FOUND: Queer Archaeology; Queer Abstraction
New York, 26 Wooster Street
Featuring works by 27 contemporary artists, FOUND: Queer Archaeology; Queer Abstraction investigates current socio-political conversations around queer experience, while dismantling set notions about the body, identity politics, and representation. Curated by artist and AIDS/HIV activist Avram Finkelstein, the ambitious exhibition is one of the first exhibition projects presented at Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art’s newly-designed gallery space that opened its doors earlier in 2007. Artpseak editor Osman Can Yerebakan talked with Finkelstein about FOUND.
Osman Can Yerebakan: The opening of FOUND: Queer Archeology; Queer Abstraction coincided with a block party honoring the Silence=Death Collective with a window commission that reenacts the famous ACT UP poster. How does FOUND investigate the conversation between activism and art throughout the decades since the first days of ACT UP?
Avram Finkelstein: FOUND was a few years in the making. The subject consequently morphed as I delved more extensively into its meaning. I never intended the exhibition to be a political one, but the world has changed so much since its inception that it just evolved to be so. The Silence=Death collective has a very specific political context and I gave a lot of thought before I proposed the installation. I consider this as an opportunity to pivot since being queer is inherently about being political. The exhibition proposes contemporary queer ideas like non-corporeality and detritus.
OCY: You separate FOUND into five thematic groups. What was your curatorial method for determining these groupings?
AF: I wanted this exhibition be a discovery of concepts such as queer abstraction, queer excavation, and rethinking of corporeality. I treat the exhibition as an artists show where I can investigate artistic practices. This is where queer archeology came in. As I kept adding works, I developed ideas about where things were really going. I pondered on the artistic canon and how queer artists find themselves in Western European and post-colonial aesthetics while examining the meaning of archive for queer experience. I had the chance to question the canon within the archival context where there are so many ideas about mark-making. For example, I concluded there are elements of negative mark-making such as refusal, erasure, and incision that eventually turned out to be one of the thematic groups. This section came into discussion after I visited Carrie Yamaoka’s studio. There, I noticed on the wall a black work which I realized was the result of a certain artistic gesture. Carrie does a lot of work on reflective surfaces and she said that she has been noticing people take selfies of their reflections on them. She realized back of that silver mylar piece is black and we decided that it would be an interesting act to exhibit the back of the reflective surface as a gesture of refusal and obstruction.
OCY: We have been encountering the expression “mining the archive” in many exhibitions focusing on queer experience. Artists and curators have begun to investigate history through ephemera more than ever. Young artists aim to connect with a past that they did not necessarily experience, but extensively read and heard about.
AF: We are in a radicalizing moment where we have generations of new queer artists who try to situate themselves in a past. The Silence=Death image, for example, is an example of archival representation of a historic moment. We are in an era where HIV/AIDS activism has a different meaning. I observe how young artists find their ways in the topic. There are no privileges in what they do, because they didn’t experience the terror of that moment. I believe that the Silence=Death image casts a long shadow: it has a chilling effect on current activists. I am interested in seeing how young people will make use of its legacy. I am about to release a book called After Silence: A History of AIDS Through Its Images. I also use such images in order to expand the narrative for my students while teaching. We are in a crucial moment in time where we have the generation who survived a historic moment and we have young people encountering the impacts of that moment for the first time.
— As one of the key members of Gran Fury, what is your opinion about contemporary artists dealing with AIDS/HIV in their practice? How was your approach to new generation artists in this exhibition?
On one hand FOUND is not specifically about AIDS/HIV, but it definitely is an element for young queer artists for defining the world they are born into. I see that young artists are sometimes struggling for having their works fit into these issues. On the other hand, I feel that the genetic memory of that moment is so ingrained that they naturally come to think of it in terms of their identity. There is a sense of loss that traverses generations. I am talking about lost mentorship, and young artists are conscious of that. I feel in a way heartbroken. When I hear people talk about recent queer past, I realize they don’t experience communal engagement. When we started our activist movement, we were surrounded by other activists. New generation can feel surrounded in queer space on the internet, but that’s different than being in an office while you’re “breaking the law.” The current sense of connectivity is different. It feels like in most cases the more they talk about activist issues, the less connected they are to the real implications of AIDS/HIV. There is a sense of isolation.
OCY: Subtlety is an important thread in such a large scale exhibition. New generation artists and activists seem to be particularly invested in suppressed or forgotten histories and sites. How did you find a balance between subtlety and activism in FOUND?
AF: When viewers walk through the exhibition, they will feel that subtlety in different ways. For instance, Omar Mismar’s The Man Who Waited for a Kiss piece is a good example; it’s about the simplest display of affection, which is a kiss. Hidden behind that, however, are many layers of topics such as surveillance, privacy, and identity. When Omar moved to America from Beirut, he realized he had never been kissed in public. He decided to do a piece about this and put an ad on gay social media websites. He later waited in locations where there were surveillance cameras. He chose to photo-document these moments of intimacy with a pinhole camera which is the most primitive kind of camera. In his photos, he is vulnerable and performs a political act that is potentially dangerous in a very public and private way. This piece functions on so many levels, because it’s both subtle and vocal or personal and private. It’s a revealing piece. I see each piece as a self-portrait, either through garbage, refuse, archival material or personal ephemera. Each piece is a social and political portrait, while reflecting subtlety and expansiveness. One of the reasons I think about queer archeology and digging the archive is because I want the viewers get dirt inside their fingernails while discovering each piece and it’s layers. I paid close attention to choosing works that will be in dialogue with another and take different stabs at different questions on corporeality and male privilege while dismantling depictions of manhood. Each set of work acts in concert to modify one another.