In 1981, a particular type of pneumonia was diagnosed in the US, usually among homosexual men with changing sexual partners. Soon, it was denoted GRID (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency). Although the clinical diagnosis was soon renamed AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) in 1982 after the incidence of similar symptoms among women and drug addicts, the illness did not shake off its “image” as a “gay plague”. Those who contracted AIDS led decadent lives and consorted with “outsiders” – that was the public stigma. Hospitals refused to admit sufferers, pharmaceutical companies in America prevented the release of effective medication to protect their profits. At the same time, resistance to this practice of demonising sexuality and abandoning victims to their fate became the topic of art and political activism, whose paths frequently crossed.

Within the nGbK, the working group RealismusStudio largely assumed responsibility for addressing AIDS. It began in 1988 with the exhibition Vollbild AIDS, which was the first artistic show on the topic in Germany. 1 Public visibility played a major role here, but was given more concrete attention by the exhibition AIDS PROJEKTE (1993). Some of the exhibits of the second show were displayed in pubs, bars and cafés around Nollendorfplatz, the main meeting place of the gay scene. Also in 1988, there was a poster campaign in the city’s U-Bahn stations by the artists’ group GENERAL IDEA. 2 This came from the urge to raise public awareness of the subject. “Silence=Death”, announced a shop window installation by the group of artists and activists Gran Fury – the goal was to break this silence. Yet the illness itself was not the only topic addressed: “AIDS also became an occasion to reflect on questions of social ostracism, as well as beauty, transience, pain and psychological repression.” 3 Furthermore, the artistic approach aimed to counter the spread of the disease through education. Hence, the two exhibitions were realised in collaboration with Deutsche AIDS-Hilfe and the initiatives and self-help groups active in Berlin were given a space in which to demonstrate their work. 4

While the illness is of major significance for society as a whole, the personal fates of those suffering from it were highly individual. In 1997, the first exhibition by the working group Unterbrochene Karrieren opened, which was explicitly devoted to those artists who had died of AIDS, or, as in the case of Hannah Wilke, who had died of cancer and addressed their own illness in their work. From 2001, the same framework provided the space for the series Partnerschaften, three exhibitions which each displayed the works of artist couples whose relationship was overshadowed by the contraction of AIDS by one of the two partners. How does one approach the work of a late partner? To what extent does the intimate relationship between the two affect their work and to what extent does AIDS affect this exchange? These questions were of central importance to the working group. 5

In 2002, the exhibition africa apart focussed on the AIDS crisis in Africa. Artists from Africa were shown, whereby the exhibition was also about making a topic of the taboo surrounding HIV/AIDS as well as the disease’s social effects. The last project on the topic was called LOVE AIDS RIOT SEX and took place in 2013/2014 in two parts. The first exhibition looked at the “historical” view of HIV/AIDS (this case involved several artists and works from Vollbild AIDS and AIDS PROJEKTE), while the second exhibition presented contemporary reflections. One year after the death of Frank Wagner, who, in his capacity as a curator, had introduced the issue to the nGbK, a memorial exhibition was held in 2019 from RealismusStudio at KW Institute for Contemporary Art, entitled TIES; TALES AND TRACES – parallel to the exhibition on David Wojnarowicz, who had died of AIDS-related complications in 1992, and whose work was exhibited several times by Wagner.

Dierk Saathoff and Anna-Lena Wenzel, 2015, revised 2019

  1. Vgl. Frank Wagner: LOVE AIDS RIOT SEX – eine Fährte im RealismusStudio seit 1988, in: 40 Jahre NGBK, Berlin 2009, S. 205. 

  2. Vgl. ebd., S. 215. 

  3. Frank Wagner,: o.T., in: Vollbild Aids, Berlin 1988, S. 41 

  4. Vgl. Wagner (2009), S. 210. 

  5. Vgl. Kassandra Nakas: Vorwort Partnerschaften, in: Partnerschaften. Unterbrochene Karrieren, Berlin 2002, S. 7.