There was a time that Ken Garnhum believed he would never again write about anything but AIDS.
After the Toronto playwright was diagnosed as HIV-positive in 1993, as he buried a dozen friends and lovers, as he worked on his play Pants on Fire, about a man struggling with his dependency on the disease -- it seemed that AIDS, as it decimated his world, was the only possible subject for his work.
"I did become worried that this was all my work would ever be about," he says. "I thought I would always be obsessed by it, and I didn't want to be."
In the 20 years that North Americans have been living in the AIDS epidemic, it has burned a cometic arc through the arts. It exploded as a deadly muse in the early 1980s, as a theme in film and theatre and dance almost apocalyptic in nature.
Now, AIDS has become something else.
When Bob Baker, now artistic director at the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton, directed a play called As Is about a couple who die of AIDS, at the Phoenix Theatre in Edmonton, in 1985, the disease was still a source of curiosity -- just the beginning of anger. Today, he says, a new era of playwrights is concerned with new issues -- harassment, gender roles, and urban life. AIDS is no longer the same hot-bottom issue.
"Those politics died off -- or the writers died," he says.
The ones who haven't died are wrestling with what to do with the "extra time" they have been given by the drug cocktails that have slowed the waves of deaths, says experimental filmmaker and video artist Mike Hoolboom.
"There is a sense that all art is the act of leaving traces behind, that all art is the act of grieving," says Hoolboom. "AIDS has certainly reinforced that."
The change is evident in the two new plays Garnhum is working on. In one, there is a character who is HIV-positive, but this is not the subject or even a major theme in the play. And the other play Garnhum is writing has nothing at all to do with AIDS.
"I wonder if that would have been possible without cocktails and the diminishment of loss," he muses. He resisted the drug cocktail until he became very ill with an opportunistic infection in 1998; he did not like the idea of taking large numbers of medications, or of beginning a process that he would have to continue for as long as he wished to live. "But it has allowed me to be creative in ways I was worried I would not be again."
And lately, he finds himself getting irritated at the obligatory character with HIV in movies or television shows -- one more sign of the progression of adjusting to AIDS.
The key work of art about AIDS in the West may be Angels in America, by American playwright Tony Kushner, which won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Tragic and morbidly hilarious in parts, it is very much a play about impending death and disaster.
But with the discovery of protease-inhibitor cocktails, which began to stave off the emergence of full-blown AIDS in patients starting in 1995, death rates (in the developed world) dropped dramatically. And AIDS in art shifted from disaster to uneasy coexistence, from consuming subject to peripheral theme to subtext.
"Originally, the work I was seeing and doing that was influenced by [AIDS]had to do with loss and issues around blame and responsibility," Toronto playwright Daniel MacIvor says. "As weird as it seems, it's easier to compute things, to deal with AIDS and the ideas of AIDS, when there's death involved because that's something we understand. We don't understand what cocktails do or what happens to the body, all we know is that people [now]are dying at the rate we all die."
MacIvor pauses, then says he knows this will sound terribly cold. "I think there's something undramatic about that, to come at it from a theatrical perspective. There's something banal about that." And so, much less theatre about AIDS than there was 10 year ago.
MacIvor wrote a play called The Soldier Dreams,first performed in 1997, in which the main character, comatose and dying of AIDS, observes the behaviour of his loved ones after his death. The disease is not an overt part of the work he's doing these days.
"AIDS gets filed in last year's issues and concerns," he says. "It's not 'now' enough to make art for people."
Video artist Mike Hoolboom has encountered the same reaction. "I did a show in Amsterdam last fall of a number of pieces I made about AIDS and the reaction was, 'That's really over; that's done.' " While people may be dying at huge rates in other parts of the world, his sense is that the Western media, the public, have passed the saturation point on this topic.
And yet, "for big bunches of folks who have AIDS, like me, and who have friends who are dying, it's not passé, it's not an idea, it's not just out there."
MacIvor, too, says his work is "all about death and loss. My work is forever affected by it. I'm still trying to deal with the fact that people I loved very much are gone and I don't know why. And survivor guilt -- I lost a couple of lovers, why did I survive?"
Hoolboom says AIDS today is a subtext. "There is a generation of people who have experienced death a lot sooner than we should have, than we were led to expect. That changes everything, how you work, how you talk to people, how you have sex. It's pervasive."
