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David Wojnarowicz, History Keeps Me Awake at Night (For Rilo Chmielorz), 1986, which gives the exhibition its title.

Activists Protest David Wojnarowicz Retrospective at the Whitney

Members of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) New York staged an action at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York on Friday, July 27, in protest of the institution’s current retrospective of the late artist David Wojnarowicz’s work over its alleged failure to link his legacy to current HIV/AIDS issues.

Titled “History Keeps Me Awake at Night,” the exhibition, which was curated by David Breslin and David Kiehl, opened on July 13. While many critics have praised the show, activists claim that it historicizes the HIV/AIDS crisis and does not address the ongoing battle against the disease. In order to raise awareness about the perceived problems with the exhibition, a group of twelve protesters convened at the museum with signs featuring text from recent news articles covering the HIV/AIDS crisis on Friday evening.

One of the excerpts selected by a member of ACT UP New York was from a New York Times article published earlier this year that reported on the hardships gay and trans migrants face. Another demonstrator held up a flyer that read: “AIDS is not history. The AIDS crisis did not die with David Wojnarowicz. . . . We are here tonight to honor David’s art and activism by explicitly connecting them to the present day. When we talk about HIV/AIDS without acknowledging that there’s still an epidemic including in the United States—the crisis goes quietly on and people continue to die.”

Organized by Ariel Friedlander, a twenty-year-old University of Michigan student, who was both moved after viewing the exhibition and upset by how it contextualizes the HIV/AIDS epidemic, told Maximilíano Durón of Artnews, “Once something is in a museum, it’s immediately memorialized, unless it is explicitly noted that these issues are going on today.”

Commenting on what she wants the demonstration to accomplish, Friedlander said that she hopes it will prompt the Whitney to engage in dialogue with the group, as well as with the LGBTQ community. She added that she is concerned about what the museum plans on doing with the profits it makes from its sales of art and merchandise from the exhibition and believes the Whitney should donate a portion of the amount to AIDS nonprofits.

In response to the action, the Whitney provided Artnews with the following statement:

“We are honored to present the work of David Wojnarowicz in our current retrospective and embrace the opportunity to bring more awareness to the ongoing AIDS pandemic. The more this vital subject can be brought front and center, the better.

“We completely agree that the AIDS crisis is not history. Part of our mission in mounting this exhibition is to make sure the history of the AIDS crisis figures centrally in American (and international) history so that it might inform present and future action. We have made an effort to frame AIDS as a current and ongoing crisis in a number of programs, including the July 13 symposium (the opening day of our exhibition) entitled ‘Visual Arts and the AIDS Epidemic’ and in a September 7 reading that is being co-organized with Visual AIDS. Both include HIV+ artists and activists. Our educators and docents speak about the ongoing AIDS pandemic in tours in the galleries. We have a series of scheduled programs on Saturday afternoons throughout the exhibition that address ‘Queer Art and Activism.’

“Perhaps our position is expressed most clearly in the following wall text that is part of our exhibition ‘An Incomplete History of Protest’ which is now on the sixth floor and has been on view for the past year: ‘As we continue to live with such loss, and AIDS still affects individuals and communities in the United States and globally, the rallying cry of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) resounds today: the AIDS crisis is not over.’”

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