On ViewMoMA PS1
I Wanna Be Well
May 13 – October 11, 2021
The first room of Gregg Bordowitz: I Wanna Be Well immediately establishes the varied scope of the artist’s practice. His video work Habit (2001) plays in a corner with two seats in front of the intimate screen. On either side, in vinyl, are the first three poems from Debris Fields (2014), but the rest of the series of 24 appear in numerical order throughout the exhibit. In 1995, the same year that the first HIV protease inhibitors came to market, he drew a self-portrait almost daily. In the open, airy room, the spoken words coming from the video and the words on the walls swirl around as one looks at the framed faces. There is a light touch here that nonetheless manages to be immersive. The retrospective is selective in its offerings, and though much is necessarily missing, there is no sense of lack, but rather encouragement to seek out more on your own.
The next room provides screenings of some aspect of a shared lifestyle (1986) and Portraits of People Living with HIV: Episodes 1-9 (1992–95). Plenty of seats encourage audiences to break, listen, engage, remember. For a survey, this pause so early on is an interesting rhetorical move. Like the dense language of the Debris Field poems, it alters the timing, the tense of the exhibit. “The AIDS Crisis is Still Beginning” reads a banner at the entrance of the building, and so the presence demanded by the grammar of the display pulls us back from easy remembrance, demanding a present tense engagement with the lived reality of a health crisis that continues. This seems particularly apt as people rush to talk about a “post-COVID” world although governments and individuals from Canada to Kathmandu are still struggling to manage the pandemic spread or access vaccines, and none of us yet understand how easily transmission still occurs for those who are vaccinated.
Video was a medium of immediacy. It could capture people with an ease unavailable to the cinematic encumbrances of cellulose. In an episode from Portraits of People Living with HIV, I watched Robert Vazquez describe his advocacy work in a Chinese restaurant; at the end, he gets a fortune cookie and we watch him process the words before he shares them, an uncomfortable laugh before he reads: “idleness is the holiday of fools.” With mobile technologies now in our pockets, the importance of the sociality and personal politics that video enabled is easy to forget. Its current ubiquity has stripped, however, the kind of presence and significance it once had.
Bordowitz brings the conflict within the great Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky’s poem to life in his A Cloud in Trousers (1914–15). The poem is about the demands of political revolution, swinging between activist entrenchment and romantic aspirations. The revolution becomes a kind of lover who won’t allow you any others if you too will fight for those who need it most.
I will glorify you regardless, —
Men, as crumpled as hospital beds,
And women as battered as proverbs.
David Rakoff’s reading of the words is hypnotizing and hard to pull away from the 30-minute film, but the same room also presents Kaisergruft (2008–21) a wall drawing that diagrams Bordowitz’s thoughts on the second section of Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature about the passions, a philosopher who recognized the many sides of a thinking life.
Bordowitz is an activist and artist, but also a prolific writer and intellectual. His library, included here, makes that evident. Though one can’t touch, to browse around the selection from 1983–2013 displayed in a softly lit room is to sense his mind. The words within have traveled through his mind and to recognize texts is to find a kinship. The order is not alphabetical, nor disciplinary, but one gets an organization of texts that might be read or referenced alongside each other. Some authors are grouped, and others scattered according to use. Opposite the books, a portrait of Bordowitz by artist and activist Lee Schy makes for a very human presence.
It was Selections from the Extended Family Vacation (1984), also by Schy, in the next room that shifted the exhibit from political and intellectual to personal for me. These were pictures pasted around New York City from the mid-1980s until he died in 1995. They are his extended family, and reminded me of my early adolescence growing up among the actors and musicians of Hell’s Kitchen in the early 1990s, but also among the military and political professionals of Washington, DC. AIDS was pervasive and deeply personal. And it wasn’t bound to NYC.
Fast Trip, Long Drop (1993), the title taken from a headline when Evel Knievel survived an attempt to jump the Snake River Canyon, is an important hour-long film started after Bordowitz tested HIV-positive. Including coming out to his mother and stepfather and quitting drugs and alcohol, the film explores his history, his father’s disappearance at the age of four and refusal to acknowledge him, but remains in the present, as current developments like a friend getting a breast cancer diagnosis occur. Pestsäule (after Erwin Thorn) (2021) is partly based on the Plague Column in Vienna. Though that column was meant to memorialize those lost in the plague of 1679, there are many aspects of it that celebrate the virtues of Leopold I, and thankfully Bordowitz doesn’t go down that hagiographic path with this sculpture but instead manages to give Baroque opulence to those who have lost their lives to COVID and the racism that continues to plague this nation.
The show ends or starts with Drive (2002/2019/2021), initially part of Hope=Life: Living in the New Age of AIDS, which includes a derby car, a banner, and clocks set to the time zones of the exhibit location and Durban, South Africa, the first African locale for an international conference on AIDS back in 2000. A red line from the derby car runs throughout the exhibit, connecting all the works on display, all the places where HIV remains a health crisis, all of us. We are just beginning to ascertain what the long-term health impacts of this most recent virus will be, physically or mentally. The work done by AIDS activists establishes a foundation that we will need to invoke as we face future global healthcare crises. This is an age of virus.