Caroline Harris, associate director for education at the University Art Museum, spoke Thursday evening on the AIDS crisis and the significance of the Day Without Art.
The Art Museum has made a tradition of honoring AIDS victims through a ceremony hosted each year around Dec. 1, which is and the Day Without Art, a national day of mourning when museums sponsor special exhibitions of work about AIDS. The annual tradition, which on Friday will celebrate its 28th anniversary, strives to raise awareness of AIDS and honors those who have died from the disease.
Harris began her remarks by highlighting the history of the AIDS epidemic in the United States. She said that the first cases of AIDS in the United States occurred in Los Angeles in 1981, preceding a monumental outbreak of AIDS cases and deaths throughout the 1980s.
Harris suggested that the history behind the epidemic influenced the planning of Princeton’s yearly memorials.
“In our efforts to remember World AIDS Day, we’ve generally focused on that first decade,” said Harris. “That first decade of diagnosis, and the first decade of the health crisis, especially on the human rights and civil rights issues that arose in this country around the AIDS crisis. You know, as all of us remember, it was much more than a health crisis for all those years.”
Harris recounted how, on past World AIDS Days, the University has sponsored a campus viewing of Derek Jarman’s autobiographical film “Blue.” The film, which was the last Jarman completed before his death from complications of AIDS, includes a single image of saturated blue while Jarman, his friends, and associates discuss his life and art.
The Art Museum also exhibited LGBTQ+ artist Felix González Torres’s 1991 piece “Untitled,” a billboard featuring a picture of an empty bed in memory of González Torres’s late husband. The Museum featured multiple installations of the billboard . Both González Torres and his husband passed away from complications of AIDS.
In the past, the University has also invited distinguished artists diagnosed with AIDS to speak at the Day without Art celebration.
However, Harris also highlighted the differences in this year’s celebrations, explaining that past World AIDS Day ceremonies have been “more literary in focus.” This year, the University made the decision to focus more on permanent art pieces already in the Museum.
“For this year, we decided to bring it back inside the museum and do an installation from our permanent collection,” said Harris. “It’s an installation that primarily focuses on an extraordinary artist, David Wojnarowicz, who was a filmmaker, a photographer, an installation artist, a graffiti artist, a gifted writer, [and] a sculptor.”
The Art Museum’s decision to focus on Wojnarowicz was influenced by the fact that he played a “vital role in the activism of the time, and was so much a part of that community.”
Wojnarowicz focused on the “image of the vulnerable, tortured body” to bring attention to the physical and psychological effects of AIDS on American society, as well as on the individual.
“His art, even before the advent of the AIDS crisis, focused on depicting people and stories that had been silenced — silenced by heteronormative culture, silenced by hegemonic culture,” said Harris.
Other featured artists included James Romberger and Peter Hujar, the latter of whom was famous in his own right and as Wojnarowicz’s lover. Both were among the millions who succumbed to AIDS-related complications in the late 20th century.
Science has made staggering progress in the fight against HIV/AIDS since the virus initially gained global recognition. According to , 36.7 million individuals around the world live with HIV/AIDS today. However, 20.9 million of those diagnosed have access to antiretroviral treatments for the disease, and AIDS deaths have fallen 48 percent from their height 12 years ago.