Art is often a rallying cry, an effective tool for pointing out social absurdities and spurring action on important national issues. Two current exhibitions in Miami embrace the art of activism, addressing both the AIDS crisis and globalization.
• The Wolfsonian-FIU is known for the breadth of its propaganda collection, which includes a 1944 Ben Shahn poster celebrating the glories of America and circular 1933 Renato Bertelli bust of Benito Mussolini. The museum is adept at examining the art of activism, of all kinds, and makes a fitting site for Graphic Intervention: 25 Years of International AIDS Awareness Posters 1985-2010.
The show, which originated at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, features work from Bostons International Poster Gallery, run by highly regarded poster collector and dealer James Lapides. It includes 153 AIDS awareness posters from 44 countries. The Wolfsonian is also celebrating collector Henry S. Hackers gift of more than 3,600 AIDS awareness posters; Hacker, a new Wolfsonian Advisory Board member, is a Boston-based collector and AIDS activist.
Graphic Intervention opens on a note of elegance from Hackers donation with a poster from 1995 created by the Austrian advertising firm Palla Koblinger & Partner. Two hands with fingers cupped together form a ribbon shape, the accompanying text on the poster laying the dilemma of AIDS out, Mankind is kind. Humanity is infectious
Posters have been instrumental in the fight against AIDS since the disease first emerged. In the late 1980s, Gran Fury, an artist collective that created graphic designs for ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), produced revolutionary images of couples of different races and sexual orientation, paired with the message, Kissing Doesnt Kill, Greed and Indifference Do.
Those posters still pack a lot of graphic firepower, as does much of Graphic Intervention. The work varies widely in style, from Condoman a 1994 poster by the firm Australian Redback Graphix featuring a superhero character encouraging condom use with the slogan Dont be shame be game. Protect Yourself! to a forever unsettling United Colors of Benetton ad from 1992 depicting a person with AIDS surrounded by his family. (That poster, created by the late graphic designer Tibor Kalman and Italian photographer Oliviero Toscani, features a photo called The death of David Kirby showing Kirby as he died of AIDS at the Ohio State University Hospital in 1990; the image originally ran in Life Magazine as part of a photographic essay.)
The Wolfsonian has augmented Graphic Intervention with pieces from its own collection, using work from public health campaigns fighting the spread of sexually transmitted diseases such as gonorrhea. In one small exhibition rom are posters, such as the 1942 Arthur Szyk placard with stymied cartoonish Nazis and the slogan Fool the Axis Use Prophylaxis. A display of 1930s condoms includes a gentle rendering of a bare-chested mermaid laying on rocks a fitting logo for the Mermaid brand at a time when condoms were marketed with discreet references to pleasure.
Another small installation room is devoted to the horrors of the modern era. The room is lined with neat rows of red ribbons, symbolizing the 597,000 U.S. deaths of AIDS; visitors are encouraged to write the names of departed loved ones on the ribbons.
The final room of the exhibition features a jokey but sharp 1993 piece by Art Chantry, known album covers for such bands as Nirvana and Hole. In the poster, a policeman holds up a condom and advises, I take one everywhere I take my penis!!) to ACT UPs classic 1986 poster.
The most power work in the show is a classic Act Up poster from 1986. A pink triangle, a reference to Nazi branding of homosexuals, is set against a black background with the slogan Silence=Death and equally powerful text, Why is Reagan silent about AIDS?...Turn anger, fear, grief into action. That kind of simple toughness is in short supply in the contemporary art world, and its wonderful to see anger part of all the posters in Graphic Intervention turned into art, rather than the cheaper strains of irony. Needle woman
• At Miami Art Museum, the video installation Kimsooja: A Needle Woman, examines the current era of rampant globalization and urbanization. Born in Taegu, South Korea, Kimsooja has exhibited at P.S. 1/MOMA in New York and Madrids Crystal Palace of Reina Sophia. A Needle Woman began in the years between 1999 and 2001, when Kimsooja traveled to different cities New York, London, Tokyo, Lagos, Shanghai, Mexico City, Cairo and stood on busy city streets and sidewalks, totally motionless as the everyday swarm of humanity flowed around her. She was, in effect, a needle subtly penetrating the morass of pedestrians, asserting her role as an individual and yet blurring into the global city that is the world now.
A Needle Woman occupies the downstairs galleries of MAM. Each city in the piece is given its own video screen. In each video, the camera films Kimsooja from behind: its interesting to see the reactions of people in different cities to Kimsooja and her cameraman. Pedestrians in New York and London are profoundly indifferent; in Lagos, the citizens radiate pure delight, as if the circus had come to town. Thankfully, the world still has cultural differences.
A thoughtful essay by Rene Morales, MAM Associate Curator, accompanies the show. In 2007, the urban population of the world exceeded the rural population for the first time, he points out. By 2030, four out of five city residents will live in the developing world. Currently, 80 percent of the population of cities in the developing world often live in slums.
To Morales, globalization is synonymous with mass urbanization: By 2015, Lagos will have more than 23 million people and will be the third largest city in the world, right behind Tokyo and Mumbai, Morales notes. Lagos doesnt have the infrastructure for such a massive increase in population. In her piece, Kimsooja deals with the effects of mass urbanization on the street level, addressing specific places and specific issues.
That wasnt her initial intent, the artist said during a recent Miami visit. When I started this piece, I wasnt really thinking about globalization: it was more about connecting with every person in the world in some way, embracing humanity, she said. A needle has a certain duality: it pierces the surface, and also joins things together, which is what I want to do with A Needle Woman.