ACCA: Defining Moments Lecture 5: Don’t Leave Me This Way: Art in the Age of AIDS 1994

The ‘Defining Moments: Exhibition Histories 1968-1999’ lecture series is a two-year project developed by the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA) highlighting some of the transformative art exhibitions that helped revolutionise art in Australia during the last three decades of the 20th century via a series of free podcasts and online video presentations. The 2020 Season comes full circle at the end of October.

Dr Ted Gott, Senior Curator of International Art at the National Gallery of Victoria presents the ‘Defining Moments: Lecture 5’ topic Don’t Leave Me this Way: Art in the Age of AIDS 1994, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

In 1994 the exhibition Don’t Leave Me This Way: Art in the Age of AIDS curated by Gott, who was then Curator of European Art at the National Gallery of Australia, drew community focus to the critical issues facing the many thousands of people affected by HIV/AIDS in communities around the world since the early 1980s.

Comments Book 1, Don’t Leave Me This Way: Art in the Age of AIDS exhibition 1994 at the National Gallery of Australia, Australian Capital Territory. Courtesy Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne

The exhibition featured over 200 works by more than 100 Australian and international artists with the aim to evoke a deeper understanding from the public about HIV/AIDS by sharing personal experiences of their own, their friends, lovers and family members, who had died, were living with or were in some way affected by the devastating implications of the virus.

Setting the scene for 1994 Gott begins Lecture 5 with the following words. “In 1994 it was hard to open a newspaper in Australia, listen to a radio broadcast or turn on a television set without encountering some discussion of the ‘new’ disease AIDS and its causative factor, the HIV virus. In the same fashion, HIV/AIDS had come under scrutiny in many forms of cultural response from theatre and dance, to fiction, poetry, music and soap opera; such that the Australian public often then found its ‘entertainment’ engaged in serious debate around issues of illness, prejudice, medical research and death.” Although homosexuality had been decriminalised in Australia, homophobia was still rife.

Noting the devastating statistics of the HIV/AIDS epidemic Gott says, “By 1990 between 8 and 10 million people worldwide were estimated to be living with HIV.”  He later adds, “At 31 December 1993, Australia had recorded more than 17,000 cases of HIV infection, and more than 3,000 deaths from AIDS-related complications.”

Throughout the lecture Gott shares insight about the people who inspired and encouraged him to approach Betty Churcher, Director of the National Gallery of Australia, with his curatorial ideas for Don’t Leave Me This Way: Art in the Age of AIDS. With a slideshow of imagery (in the video) the curator unpacks some of the stories and the meaning behind many of the works. He also reflects on the public’s “overwhelmingly positive” reaction to the exhibition and its content, which was at times explicit.

Book cover, Don’t Leave Me This Way: Art in the Age of AIDS. Courtesy Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne

Heartfelt compassion and moments of clarity and understanding from audiences were written into what became a moving two-volume comments book, with only a small number of negative notations. Over the exhibition’s four-month duration approximately 8,000 visitors saw the show every week. Bringing the lecture to a close Gott notes the additional projects that were developed alongside the exhibition, which included a book of critical essays discussing a range of artistic, social and political responses to HIV/AIDS, a conference, and a collation of film and video presentations from around the world, which were screened in the gallery’s public theatre.

Click here to listen to the full transcript via podcast or watch via video where you will also find previously released 2020 lectures, as well as the 2019 lectures. A range of other ACCA podcasts can also be explored on ACCA’s Podcast channel.

There are two remaining ‘Defining Moments’ lectures in the 2020 series: Lecture 6: Monday 12 October: Aratjara: Art of the First Australians 1993, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Dusseldorf and fluent: Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Yvonne Koolmatrie, Judy Watson 1997, Australian Pavilion, Venice Biennale. Speaker: Dr Stephen Gilchrist, writer, curator and Lecturer of Indigenous Art at the University of Sydney

Lecture 7: Monday 26 October: Founding of Gallery 4A and the inaugural exhibition in 1997. Speaker: Mikala Tai, Director 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art