Activism As Art: Gran Fury Gets A NYC Retrospective
By James Clementi
Tonight is the opening of Gran Fury: Read My Lips at 80WSE Windows Gallery in New York. The exhibit is a collection of the art group Gran Fury’s ground breaking, attention-grabbing murals and images which were sprawled across buses, billboards, T-shirts, and subway platforms all over the U.S.
Mainly produced between 1987 to 1995, Gran Fury’s work unabashedly brought public attention to the AIDS crisis that was in its darkest hour. Organized and determined, the blueprint of their demonstrations and protests can be felt today with the Occupy Wall Street movement. The spirit of fight and resistance is captured in the authentic reproductions of Gran Fury’s work, tirelessly recreated under the leadership of Fury founding members Thomas Kalin and John Lindell.
“The U.S. Government considers the 47,524 dead from AIDS expendable. Aren’t the ‘right’ people dying? Is this medical apartheid?” asks a mural, one of the many which aimed criticism at power structures in society. Unafraid to attack directly the U.S. government, religious institutions like the Catholic Church, and mainstream media (The Times is depicted in one piece as The New York Crimes), Gran Fury pushed the envelope in a way that no one else was willing to.
What makes their work so special and provocative is not just the messages and images they portrayed, but the locations they chose to do so. The height of the AIDS epidemic was an intolerant time for victims as well as all LGBT people, who were viewed fearfully as potential carriers. There was so much misinformation about how the disease was spread and prevented, and this campaign forced the public to become aware and open its collective eyes. One of Gran Fury’s most visible projects was "Kissing Doesn’t Kill," which portrayed couples of various gender and racial combinations kissing in an effort to show the beauty and safety of a simple kiss. In Chicago residents destroyed all of the images.
While the group met with hostility head on, there was support from unexpected places as well. After widely distributing a photo of two sailors kissing and exposed from the waist down, Gran Fury received a call from one of the men in the picture. Mike Cohen, the curator of the gallery exhibition, explains that while they were initially concerned about an impending lawsuit, the man was excited at the thought the pictures he had taken with his boyfriend years before could be used to benefit awareness of HIV.
In addition to reproductions of the artwork which trailblazed in the 1980s and '90s, and video footage of PSAs that will be included with outtakes, the exhibition will feature an incredible, new, never-before-seen work. The display is a 25-foot structure in the gallery windows visible from next-door Washington Square Park. This work will contrast side-by-side imagery of AIDS activists working on the front lines with anti-gay protesters displaying their hateful rhetoric. This promises to be one of the most emotional parts of the show. Intense emotions of anger, fear and violation brim over into a battle both ideological and corporeal which is on full display, and Gran Fury’s mastery gives this a focused power.
Cohen tells us that the excitement at NYU’s Steinhardt Art School is palpable. The anticipation and passion for this exhibit is on par with the high level of emotion the subject matter provokes. Cohen goes so far as to say that the show will be among the best the school has produced, and the growing interest from the surrounding community can be felt in the air. One of the primary reasons why Gran Fury was willing to put this show together is that another part of the project involves an upcoming workshop. Fifteen NYU students will collaborate with Gran Fury and five members from the Village Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Center to create activist artwork that reflects on “the contemporary relationship of art and politics.” The products of this workshop will be presented to the public in March at the Village LGBT Center.
This event offers the chance to see Gran Fury’s timeless and powerful body of work, assembled together for the first time.