We’re home from another inspiring, overwhelming AWP writers’ conference in Washington, DC, with the usual crate full of small press books and literary journals that we discovered at their bookfair. I’ll be reviewing some of our finds in future posts. Currently, I’m reading Nick Demske’s self-titled collection of deranged sonnets from Fence Books, and Dorothy Allred Solomon’s In My Father’s House: A Memoir of Polygamy, first released in the 1980s and republished by Texas Tech University Press.
After a 15-hour drive through Snowmageddon, we rewarded ourselves with a day of sightseeing Wednesday before the conference began. We were privileged to catch the groundbreaking GLBT portraiture exhibit “Hide/Seek ” at the National Portrait Gallery, closing this week. Even without the censored Wojnarowicz video, there was much to provoke a fresh look at American cultural history. Various pieces moved me to sadness and anger at the devastation of the AIDS crisis, and admiration for how creatively these artists deployed abstraction, coded symbolism, and experimental techniques to hide the truth of their lives in plain sight.
I was surprised by my feelings of connection with Felix Gonzales-Torres’ “Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.)”, a pile of candies in multicolored wrappers. The placard said the installation starts out at a weight of 175 lbs., which was his late partner Ross Laycock’s weight before AIDS. Viewers are invited to take away a candy and consume it as an act of communion with Ross. Like the AIDS patient’s body, the pile gradually shrinks, but is then replenished, symbolizing the cycle of life and death. (You can see the image and read about it on the gallery’s website.)
What kind of art is this? Without the placard, it’s just a pile of candy. Perhaps it’s better understood as an interactive text, or a collaborative work of performance art, rather than our standard expectation of a visual art object that speaks for itself. The interactive nature of the work, I think, is the key to why I found it so moving. It challenges the whole notion of the uninvolved spectator as a proper or pure stance. We are complicit in this artwork. By taking the candy, we’re taking responsibility for our role as bystanders while people die of AIDS, but maybe we’re also receiving forgiveness and restored relationship through this bodily connection.
In other gay news, Adam and I took part in GetEqual’s protest of the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday morning. It’s a little-known fact that this annual event, attended by the president and other top U.S. politicians, was created and sponsored by The Family, a secretive elite network of Christian conservatives bent on political takeover. (Yes, I know it sounds like a Dan Brown novel, but it’s all too real–just not as photogenic as Paul Bettany whipping himself.)
Members of The Family have been actively stirring up religious bigotry against gays in Africa, including the infamous Ugandan legislation that would impose the death penalty for homosexuality. Last month, David Kato, one of the most prominent gay activists in that country, was murdered in a probable hate crime. Our protest honored his memory. About 30 of us sang “We Shall Overcome” and handed out flyers detailing the link between the prayer breakfast, The Family, and genocide against gays.
Read coverage of the event at Metro Weekly and see a short video of the protest. Around 23 seconds into the film, you can see Adam holding the rainbow flag (he’s wearing the red ski jacket and black boots) and me next to him (black beret and coat).