Death has, unfortunately, been at the forefront of discussion at Northwestern, following the recent losses of two students. In the inevitably difficult aftermath, the university has felt a wave of communal grief. Keep the Shadow, Ere the Substance Fade: Mourning During the AIDS Crisis, one of The Block Museum’s current exhibitions, is almost eerily fitting in its choice of subject matter.
Curated by 2015-16 Block Museum Graduate Fellow C.C McKee, the exhibition examines public and communal mourning. The exhibit investigates the use of items associated with the materiality of the individual body as relics during both the Victorian Era and the AIDS crisis in 1980s and 90s. Further, it examines the use of art during the AIDS crisis as a means of mourning. The exhibition considers how these cultures of bereavement developed around material objects.
“My inspiration and the thesis of the exhibition emerged from the objects themselves,” said McKee. “Seeing these objects in relation allowed me to think trans-historically about the functions and limitations of these mourning aesthetics and practices.”
The exhibit is held in one of the museum’s smaller rooms, emulating the very sense of shared community on which the exhibition focuses. Relics from the 1850s, when infant mortality rates were high and average life expectancy low, are the first on display. The show maintains a distinct focus on craft-oriented mourning processes–displaying hair wreaths, photographs and jewelry.
Through use of brief written explanations, the exhibition proposed that the mode of mourning used in this time period was analogous to that the AIDS epidemic.
“I am a queer person within the academy. As such, I feel compelled to use the resources around me to preserve and explore not only queer history, but the queerness of history itself,” said McKee, explaining how the unprecedented connection between the two time periods came about. “I am trained as a 19th-century art historian specializing in French and Caribbean art, so it was only natural that I was drawn to the Victorian materials.”
Comics and photographs comparing life before and during the AIDS epidemic for gay men serve as a means of bridging the gap between the two worlds. The connection between the two cultures was perhaps most clear in the correspondence letters sent between HIV positive artist David Grieger and Bob Gentry.
“Screw people who don’t appreciate that art is wonderful in that it is a part of your soul,” wrote Grieger, in an attempt to comfort Gentry. “It is an almost-tangible piece of you, and should be treasured.”
It is this singular line that seems to encapsulate the entire exhibit in a succinct idea: that art is, in essence, the closest a physical item can be to a part of human soul. This idea rings true throughout the exhibit. For if it is the human soul that makes something art, then one could look at the Victorian Era relics as works of art. Likewise, the humanity of the AIDS era pieces create works unlike that of any of its predecessors.
“Rather than over-determining the viewer’s experience, this exhibition seeks to open discussion and allow the audience to continue their own research outside of the gallery and draw their own conclusions,” said McKee of his ultimate goal through the exhibition.
Keep the Shadow, Ere the Substance Fade: Mourning During the AIDS Crisis will be at the Block Museum through December 11, 2016.