Gretchen Bender, People with AIDS, 1986/2021.

How artists subverted the language of advertising to talk about AIDS

A Norway-based exhibition, titled Every Moment Counts: AIDS and its Feelings, showcases work from creatives across photography, collage, typography and more from 1982 until the present

This year marks 50 years since the decriminalisation of same-sex relationships in Norway, a change in legislation that not only “legitimised sexual difference”, but also “had cultural, social and political repercussions”, according to the Henie Onstad Art Center in Oslo.

The legislation’s half-centenary is being marked by many cultural institutions in Norway as part of a national Queer Culture Year, and Henie Onstad’s contribution is a show entitled Every Moment Counts: AIDS and its Feelings.

The exhibition takes its name from a series of photographic prints by Nigerian artist Rotimi Fani-Kayode, and presents more than 200 works across photography, film, installation, painting and more. Among the 60 international artists with work in the show are Elmgreen & Dragset, General Idea, Nan Goldin, Gran Fury, Keith Haring, Paul Maheke, Robert Mapplethorpe, Gang, Nancy Burson, Donald Moffet, Gretchen Bender, and Cookie Muller.

With works spanning 1982 to the present day, the exhibition organisers say the show will “reestablish the discussion on the complex historical as well as contemporary representations of HIV/AIDS”.

Soufiane Ababri, AIDS Memorial, 2018. 16drawings on paper.
Soufiane Ababri, AIDS Memorial, 2018

It hopes to do this by showcasing creatives’ representations of queer culture across the decades, and more specifically, examine how art, design and photography responded and contributed to the intense sociopolitical repercussions of the AIDs crisis.

The curators opted to arrange the show according to a range of “emotional qualities”. Themes such as love and death; hope and resignation; rage and desire; care and healing; mourning and memory; sex, politics, and activism; and intimacy and the body demonstrate the various ways in which artists represented and responded to the HIV/AIDS pandemic. These more abstract, thematic groupings mean that depictions of personal experiences sit alongside more historical documentation and theoretical analysis of the works in their political and social contexts. 

Among the more graphic or illustration-led pieces in the show is a piece by Morocco-born, France-based artist Soufiane Ababri, which uses coloured pencils to recreate a vintage cover of gay men’s mag Honcho. Redrawing the publication’s dynamic all-caps masthead in wobbly, faux-naif hand-drawn lettering and showing a topless man gazing right into the lens (as pretty much all Honcho covers did), there’s a strange sense of pathos in Ababri’s brightly coloured rendition.

The two works on show from Gran Fury, the AIDS activist artist collective from New York that formed in 1988, include its 1993 work Four Questions. The text-based pieces were printed as large posters that were pasted on the streets of New York and asked, as the title suggests, four questions, including: ‘do you resent people with AIDs?’ and ‘when was the last time you cried?’ The other Gran Fury piece in the show is 1990’s Wipe Out, a subway poster featuring a beachside scene with gold letters that read, ‘AIDS isn’t over for anybody until it’s over for everybody’.

The gallery also commissioned a new type-based digital public art project from Elmgreen & Dragset. Titled Aids is Good, Business for Some, the signs deliberately mimic the format of billboard ads and are presented on Clear Channel’s digital platforms at more than 700 locations around Norway throughout February.

“Every Moment Counts — AIDS and its Feelings captures the powerful sense of urgency that artists experienced in response to the tragedy of AIDS, but more than anything else, the poetics of life and its feelings expressed by their works,” says Henie Onstad Art Center. “As we grapple with another epidemic today, many of the issues presented in the works have the potential to add new layers of meaning.”

Every Moment Counts: AIDS and its Feelings runs until May 22 at the Henie Onstad Art Center in Oslo;