The American artist Andrea Bowers does not see art and politics as two fixed realities but as two realms that influence each other. Her broad interest in various forms of non-violentprotest, civil disobedience and feminism is motivated by a historical awareness and archival curiosity regarding the history of political activism and its visual language or bodily expression. This interest is also decisive for her action within the art system and the very precise articulation of her art in both aesthetic and thematic terms. Bowers’ project for the Secession continues her investigation of the intersection between activism and art. The exhibition examines the people who maintain and display The AIDS Memorial Quilt and the storage facility they oversee that houses this cultural artifact.
The AIDS Memorial Quilt is an enormous quilt made by thousands of people all over the world celebrating and memorializing the lives of the people who have died of AIDS related illnesses.The quilt weighs over 54 tons and is composed of blocks (or sections) each measuring approximately twelve square feet. Each block consists of eight individual 3 x 6 foot quilt panels sewn together. Each panel, the size of a grave, contains a name. The quilt was first conceived in 1987 as a laying-out-of-thedead to demand attention for a disease that was cutting down the young men of San Francisco’s gay community. Many of the original panels had only firstnames because of the stigma of the disease. While small sections are still displayed each year in schools, charities, churches and companies, the entire quilt has not been exhibited sinceit was laid over the Washington Mall in Washington D.C. on Oct. 11, 1996.
For her exhibition Bowers has produced new video works and drawings. All of the drawings aremade in 3 x 6 foot units and all but one are displayed on the floor mirroring the size of theindividual panels and method of display of the quilt. In her videos Andrea Bowers focuses on an activist employee who has been sewing and repairing the quilt since its beginning. Bowers’ interest in this project is the current fragile balance of the quilt’s role: The people whocare for the quilt (a staff of once 52 now under 10) try to find equilibrium between preservinga cultural artifact and using an iconic activist tool. Historization is not necessarily negative, it is just an inevitable change. Because a cure for the disease has not been found it has become an unmanageable size. The quilt has not been shown in over 10 years because itis too costly to display and difficult to find a site large enough. There is also an emotionaltransition from the rage and urgency at its infancy. The majority of the current staff is women leading to investigations of women’s simultaneous roles as caretakers, preservationists, activists and artists.
In her 3-channel video The Weight of Relevance, Bowers combines interviews with staff members – predominantely women – with footage of the quilt in storage. Almost no-where in the exhibition will there be an unfolded quilt or name except in a video loop of a seamstress making repairs. The original goal of the quilt was to bring to consciousness the names of those avoided and ignored because they died from a disease that was stigmatized. Bowers’ installation reveals how twenty years later those same names are once again being silenced as the demographics of the disease change and the quilt fades from the public eye.