featured gallery for June 2018

AIDS IS NO JOKE

The thing I remember most about my father, who passed away from an AIDS-related illness in 2011, was that he loved to dance and he loved to laugh. Sometimes, I think, he did them both at the same time. He had a distinctive laugh – he didn't laugh with a wide open mouth. Instead, his teeth clenched together and he passed air in the back of his mouth between his tongue and his mouth, making a sound like a stuck sprinkler trying to wet a summer lawn.

My father was never able to tell his story or create art; even his laugh, which I can hear right now, reflected the suppression of the ability to open up. Not by any fault of his own, that is, but that clenched nervousness in his jaw was a feeling beat into him by his parents and by those around him that what he had to say was not worth hearing. Children were to be seen and not heard, even in joy, even in laughter.

I have worked professionally in the HIV field, first as part of the nonprofit industrial complex and now as a journalist, for about three years. When I tell people about my work, they often ask me "Doesn't that get depressing?" I've never been depressed talking about sex and death and life and thriving and humanity, so no. It's not.

In fact, it has been an extreme source of joy and nourishment in my life. The people I've met in this field all have something in common: an unparalleled sense of humor. Laughter is a parallel in function and utility to my career choice: a pre-verbal exchange of ideas through the revelation of truth and pointing to the peculiar. When we laugh, we recognize difference and disparity, and approach it with open chests and wide grins.

Babies don't need to be taught to laugh. If you tickle a baby, it responds with something inside of itself that it was born knowing how to do.

AIDS IS NO JOKE looks at several mediums, especially photography, and asks: "Why did the artist choose to capture this moment?" In laughter, our face distorts. We become monsters. To remember someone as laughing is to remember them as grotesque, a caricature. Surely the subject would not look like him or herself during the process. Why did the artist want to capture this moment of exuberance? Why take a snapshot of pure joy? Why not?

Taking a picture of laughter transcends genre. While some may think that visual art is a medium primarily catering to sight, this gallery invites us to "hear" art. To project what we think a person's laughter sounds like onto an image; to imagine what gives that person pure joy; to imagine why the artist wanted that joy immortalized.

A toothy smile in a picture is a new phenomenon in history. But, this gallery isn't about smiling. In fact, in choosing the artists, I specifically discerned the difference between a smile and a laugh. And of course, a smile in pictures usually means that the subject was standing still, waiting for the moment to be captured, whereas laughter in portraiture is usually happenstance, lucky, inimitable.

The cover image of my favorite album – Alanis Morissette's Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie – is an image of the singer's mouth superimposed over a condensed version of the 8 Precepts of Buddhism. After the media tried to define her as an angry woman upon the release and success of Jagged Little Pill, Morissette is showing life after anger, after she had to unlearn anger and learn relaxation and spirituality. Here, she uses laughter as the ultimate symbolism of freedom. In what ways do the images chosen in this gallery represent freedom after anger? Anger after a diagnosis, anger after being abandoned by government, anger after being told that you have to take pills to be a whole person? How is laughter happiness on one's own terms, regardless of one's T-cell count?

In a way, these images play with the French term jouissance. Jouissance is the pre-verbal, nonverbal form of "enjoyment, pleasure, particularly sexual pleasure or pleasure derived from the body … a sense of play as linguistic excess, the joy of disrupting or going beyond established or fixed meaning into the realm of nonsense." [1]

Many of the images show the joy in sexuality. Look around at many of the public health messages – and the implied messages of our HIV criminalization laws – and the bodies of HIV-positive people are supposed to be under state control. They're not supposed to be joyful unless they're being pumped with pills. However, the images in this gallery reject the idea of the body as a locus of state control or worthiness through medication. These bodies are moving, bending, feeling and contorting for pure physical enjoyment; the joy of laughter, the joy of sex, the joy of dance.

That pure physical enjoyment is present from the very first image, Jurgen Baldiga's "Juengling akt" or, roughly translated, "youthful nude." The subject is nude, very playful, but not sexual. The subject, in twisting his body in an almost pretzel-like way is testing the limits of his own body and finding joy in stretching his limbs. Notice it is "youthful," relating to jouissance's emphasis on the non-verbal and pre-verbal aspects of communication, which often relies on physicality and pure joy.

While jouissance is personal, the images in this gallery are also what Isaak calls "sensuous solidarity." As I said before, laughter distorts the body, makes it monstrous. If laughter distorts the body, and these images present people feeling pure physical enjoyment in "sensuous solidarity," then it follows that laughter can distort the body politic – and challenge it to change it. "Laughter … is meant to be thought of as a metaphor for transformation, for thinking about cultural change … The viewer must want, at least briefly, to emancipate himself from 'normal' representation; in order to laugh, he must recognize that he shares the same repressions … Laughter is first and foremost a communal response." [2]

Ray Cook's "Anglerfish" portrays an insidious laughter, one that is tinctured with a subtle villainy. If laughter is for those on the margins, it is also important to remember the ways that larger society links laughter – and maniacal laughter – to villainy, and the ways in which societal norms construct what we consider villainous. Why does the man with the dildo on his head come off maniacal or villainous? At what is he laughing? From what has he been liberated?

The communal aspect of laughter is immediately present in Lina Yaroslavska's "Support Among Equals" in which a woman holding a cupcake with only the tips of her fingers barrels herself forward in laughter, while a friend sits by smiling. What are they discussing? In what ways does this image present the idea that we must first and foremost allow ourselves to laugh. That we often have to give ourselves permission to laugh at our own lives in order to make sense of it? In what ways does this create a parallel between an "Aha!" moment and a "Haha!" moment? What are we learning through laughter? The image's focal point is the open mouth, producing a sound. Everything around it, the setting sun, the cupcake, the phone, are all accouterments. In the moment of laughing, don't we leave it all behind for a moment and experience clarity?

In Sigmund Freud's essay "On Narcissism," Freud asserts, without saying it, that humor is a tool used by the marginalized to make sense of the world's power structures. He links criminals, people outside the law, with women, or people disinherited from power by birth and by body. How does this extend to marginalized populations today, including those living with HIV? How is laughter a way to assert pleasure in a world that wants so badly to deny pleasure to those living with HIV?

My father, a man whose body had to fight to survive, who developed diabetes because America feeds its citizens crap and who developed AIDS because he was living with a drug addiction on the Lower East Side, was a man who enjoyed all of life's pleasures to the fullest. I remember him laughing, asking me for sugary candy, and talking about what he'd do when he gets out of the hospital. Because laughter is a way of looking to the future, knowing that the now is too absurd, knowing that there's something next. Even if it's just a big inhale, to fill the lungs up with oxygen.


[1] Isaak, Jo Anna, Feminism & Contemporary Art: The Revolutionary Power of Women's Laughter (New York: Routledge) 3

[2] ibid, 5