The AIDS Portfolio
An online retrospective exhibition of Dahn Hiuni's AIDS-related art
July 3 - December 16, 2021 | Curated by Amy Converse, PhD
Introduction by Amy Converse, PhD
Dahn Hiuni: Let the Record Show…
In the Winter 1987 issue of the art journal October dedicated to AIDS, historian Douglas Crimp began his introductory essay with a quote from François Delaporte’s investigation of the 1832 cholera epidemic in Paris:
“I assert, to begin with, that ‘disease’ does not exist. It is therefore illusory to think that one can ‘develop beliefs’ about it to ‘respond’ to it. What does exist is not the disease but practices.”
In the spring of 1832, the hospitals of Paris began to receive a growing stream of patients with a staggering array of symptoms; fever, aches and pains, vomiting, headaches, and seizures. Most of them were dead in a day or two. By April, the whole city smelled like a grave and bodies were stacked in the streets. In six months, the city lost 19,000 citizens; doctors were perplexed by the range of symptoms and the varying speeds that the disease claimed its victims, and the cures they offered were limited to hot baths and mustard poulstices. The epidemic spread disease but also mistrust; who was responsible for this scourge that killed so many? The answers, as always, focused on ‘outsiders’ and the marginalized; foreigners, the poor, and prostitutes. The latter in particular were framed as filthy and promiscuous, deceptively spreading death through their sinful behavior into the good moral homes of their bourgeois clients and their innocent families.
These socio-psychological reactions to diseases are patterns that can be found throughout history, and it is no accident that Crimp uses Paris in 1832 as a way to talk about New York (and San Francisco) in 1987. AIDS, Crimp tells us, “…does not exist apart from the practices that conceptualize it, represent it, and respond to it.”
For this virtual exhibition, over three decades of work by the artist Dahn Hiuni have been curated into a portfolio conceptualizing, representing, and responding to the AIDS epidemic, as well as an archive of supporting primary documents.
Hiuni prefaces his exhibition with the first New York Times story about the disease, buried on page 20 of section A. The article describes an outbreak with an unknown cause and an unclear path of contagion that emerged primarily in New York City and San Francisco amongst homosexual men, with the added commentary that many of these gay patients had also been treated for STDs and were habitual users of recreational illegal drugs. Hiuni also includes Scott Calonico’s 2015 short film “When AIDS was Funny,” which is a chilling compilation of audio recordings of White House Press briefings from 1982 to 1985 in which Press Secretary Larry Speakes responded to years of urgent questions about AIDS with smug chortling and homophobic double entendres. As a postscript, the artist helpfully includes more recent archives of documents commemorating forty years of AIDS, including pedagogical materials for contemporary education.
Hiuni began as an abstract artist, but the looming face of the epidemic marked his transition from a painter to an artist-activist in the late 1980s; when you are afraid that you and everyone you love are going to die, how can you make a painting ever again. In this shift, I am reminded of the work of the Mexican artist Teresa Margolles responding to the overwhelming violence of narcotrafficking in Mexico in more recent times. Selected to represent Mexico in the 2009 Venice Biennale, Margolles produced an installation and a series of public interventions and performances in the Palazzo Rota Invancich dealing with death and violence and the social and economic inequalities underlying these conditions. Using crime scenes and the streets as her artistic materials, the artist presented tapestries soaked in the blood of victims, and at all hours in which the galleries were open, a cleaning woman slowly mopped the floors with the water used to wash the corpses that filled the morgues in Mexico City. The piece was titled simply, How can we talk about anything else.
The work in this current exhibition begins with installations from the 1980s. Condom Triptych (1987), made of safety pins, painted clay, satin, felt on canvas, wood and board is an heir to Claes Oldenburg’s soft sculptures; wonky and hand crafted, and ultimately functionally useless. These condoms won’t save anyone, but there is joy and playfulness in their failure.
In Safe Painting (1988), rows of capped fat tubes of oil paints dangle suspended in unrolled condoms on a background of stretched canvas. Encased in prophylactics, these paints are now safe, but you can’t use them anymore. They are protected, but also imprisoned.
