Michelle and I went to see the Hide/Seek exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery today. One piece in particular, AA Bronson's "Felix, June 5, 1994", really hit me hard. I stood there for a long time, looking at the face of a man who died of an AIDS-related illness 17 years ago, who was so wasted away when it happened that he was no longer able to even close his eyes.
The description from the artist, paraphrased, was that he was surrounded by all his favourite things: his tape recorder, his cigarettes, his television remote. Such little things, so much life broken down into things he could have next to him on his bed while his body ate itself alive. Did he smoke out of habit, did he need to to get by, or was it more of a "screw you", something he did because it was never going to have the chance to kill him slowly? Was the tape recorder for taping himself? His friends? Did he listen to music, or was he trying to leave messages for the people he loved? Did it mean anything at all to him as a tape recorder, or was it just something he recognized, something that was his, that he could have near? Was the tv remote some last vestige of control over his life, a connection to the world that was leaving him behind, that HE was leaving, that still didn't really care why he was dying at all? Or did he just like reruns?
I don't know any of that. I know that his picture looked like Jim, the man my Mom used to clean for in Hilo, who died of AIDS-related pneumonia and a wasting disease I never knew the name of in 1993. I know he made me think of Marc, who taught me how to use a potter's wheel, who turned to say something to his husband Glenn in 1994, and dropped dead of an aneurysm. The shirt he was wearing reminded me of one that my neighbour down the street would have worn, vibrant and full of motion. Paul was a dancer on Broadway, and he moved to Hawaii with his boyfriend, Lonnie, in 1994. He died of AIDS-related lymphoma three months after they moved in. I could never understand how the man who couldn't remember where he was, who could barely move from the couch to the dining room chair, could possible be the man in the pictures on the wall, caught in mid-flight on stage.
I looked at the piece for a long time. I know that the impact of it, of seeing someone stripped down to the bone by illness and death, felt like someone was hitting me in the chest because I was thinking about my Gram, and my Dad, and my friend Deniz. I know that a large part of my reaction was me co-opting the portrait and warping it through the lens of my own current and past experiences, but I also know that his eyes were open, and he was surrounded by his favourite things, and someone cared enough about him to make other people stop, and look at him.
So I stopped, and I looked him in the face. I felt like he deserved that much. You can see the portrait here.
(Warning, you may find the image disturbing)