PRINT December 1987


the Names Project.

THE SIGHT OF IT let loose a motley of mental pictures, images sacred, profane, solemn, bucolic, sometimes hilarious: a comforter; a graveyard; a picnic cloth; Betsy Ross; the pavement of the stars at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. In the capital, on the Washington Mall, a huge quilt rolled out to a length of over four city blocks. By now, December, it’s longer. The image that the huge quilt forms in the memory is that of a maze, an architecture whose shape intertwines the terror of confinement with the hope of release.

Legend has it that the form of the maze long preceded its embodiment in stone and topiary, originating in the patterns in the entrails of sacrificed animals, spilled out on the ground to be consulted as an oracle. Many of us who came to view the Names Project were also looking for oracles, and maybe miracles, as we slowly got lost looking, alone or in small groups, along the canvas walkways that divided the quilt’s panels, each one custom made, each one made because someone has died of AIDS. Some of us were looking for the names of friends, lovers, and family members, pausing here and there to decipher insignia or dates sewn or painted in, clues to the identities of strangers brought closer by the stories of their deaths. Among these clues you could feel people hunting for other, less corporeal signs, clues to the escape from the cruelty that AIDS has dealt out to so many lives, each death propelling the collective of close survivors deeper into a maze, deeper into the mourning for which no medical prescription is likely to be found. You could see people’s eyes beaming onto a panel as though it could just be the one that might conceal the exit, the escape not only from the sorrow but from a devastating struggle to retrieve meaning after the loss.

At the western end of the quilt, not far from the monolithic spire of the Washington Monument, a cherry picker lifted some other people up for an overview of the maze, as though the way out might be disclosed somehow in the floor plan of the whole. Straight ahead loomed the Capitol, the focus of the March on Washington, and of the marchers’ cry that the government join us in the maze, help us trace a way through it, as Ariadne helped Theseus, instead of sitting outside it like Minos. But this brings up yet another architecture, the architecture of the failure of politics to serve these names because of the other names applied to them, disclosing yet another labyrinth, the network of corridors, the maze of government bureaucracy.

The Names Project was brought to Washington as part of a protest against this terminal bureaucratic maze, but its thousands of threads didn’t stop there. We must also be our own Ariadnes, the makers of the panels announced; we will furnish our own balls of thread, will find our own way to bring light back into the worlds darkened by the loss of these brave bright lives

Hebert Muschamp directs the Graduate Program in Criticism at the Parsons School of Design, New York. His column appears regularly in Artforum.