Artists in aid mission

Dramatic work: Christine Webster's work, The Skeleton (1997), depicts dancer Douglas Wright, who created his work Elegy ...
Chris Skelton/Fairfax NZ

Dramatic work: Christine Webster's work, The Skeleton (1997), depicts dancer Douglas Wright, who created his work Elegy as a way to commemorate friends who died of Aids.

Every week, another funeral. Gravesides. Scattered ashes. An act of love, suddenly a conduit to fear and disease. In 1992, a record number of New Zealanders died of Aids.

Artists responded. Implicated and Immune at Auckland's Fisher Gallery (now Te Tuhi Centre for the Arts) was a group exhibition praised for its "initiative, courage and commitment".

This month, that show has its second incarnation. At a time when fewer people are dying of the disease but more are contracting it, artists are again responding.

GALLERY MAN: Michael Lett
Chris Skelton/Fairfax NZ

GALLERY MAN: Michael Lett

A who's who of the arts world - including some from that 1992 exhibition - have contributed to the exhibition that opened on Wednesday at Auckland's Michael Lett Gallery.

"I never saw the original, " says Lett. "But as a young person, I remember stumbling upon an article on it. It was very formative for me, because it was really the first time I encountered anything to do with gay people being involved in the arts; gay people being political, but also, alongside these gay men and women, allies from the heterosexual community. It's always been in my mind as this show I wanted to delve into."

He is, he says, "acutely aware" that while HIV - if diagnosed early - no longer kills people, transmission rates have shown no sign of abating.

"When this show was first mounted, you couldn't hide your HIV status. You wore it on your sleeve, you physically looked sick, you were given 18 months to live by your local GP, friends shunned you."

Now: "We've stopped talking about it."

With the 1996 advent of combination antiretroviral therapies that give victims a relatively normal life span, "it feels like it's just 'oh well, take your pill'."

But there is still a stigma: "If you're HIV positive, you do not say anything."

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Two weeks out from opening night, and upstairs, in his Karangahape Rd Gallery, Lett carefully turns the pages of a large format white photo album.

"I had seen snippets of this work, Living with Aids, and we got in contact with Fiona Clark and a few weeks later, she turned up at the gallery and she brought these albums, which are like a national treasure.

"Each image is accompanied by text, in the subject's hand, in direct response to the photograph. They are very, very moving."

Three of the four people in Clark's extraordinary series are dead. By phone, Clark says, "the first case of HIV in New Zealand was actually in New Plymouth here, in 1983, and he died, and it was terrible, because people wanted him out of the hospital and nobody would touch him".

The then-director of the Dowse Art Museum approached Clark - infamous for her 1975 series on transgender people, withdrawn from exhibition after complaints of indecency - to document people living with AIDS.

It was 1985 when she started making the albums, designed to be looked at in a small, quiet room. The personal, made very public.

There's Peter, who died in May 1989, photographed with his parrot Jenny: "She doesn't mind that I'm HIV, " he writes.

Clark was invited to take the albums to Australia, but new management at the Dowse, she says, threatened an injunction.

"They said they owned the work, and I couldn't leave the country with it."

She drove to Wellington with reinforcements, got the albums back, and took them to an exhibition in Perth, where she was told to be careful, "because homosexuality in Perth was still illegal".

Today, the albums live in storage in her studio. They have had, she says, "a quieter life" than first planned.

"They're a body of work that I did that most people haven't seen and understood. It's quite a big chunk of the late '80s. A good five years. After that, I felt like I couldn't photograph people for awhile, in case something happened.

"It wasn't that I wasn't new to being challenged, but it's just bloody exhausting. So I just hope people see this with fresh eyes, and go 'wow'."

Clark says her artistic bottom line is gender - how we're perceived, who we really are and how we fit into society.

"Within our national collections, the National Library, or Te Papa, there are very few images giving us the identity of what our story is, as far as the issue of homosexuality goes. I mean, what was it like for people after that person died in 1983? We don't have any visuals of that identity."

It's 30 years since the formation of the New Zealand AIDS Foundation. Consider the statistics. In 1992, when the first Implicated and Immune was mounted, there were 66 deaths and 100 new notifications of HIV. In 2013 (statistics for last year are not yet available), there were just six deaths, but 180 new notifications - up 10 on the year prior.

"Today it's a chronic, manageable condition and we know how to limit transmission, " says Peter Saxton, director of the Gay Men's Sexual Health research group.

The tragedy? We're not.

Right now, around 2000 people in New Zealand know they have HIV. An estimated 400 more have yet to be diagnosed.

By international standards, this is low. Saxton says "early, rational and practical responses [he lists the homosexual law reform bill, human rights and prostitution law reform and the establishment of needle and syringe exchange programmes] has seen New Zealand with one of the lowest rates of HIV infection internationally in every single group".

Even so, numbers are steadily higher than they were in the 1990s. They peaked in 2007, dropped slightly in 2011, and are again on the rise. Anyone can contract HIV, but more than 80 per cent of new transmissions occur amongst gay and bisexual men.

The challenge, says Saxton, is dealing with an infectious disease that has become less visible, in a world that is more connected. Dating apps, for example, mean finding sexual partners "has never been easier".

"Because connectivity is the way that transmissible infections like STI's and HIV are spread, then there's that potential, if prevention campaigns are not effective, for resurgent epidemics."

