The Steinhardt School Department of Art and Art Professions building on Washington Place is like Silver’s quiet, reserved aunt. Rarely the center of attention and relevant to few, she is usually ignored as students rush between classes. But every so often, that aunt lets her radical, rebellious past shine through, and that past is manifested in the 80 Washington Square East Gallery, a Steinhardt run exhibition space. You may have noticed the 25 foot window installation facing WSP, with photos of anti-gay protesters and church sit-ins by gay couples glaring at the streets in blue and yellow. The show is “Gran Fury: Read My Lips,” and it chronicles the national reaction to the AIDS epidemic from 1981 to today.
Shocking and provocative, the exhibition gives visitors a visual history lesson. The first room represents America’s initial reaction to AIDS, and if it doesn’t make you want to write to your local congressman, we don’t know what will. Photos of Ronald Reagan laughing with other conservative politicians, next to captions about how they wanted to have HIV positive people tattooed on the arm and lower back to “warn” potential partners make the stomach turn.
Gran Fury, who named himself after the car used by the NYPD, has been working for decades to promote AIDS awareness and curated this exhibit. On one wall, we see three couples, one heterosexual, one gay, and one lesbian, kissing to show that “kissing doesn’t kill, greed and indifference do,” fighting the stereotype that saliva spreads AIDS. The adjacent wall features a photograph of the “Kissing Doesn’t Kill” ad in Chicago defaced by anti-gay protesters.
Fury also takes on the Catholic Church, with enormous images of the pope covering his face. With the advent of AIDS, the Vatican reinforced abstinence to prevent spread of the disease, and opposed use of condoms. In case the message wasn’t clear enough, the images are arranged to form an upside down cross.
Fury leaves no stone unturned: “Don’t read Cosmo” signs protest Cosmopolitan magazine’s article saying that women do not need to fear HIV. “12% of women in New York City die of HIV related illness” retort the fliers. Fury’s painting parody of the “Love” statue spells “Riot,” which is what we want to do after seeing all of this and asking ourselves why this horrible disease hasn’t been cured yet. Fury paints an eloquent answer to this question: politically and socially, we cannot move forward and realize the enormity of this disease.
The final room sums up the exhibit: an enormous billboard of a baby reads “Welcome to America; the only industrialized country besides South Africa without national health care.” When the billboard was made, this was true; now the picture is more shocking, with our country being the only one left. Fake money fills the room, with angry phrases summing up the feelings of visitors: Why haven’t we fixed this? How can so many people die without anyone stopping it?
Included in the exhibit are take-home postcards, posters, and The New York Crimes newspaper to help spread awareness. As gallery visitor and Steinhardt sophomore Danya put it, “it looked really interesting, and I have to be somewhere at 5:30 so I figure it’s a good way to spend some time.” And with admission free, why not learn about an amazing movement against an all too real disease, where “kissing doesn’t kill” but indifference and ignorance do.