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Make AIDS Visible: Gran Fury's Provoking Billboards

An exhibition at Auto Italia, London, shows the artist group's belief in the potential of visual language to infiltrate public discourse

This survey-like exhibition of the work of activist art collective Gran Fury is the first in the UK and only the second of its kind since the New York-based group disbanded in 1995. From outside the artist-run space Auto Italia, a selection of billboards – all featuring eye-catching fonts and bright colour schemes – are visible within. This is not to say that the works’ attention-grabbing imagery doesn’t contain troubling information, nor that they fail to provoke disturbing responses. Active between 1988 and 1995, at the peak of the AIDS crisis in the US, Gran Fury employed artistic and political strategies rooted as much in a belief in the potential of visual language to infiltrate public discourse as in the use of tools such as humour, wit and queer aesthetics to  fight for, while empowering, the very community that the crisis most affected.

Founded shortly after – and in connection with – the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), Gran Fury sought to make visible the issue of AIDS within a society that had, to that point, willfully ignored the deaths of tens of thousands of people. (By 1987, a total of 20,849 people had died of AIDS in the US alone – yet Ronald Reagan only uttered the word in a major public speech on 2 April that year – six years after the first known death related to the condition.) The group produced visual material to promote ACT UP’s public demonstrations. They also fought their own campaigns, many of which focused on groups underrepresented within AIDS discourse.

Gran Fury, Kissing Doesn't Kill (detail), 1990, vinyl wall poster. Courtesy: the artists; photograph: Original&theCopy

This exhibition revisits some of Gran Fury’s activities non-museologically by including life-size billboards, banners, facsimiles, stickers and videos – not as documents of the past, but as images imbued with a radical political energy on which we might draw today.

Perhaps most recognizable of these is Kissing Doesn’t Kill (1989). Installed on a large wall at the entrance, the billboard depicts three interracial couples – heterosexual and same-sex – kissing under the slogan ‘Kissing Doesn’t Kill: Greed and Indifference Do’. Two further wall-pasted images of the same work are shown here vandalized while, opposite, a TV advert of the campaign features at least a dozen different couples in the act of kissing. The ad was originally com- missioned by MTV and subsequently censored for its explicit depiction of same-sex couples making out. Though Gran Fury’s use of popular culture was effective at gaining attention, few were prepared to take up the cause.

Gran Fury, The Pope and the Penis, 1990, vinyl wall poster (left); Gran Fury, Sexism Rears Its Unprotected Head, 1988, vinyl wall poster (right). Courtesy: the artists; photograph: Original&theCopy

Several other billboards address the issue of women in the AIDS epidemic – ‘MEN USE CONDOMS OR BEAT IT’ stickers were given out at the show’s opening – and further campaigns remind us of the roles of the church, pharmaceutical companies and Wall Street in advancing a demonizing rhetoric that not only validated the violence inflected upon homosexual bodies, but also justified the existence of AIDS as a moral reckoning.

A newspaper has been produced in conjunction with the exhibition to give further historical context to the works for those to whom the AIDS crisis may seem like a distant past. In our post-truth times, it might be useful, per ACT UP’s enjoinment to ‘Arm Yourself with Facts’ – as remembered by Gran Fury member Marlene McCarty during an opening talk at Auto Italia – to arm ourselves with history. Issues still at stake, for instance, include: the invisibility and discrimination still faced by many HIV-positive people; the increasing rates of infection amongst heroin users in the context of the US opioid crisis; and the fact that AIDS-induced death continues to be one of the common mortality causes in sub-Saharan Africa.

Outside, running across the gallery’s entrance, a banner reads: ‘All People with AIDS Are Innocent.’ Here, as throughout this exhibition, the use of the present tense is politically necessary: the work of Gran Fury appears as a timeless and urgent invocation.

Gran Fury, 'Read My Lips' runs at Auto Italia, London, until 2 December 2018. 

Main image: Gran Fury, Welcome to America, 1990, vinyl wall poster. Courtesy: the artists; photograph: Original&theCopy

Eliel Jones is a writer and curator based in London, UK. 

Issue 200

First published in Issue 200

January - February 2019
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