AIDS cemented its place in the pop culture psyche in the 1990s. Lou Reed did a song ( Halloween Parade), Bruce Springsteen did a song ( Philadelphia), Coolio did a song ( Too Hot). The phrase "sicker than AIDS" became a staple of hip-hop lyrics. An AIDS movie ( Philadelphia) won an Oscar in 1993; prime-time TV had characters, admittedly minor ones, with HIV.
"AIDS is all about photo shoots and fundraisers these days," Toronto visual artist Stephen Andrews says with a slightly macabre laugh. At the annual Fashion Cares gala last year, he recalls, he looked around the room and thought, "My God, I'm the only person here with AIDS."
Andrews, known for moving work memorializing lost friends and lovers comprised of a multitude of dissolving images, says the drug cocktails produced quiet changes in people's work.
"For one thing, it's very strange, being Lazarus-like," he says of his own experience of the drugs, of the shocking realization that he would live, after all, and wondering, "Oh, jeez, what next?"
Artists don't want to be defined by the disease, he says. "It's not so existential -- my grief has been processed somewhat, I haven't been to a funeral lately. It's not that dramatic any more for me, it's not this big drama. It's more of a nuisance." And he talks a bit about the side-effects of the drugs, of not recognizing the face in the mirror, with its new folds and bumps.
Andrews is now at work on a series of big drawings on Mylar, which look like film, and are "about love." His muse is his partner, the filmmaker John Greyson ( Lilies, Uncut). Greyson also made Zero Patience, a ribald musical about AIDS, in 1993. It was the culmination of a body of work about AIDS, he says, and he has done little more since.
"The deaths, the funerals accelerated, and it became necessary to stop doing work around AIDS because it was too present on a daily basis," he says. "To say what I had to say, I had to step back a bit."
His latest film, which will be shown at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, has a character who is mistakenly believed to have AIDS -- but it's a plot twist, not a fundamental motivator.
Visual artist AA Bronson, the sole survivor of the Toronto collective, General Idea, says AIDS is still a central theme in his work, but a different kind of theme.
"What it's become for me is much more personal, about my own experience of the epidemic and the losses I've suffered, and much less about the disease as an abstract thing."
General Idea's art continues to be shown, most recently at an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where Bronson now spends most of his time, and as part of a show that opens soon at the Pompidou Centre in Paris.
He recalls General Idea's famous AIDS logo and installation art featuring giant pills. "Now what I'm doing is closer to portraiture." He also sees a greater emphasis on memoir.
Bronson's latest work is a billboard-size picture of his partner Felix Partz, taken hours after his death from AIDS, which will be part of the Montreal Biennale in September. Partz died in 1994, a year before the drug cocktails became available.
"I stopped working after he died, until two years ago," Bronson says. "I didn't know what I could go and do that was not General Idea. My work now is much more personal, without irony."
Like many other artists, he makes reference to the sharp inequities in access to drugs, and the scale of the epidemic outside North America.
Of the estimated 35 million people with HIV-AIDS in the world, 25 million of them live in sub-Saharan Africa. Given the strong taboo against talking about AIDS in many of these countries, the art of AIDS in Africa is a very different matter.
Toronto filmmaker John Greyson, just back from Durban, South Africa, and at work on a feature film with a friend who is an AIDS activist in Cape Town, says he was struck by the difference in artistic response in Africa.
"It's gay versus straight, and that difference is so fundamental to cultural production," he said. "Not to be essentialist, but it's true: When a top pop star in Africa sings about the virus it's very different from Tony Kushner writing a play about it."
Zulu love letters (traditional beaded squares made by Zulu women in South Africa) now show the red AIDS ribbon on a white background. Across Africa, local projects have AIDS orphans making memory boxes of their parents.
The African response also includes powerful dance work by Ivory Coast choreographer Adiatou Massidi and his troupe N'Soleh; the paintings of Senegalese artist Ass M'Bengue; visual art by Pascale Marthine Tayou of Cameroon; and the films of Isabelle Boni-Claverie from Cote d'Ivoire -- but all of them stand out in their fields for taking on HIV-AIDS as a subject.
As with North America 15 years ago, much of the art is aimed at education. There are years to go before AIDS can be treated as the subtext it has become for many artists here.
ART AND AIDS
Some of the works inspired by the disease: Forsythia, dance duet choreographed by Bill T. Jones in 1988 Angels in America, 1993 play by Tony Kushner Keith Haring's art for the ActUp Campaign Symphony No. 1, Of Rage and Remembrance, by John Corigliano Plague Mass, 1989, by musician Diamanda Galas