Our DNA, the map of our genetic information (our growth, development, functioning, and reproduction), is 99.9% the same for each and every one of the 7+ billion people living on Earth. That said, while we share common genetic bonds, our social, cultural, and emotional experiences are unique. This duality is significantly addressed by two of the foremost figures in developmental psychology: Jean Piaget (1896-1980) and Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934). The research of Piaget and Vygotsky signified that it is a combination of ‘Nature’ and ‘Nurture,’ that accounts for a person’s development. In other words, while we all have the natural ability to learn and develop, how we perceive the world largely depends on our experience and education.
Being that we are so similar in our genetic makeup, yet different due to our cultural uniqueness, the way we address issues that affect health and well – being can be complex and problematic. For example, one of the greatest stigmatized health related issues of the modern era is HIV/AIDS. The fact that HIV is a stigma among civilization is ironic, because a person who is infected can look and feel perfectly fine and may not even know they have the virus for many years. Furthermore, medical breakthroughs have greatly enhanced the prognosis and care for those infected with the virus. With medicine and regimen, an HIV+ person can live a long and healthy life. In spite of all this, cultural perspectives of HIV/AIDS still discriminate against the individuals living with the virus. Judgemental viewpoints and lack of empathy for individuals living with HIV can be far more traumatic and damaging than the actual virus.
If there is one thing that should be made perfectly clear regarding nearly all physiological concerns, it is that viruses like HIV don’t discriminate and human bodies are ample hosts to these viruses despite a person’s gender, sexual identity, race, or economic status. It is this denial, coupled with sexual and racial biases, that contributes to the greater failure of HIV/AIDS awareness. Society’s struggle to come to terms with the social and cultural issues surrounding HIV/AIDS is clear based on the lack of empathy and understanding for those living with HIV.
While the culture at large is lagging to address these issues, the arts community has had a resounding impact in providing awareness and activism around HIV/AIDS. For example, The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (more commonly known as ACT UP) uses visual symbolism and creative expression to stage poignant public protests and interventions (such as ‘die ins’), which call for affordable healthcare and non-discriminatory treatment for people living with HIV/AIDS. Works of visual art by artists such as Hunter Reynolds, David Wojnarowicz (1954-1992), Felix Gonzalez-Torres (1957-1996), Martin Wong (1946-1999), and the artist collective General Idea, symbolize the struggle as well as the resilience of HIV+ individuals and cannot be discussed without mentioning the ongoing pandemic of HIV/AIDS.
Kairon Liu’s Humans as Hosts is a conceptual art series that humanizes a diverse population of HIV+ individuals through portraiture and storytelling. Liu has been communicating and networking with citizens of Taiwan and the United States in order to present their experiences living with HIV and reflect upon how it has affected their social, emotional, and professional lives. The title of the series has both symbolic and literal meaning, which is significant to the thematic perception. To be a host is defined, according to select definitions provided within several dictionaries as:
A. Receiving others as guests. B. A living animal or plant on or in which a parasite, commensal organism, or virus lives.
Furthermore, according to dictionary sources (see: Merriam-Webster), the root of the word host comes from the Latin word, hostia, which refers to an offering, usually of an animal, as a sacrificial victim.
These definitions and the root meaning of host are meaningful in interpreting and discussing Kairon Liu’s Humans as Hosts in both a subjective and literal sense. The subjects of Humans as Hosts assume the role as hosts on a social and emotional level, because by participating in the project, they are inviting the viewer into their personal lives. This hosting process includes their agreement to have their photographs taken, their stories written down, and their intimate items displayed to a public audience (both online and in art galleries). They are all hosts to the virus, although it has affected them in different ways. Their stories, the culmination of interviews conducted by Kairon, are both heartbreaking and inspiring. They remind us that humans have an inclination to survive and persevere even when things around them or inside of them seem bleak. Kairon’s impetus for Humans as Hosts has powerful autobiographical roots, which symbolize the cathartic nature of his artwork. He has expressed this sense of abreaction through the depiction of his alias, a man named “Tree,” who overcomes heartbreak and betrayal to persevere, rebuild his self-esteem, and inspire others to value themselves. This is not just the narrative of survivors, but the story of courageous fighters.
While medical science has made several important advances in HIV/AIDS treatment, individuals who are HIV+ are still victims of ongoing emotional and physical affliction due to the virus. It is because of awareness and activism that the overall condition has improved for those affected by the virus. Both historically and presently, HIV+ survivors have made significant sacrifices to fight for the equal, equitable, and just treatment of individuals throughout the world. As long as the virus continues to live inside of human hosts, these survivors will advocate for humane and holistic treatment. Art is just one of the many ways that activists have presented their condition to the world, however, it may be the most profound medium to inspire social and cultural change in relation to the AIDS pandemic.
Art has stood the test of time. As the earliest recorded form of communication, visual art has endured civilizations and communities across the globe. Because objects of art remain long after the generation that created it, Humans as Hosts will preserve the memory and personal expression of each individual for future generations to observe and reflect upon. However, art’s most powerful function is to serve as an expression and account of the period it is created in, and in that sense, Humans as Hosts serves as a stark and vital reminder of the HIV/AIDS crisis and its effects on generations young and old. Hopefully in the very near future, a cure for the HIV/AIDS pandemic will be realized. When it is, it will be in large part, due to the hard work and personal sacrifice on the part of artists and activists who are humanizing this global condition and raising our awareness, understanding, and empathy for our fellow human beings.
ACT UP and END AIDS!
*** Adam Zucker is an artist, art historian, curator, and arts educator. He lives and works in New York City. Zucker is the founder of Artfully Learning and The Rhino Horn Blog, where he writes about the intersection of art, politics, and education. He has curated museum and gallery shows throughout the United States. For more information on current and past projects visit: https://adamzuckerart.wordpress.com/