The second section of the show is devoted to photography from the 1990s, including documentary images of demonstrations in New York City and Washington, DC, as well as composed art photos of doubled, mirrored, and split nude bodies flattened out into harshly opposing contrasts of positive and negative light and space.
A series of works done at Penn State in the 1990s take the form of self-portraits, but less for investigating the self and more for examining the gay male body in an epidemic. V-Man (‘V’ now standing for ‘Virus’) finds Western art’s ideal man paranoically checking his swollen glands, reminding us that he is ironically based on a gay body—Leonardo’s model and lover.
A video gallery walkthrough pairs Breaking Your Neck Trying to be a Good American (1995), an endlessly looped video of the American diver Greg Louganis hitting the back of his head on a diving board while winning a gold medal for the US in the 1988 Olympics, and I'm Here (1995), a projection of a nude self-portrait into an aquarium filled with milk.
Shown together, the sequence is as follows; on the wall, a man endlessly falls through space, smashing his head, and plunging into the water, in order to reappear on the gallery floor in a glass coffin, perhaps sleeping, perhaps dead.
Issues of fear and mortality emerge again in the 1994 performance Art Imitates Life for World AIDS Day at Penn State. The video begins with the artist walking across campus in a hospital gown, pulling with him a rolling IV stand hung with a bag of the artist’s own blood. He approaches a blank canvas placed on a white easel, unplugs the needle from his vein, and uses it to paint, a single brushstroke to mark the canvas. In a sense, Hiuni has finally been permitted to return to painting, but only through the purchase of the medium with his own lifeforce; “the piece was just five minutes,” Hiuni recalled, “and then the canvas stayed out in public all day, slowly being covered in the red liquid. The campus police wanted to arrest me, but I convinced them it was art.”
In our current year of 2021, Hiuni has survived yet another epidemic when he thought for certain he would never survive the first. His more recent work from the 2000s is more broadly about memory, history, and loss as indexed through compilations and archives. All the Guys I Loved (2003) is a digital composite of his lovers’ faces, many of them lost; Forty (2006) is an aggregation of self-portraits from the past, reflectively assembled on the occasion of the artist’s fortieth birthday; All My Keys So Far I (2008) documents all of his housing, alone and with lovers; 25 Years of Planning (2010) is another means of measuring time, witnessing the young self surviving into middle age.
One cannot think of the AIDS epidemic without making analogies to our current pandemic. Calonico’s film closes with the statistic that in 2015 total AIDS deaths in the USA were 658,992. As I write this in June 2021, estimated total deaths for the Coronavirus are 602,000 and climbing. An obvious connection between both eras has been the White House’s delayed initial response in both instances because of who these diseases were initially affecting; they are getting sick, not us. What will the next pandemic bring? Will it be another virus, or the vicious and seemingly irreversible plague of climate change? What will become the parasite and who will become the host? In Michel Serres’ 1982 text Parasite, he tells us that the battle against the rats is already lost; “there is no house, ship, or palace that does not have its share.” The only way to rid oneself of rats is to burn the house down, but as the foundations smolder the rats return; “they are, as the saying goes, always already there. Part of the building. Mistakes, wavy lines, confusion, obscurity are part of the knowledge; noise is part of communication, part of the house.”
 François Delaporte, Disease and Civilization: The Cholera in Paris, 1832, trans. Arthur Goldhammer, Cambridge, MA & London, MIT Press, 1986, p.6.
 Douglas Crimp, “AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism,” AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism, ed. Douglas Crimp, Cambridge, MA & London, MIT Press, 1988, p.3.
 Michel Serres, Parasite, Minneapolis, MN, U Minnesota Press, 2013, p.12.
 Ibid., p.12.
Installation from the 1980s
Photography from the 1990s
Projections, Installations, Video
& Performance from the 1990s
Video: 'I WAS HERE' MFA Thesis Exhibition, Penn State, 1996, exhibition walk-through
Video: 'Art Imitates Life' performance for World AIDS Day, 1994. Palmer Museum Plaza, Penn State