembrance, to find an aesthetic and political way to bring people like Keith Haring into the spotlight without making them culturally ubiquitous. In this respect, I must begin by looking at when my relationship to Keith Haring developed, why it developed, and why it feels so intensely personal without being alive when he made these images.
I first felt him move me in 2010, during my trip to the Smithsonian’s Hide/Seek exhibit, which was the first exhibit of its kind at the Smithsonian devoted solely to LGBTQ art. Of course, the major controversy of the exhibit would surround the removal of a video by David Wonjarowicz. What remains so striking about this exhibit is not Wojnarowicz. It is, instead, Haring’s "Unfinished Painting, 1989," a small canvas in his signature graphic style, but left unfinished. The purple, thick-lined cartoon figures whose insides are lined with grey squiggles start to fade away. Their arms are outstretched but they seem to lose the ability to speak. The rich purple fades into stark white, into...death. When I saw this, it was the first time I felt Keith Haring was dead. It was the first time I realized the desperation in those graphic lines, a frenzied will to live when the specter of death was looming over him.
This kind of remembrance is not nostalgia. This kind of remembrance brings my HIV negative body closer to the extensions of an HIV positive body. It links us together. It makes our lives inseparable, because as queer people we live in a world where the fear, shame and erasure of HIV positive experiences affects us all, even if we are unaware of that link, or unable to admit such a link exists. This kind of remembrance is a form of dynamic preservation, a bodily archive. Of course it doesn’t have to happen through wanting a tattoo, but we have to feel the presence of these cultural ancestors. We have to be moved through history to avoid making paintings and murals simple commodities.
As I begin my residency at MACBA, I hope to delve further into questions of artistic representation. I hope to find out new aesthetic ways of remembering. I hope to examine my relationship to Keith Haring with even more depth and clarity so that I can, in turn, give voice to the nuances and complexities of his art, and the art of many others who’ve never been afforded the same visibility. Maybe then, somehow, we won’t be nostalgic for another past era, but we will, nevertheless, bring that era to light in 2014 as we continue dealing with an ongoing epidemic.