Nigel Dixon, director of Otago University's Aids Epidemiology Group, does the simple math: "As people are surviving long term, the number of people living with HIV is actually going up. And because it is an infectious disease . . . there's an increasing risk of transmission if people don't behave safely."

HIV, echoes Saxton, "can only go where we allow it to go".

"It is transmitted only under very specific and avoidable conditions. Condoms work extremely well."

Saxton says that showing Implicated and Immune in a privately-owned gallery may allow the exploration of themes that "might be a bit more provocative for a public gallery to address".

(The Sunday Star-Times visited again this week, just before the show opened. In the parlance of a television ratings notice: Warning, some scenes may offend).

"There's too much silence around HIV, " says Saxton. "If this encourages us to think more critically around those taboos which are just as relevant around HIV now as they were in 1992 - our reluctance to talk about sex and sexual practices, openly and honestly - then that's been a real achievement."

The air is hot and close in the video viewing room of that K Rd Gallery. On one wall, full frontal nudity (Lett: "You can't talk about HIV and AIDS in the context of an art exhibition without there being an erection, and, you know, some other stuff in there). On the opposite wall, dancer Douglas Wright, with a calla lily falling slowly from his mouth.

The work is called Elegy, and Wright was compelled to make it in 1993, for three friends who died of AIDS. It was just a year after he had gone public with his diagnosis.

Wright - once given 18 months to live - has now lived with HIV for a quarter of a century. He's actually represented multiple times in this exhibition. A Christine Webster photograph of Wright dancing with a skeleton looms large at the end of a corridor.

Elegy was released to serious critical acclaim. It has become, says Wright, "a little classic".

"I know what's good and what's not so good about my own work. And I can't dance like that anymore."

He won't second-guess a 2015 audience, but "I think that dance will always give people a sense of melancholy and I hope a sense of duty, and lament, at the fact that life is brief, and for some, very brief, and that part of our human condition is the need to commemorate those who have died. Especially those who have died younger than they should."

Wright is blunt about the impact of HIV and Aids. He is currently making a new dance work, but "I have very little energy. I can't work fulltime. I'm an invalid really".

It is a cause for celebration that people are no longer dying in droves. However, Wright says he's astonished at the blas response among those newly infected, "because it's just a few pills they have to take daily".

"These people cannot comprehend what we've been through, and you don't want them to have to. It's a kind of catch 22."

He hopes Implicated and Immune - timed to coincide with Auckland Pride Festival - will have a wide audience.

"I think the experience of having HIV for so long has made me very aware of death. I have been at the bedside of many friends who have died, and gone through their dying process, and of course I've thought a lot about my own death.

"It's this thing we are not taught anything about. It's hidden from us, and it makes life both terrifying and exquisite. It's finite. One day we're going to go out of the world with nothing.

"The more you can reminded about that - everything is temporary and changes all the time . . . I think HIV has helped me to learn quite a lot about that."

Wright made another film on this subject. It is called Forever, and it remains largely unseen because the holder of the dance's music rights won't release them.

"When they discovered what the work was about, and that there was nudity in it, they said you can never have the rights, ever."

Wright, who speaks so eloquently and freely about death, that most taboo of topics, doesn't like talking about this. "It upsets me."

The impliacted and Immune alphabetical roll call of artists runs backwards from Wright to Billy Apple. In between three of this country's Venice Biennale representatives (Simon Denny, Michael Parekowhai and Et Al, in its "estate of L. Budd" guise); are the likes of Jacqueline Fraser, Giovanni Intra, Grant Lingard, Richard Killeen, Fiona Pardington and John Reynolds.

Christchurch's Julia Morrison is showing an oversized rosary made from gold and excrement. The work, she says, was made before her own awareness of Aids.

"It is a privilege to be part of a project that might serve to facilitate a better understanding of its complexity."

Auckland's Imogen Taylor was born in 1985. That year, she says, HIV was announced to have spread to every continent of the world.

She has contributed a painting, inspired by the AIDS Memorial quilts now held at Te Papa, dedicated to Keith Haring and Freddie Mercury - artists whose careers, she says, ended "way too soon" due to Aids.

"This show is an opportunity for me, a gay woman, to freely identify the prejudice that has surrounded gay sex and the gay community for the last 30 years in New Zealand. Growing up gay, HIV wasn't really associated with gay women, but I think that it's evident that it helped feed further homophobia from the 1980s onwards."

Michael Parekowhai was a teenager on Auckland's North Shore in the 1980s. "Growing up a darkie, " he says he dealt with issues of prejudice, fear and identity.

Those same issues, he says, were being confronted by his gay friends - he remembers standing in a school assembly to support a student speaker.

"We had a pretty progressive school with regards to young men who were confident with their own sexuality - so hats off to that."

Parekowhai has repurposed a marquette of his 1994 urinal work Mimi for the show.

"Art has issues. People have issues. And I think any chance that these issues can be explored in a public domain in a non- threatening situation or in an environment that engages with those issues is a good thing".

Implicated and Immune shows at Michael Lett Gallery until February 28. On February 13, Fiona Clark will give a public talk on the art work Living with Aids.

The full Pride Festival programme is at aucklandpridefestival.org.nz.

 - Stuff.co.nz

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