REVIEW: Something That Scares You: A Review of Lili Reynaud-Dewar's My Epidemic (Teaching Bjarne Melgaard's Class)
Alexandra Best | DECember 2, 2015
Many of us who are post-secondary students today were born after the AIDS crisis of the 1980’s. What do we understand about the lived experience of this virus? The exhibition by French artist Lili Reynaud-Dewar, titled My Epidemic (Teaching Bjarne Melgaard’s Class), presented by SFU Galleries’ Audain Gallery, addresses the delicate personal and collective histories surrounding HIV/AIDS. Not only is My Epidemic an art exhibition, but the artist hosted a seminar of the same name with SFU’s School for the Contemporary Arts students, including myself, to discuss this theme.
The Audain Gallery is situated on Hastings Street at the crossroads of the Downtown Eastside and downtown. For many of the residents of the neighbourhood, complex conditions of poverty, intravenous drug use and HIV infection are a reality. The large uncovered windows of the gallery expose every aspect of the exhibition to passersby. People who might not otherwise consider visiting the gallery can stop on the street and view the artwork. Through these windows, My Epidemic is indirectly exposed to people who may be directly affected by its sensitive subject matter.
Walking into My Epidemic, visitors are surrounded by white: white walls, white curtains, white bean bag chairs, white light pouring in from the large, open windows. It is both serene and expected in a gallery setting. The white monochrome is broken up by a violent red in the form of stains at the bottom of the curtains and quotes in red paint above. However, the red is not splattered like a crime scene, as one might expect. It has been soaked, absorbed, saturated. There is a definite feeling of time having lapsed. Similarly, HIV is not a sudden and violent illness, but a slow, creeping one. The use of fabric in the gallery makes the red feel human. Fabric is tactile, comforting, intimate. It surrounds us and touches our bodies at all times. Red brings to mind love, passion, sexual desire, blood, life, survival. These themes are represented in the unsettling and provocative quotes painted on the curtains:
…my disease is so contagious… a little peck on the cheek is enough to almost guarantee transmission / cruising is best done alone / I believe in exchanging bodily fluids, not wedding rings / I resent that over time friends slowly become pallbearers, waiting for death… Imagine what it would be to have a demonstration every time a lover or friend or stranger died of AIDS / by the act of gay emancipation, we sow the seeds of the destruction of gay identity…this is the great paradox: queer liberation eradicates queers…
The quotes provoke a feeling of discomfort, even nausea, as the violence of lived experience is revealed. However, they also prompt thinking about taboo subjects. This thinking is further encouraged as you step forward into a circle of oddly-shaped beanbag chairs (some of the most comfortable and enticing chairs I have ever sat on), and encounter pile of books strewn in the middle. These books touch on many subjects surrounding HIV/AIDS, including homosexuality, political activism, barebacking, and sexual freedom versus monogamy. Some texts are historical accounts of laws passed surrounding HIV/AIDS, and some are fictional stories depicting personal accounts of gay experiences. Some books are the sources for the quotes on the curtains.
My Epidemic creates an environment that is immediately disturbing, but at the same time provides a space to explore these issues. Thinking and discussion was further encouraged in the SCA seminar, which took place every Friday and Saturday in October inside the gallery. In this seminar, Reynad-Dewar taught a syllabus that had been designed by Norwegian artist Bjarne Melgaard. This class was a type of performance, as it took place during gallery hours and was open to the public to witness. The class was also a dissemination, or ‘transmission’ of information. As someone whose knowledge on the subject of AIDS was previously limited to Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia, I found this seminar unsettling, and yet invaluable. The first time we picked up Guilllame Dustan’s In My Room and read aloud his detailed descriptions of sex acts, an uncomfortable pall fell over the room. I remember watching as the book and microphone was passed from student to student between chapters, and my heartbeat rising as it neared my turn. After reading aloud this subject matter in the first person, I realized that this is simply the experience of a man trying to live with HIV and retain his sexuality and humanity. These texts are so relatable and responsive. Through this seminar I learned the ways in which all kinds of different people learn to cope with this illness. In the books we read, some responded with political activism, some responded with anger and violence, some responded by embracing the virus to the extent of fetishizing it. The more I read, the more I felt comfortable understanding and embracing this subject. I think this is an understanding rarely available to my generation and I feel fortunate to embrace it moving forward in my artistic career.
The challenge of this subject matter is that it is never going to be discussed to its full potential and neatly resolved in a way that everyone will feel satisfied with. This exhibition cannot possibly answer or even address every question about HIV/AIDS. It does however act as an accessible platform through which to explore the issues. Stop by. Bring a friend or colleague. Relax in a beanbag chair. Pick up a book that scares you. Discuss.
Photos: Lili Reynaud-Dewar, My Epidemic (Teaching Bjarne Melgaard’s Class). SFU SCA Seminar with Alexandra Best, Kayla Elderton, Jorma Kujala, Siena Locher-Lo, Chris Mark, Emily Marston, Weifeng Tang, Cory Woodcock, Sitong Wu, Viki Wu, Nicholas Yu. Installation view, Audain Gallery, 2015. Photo: Blaine Campbell.