Viral Images: Art and Contagion

Sophie Xiaofei Guo, The Courtauld Institute of Art, 

Andrew Cummings, The Courtauld Institute of Art,

The COVID-19 pandemic has witnessed a violent resurfacing of enduring associations between infectious disease, race, sex, and place. Most prominently, statements from public figures across the globe have fuelled Sinophobia and everyday violence against people of Asian descent, reinforcing the idea of a ‘China virus’ trafficked through particular bodies and locales. As Jih-Fei Cheng (2015) writes, the pathologisation of racialised and queer bodies, together with the scientific construction of viruses as ‘unassimilable, strange, and threatening’, is tethered to colonial regimes of race and sex. From the colonial period to the present, moreover, images have been key vectors in what Cheng calls ‘perceiving viral existence’, producing and proliferating the normative knowledge that underwrites viral logics and anxieties about contagion.

This session probes the connections between visual culture and contagion. It explores the role that images played in histories of contagion as they relate to conceptualisations of race, gender, and sex and the alternative orientations to contagion and the body that art and visual culture bring into view.

Speakers & Abstracts

Playing Aids/AIDS: Sexuality, Child’s Play, and Delusion in Jimmy DeSana’s “Suburban Series” (1979-1984)

Gregory Tiani
(University of York)

Between 1979 and 1984 New York gay photographer Jimmy DeSana produced a technicolour series of Suburban photographs which depicted friends, models, and himself in domestic settings posing with and being bodily transformed by an array of ordinary objects. Produced at the beginning of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, DeSana’s anxious and ironic images have no interest in witnessing the tragic reality of a health crisis. Rather, they are exercises in childishness: playfully and erotically manipulated both before, with their ridiculous posing and object-hybridised bodies, and after exposure. These images’ refusal to partake in activist-driven and documentary photographic representation of illness, contagion, and loss has resulted in their being left out of HIV/AIDS visual histories.

This paper seeks to reinscribe DeSana’s works in the photographic narratives of the HIV/AIDS crisis by demonstrating how they radically upend the totalising narrative that AIDS demands a moral maturity and adulthood, which often implied sexual monogamy or even abstinence, of gay men to preserve their bodily integrity. Recently returned to the foreground of curation, DeSana’s images provide us with a visual language of childishness, child’s play, and semi-human surrogacy — a language that we might now read not only as a lampoon of the dehumanising and homophobic rewriting of queer bodies effected by neoconservative political forces at the height of the AIDS crisis, but also as a fantastic, delusional escape from them to revel instead in the thrill and expansiveness of queer sexual pleasure.

Vanilla Sex and Viral Loads: Sweet Hauntings of HIV/AIDS on the Digital Afterlives of Gay Semiotics (1977)

Jo Michael Rezes (Tufts University)

Brendan Maclean’s House of Air (2017) music video is a campy enfleshment of the structuralist aesthetics of Gay Semiotics (1977), Hal Fischer’s photography series of sex codes of gay men in San Francisco. Fischer says, of the decade in between Stonewall and the discovery of HIV/AIDS within the United States, “[i]t was like a restaurant with an all-you-can-eat buffet.” I revisit Gay Semiotics as a photographic time capsule haunted by the presence of HIV/AIDS. The viral uptake (and subsequent takedown) of House of Air’s political and sexual content on YouTube reveals a threat of contagion on the public: catching queerness and contracting HIV/AIDS have become inextricably linked within phobic discourses of popular internet culture. If we think transnationally with virality as theorized by Jih-Fei Cheng, House of Air is forcibly removed by YouTube not only for its failure to meet community guidelines, but also due to alt-right rhetoric of online commenters voicing repulsion for gay intimacy and the ease with which House of Air’s “queer gestures function as viruses” on the internet. Sweet aesthetics and objects figure an uncanny vision of homosexuality in the world of the music video: simultaneously alluring and revolting for queer and straight audiences alike. Internet virality and sweetness open new modes of globalizing a history of HIV/AIDS through the queer bodies, aesthetics, and gestures of performers found in viral content.

‘A contagion more formidable than the plague’: Morphine Addiction in French Visual Culture (1871-1914)

Dr Hannah Halliwell (University of Edinburgh)

Morphine addictions increased dramatically in France at the end of the nineteenth century. The morphine addict was visualised in illustrations, caricatures, Salon paintings and avant-garde prints. No cultural sector feminised the morphine addict more than artists, yet in reality men made up the highest proportion of users.

Journalists and artists alike used visual and textual references associated with contagions to portray addiction, thus aligning the dangers of morphine use with pathophysiological diseases. Artists represented the (female) morphine addict as a vector of their habit, not a victim; as a result of feminine weakness, ‘spreading’ addiction through female sociability, and thus posing the same threat to public health as other feminised contagions and neuroses, such as syphilis and kleptomania.

Morphine addiction required defining both medically and pictorially: it was categorised as a contagion and artists used repeated tropes to characterise the addict’s appearance. In fact, French visual culture of the morphine addict set a historical precedent for the visualisation of addiction. The concurrent feminisation of diseases and neuroses posited addiction as a feminine illness, thus initiating a paradigm for the gendering of addiction, which has continued to impact the perception of addiction as a (feminine) weakness and/or disease. By employing the nineteenth-century understanding of addiction as a contagion, the paper argues that artists not only indicate that female addicts are a threat to society, but also that the traits associated with these constructed female figures (sexual desires, independence, rejection of motherhood) could also have disastrous consequences for France’s future generations.

Cubism Contagions: Syphilophobia, Abject Bodies and Avant-guerre Biopolitics

Fae Brauer (University of East London Centre for Cultural Studies Research)

A danger permanently menaces French public health”, warned Edmond Fournier. “This danger resides in the disease that one could call the modern plague and which is none other than syphilis.” Seminal to illuminating this “modern plague” was Fournier’s syphilography, particularly vivid lifelike wax moulages of the heredo-syphilitic commissioned for the Musée de Saint-Louis to instill syphilophobia. So effective was this syphilography that, Alain Corbin concludes, “excessive fear of ‘the venereal peril’ ultimately took up where sin left off.” Caught in the avant-guerre biopolitics of France’s degeneration and depopulation through “the venereal peril”, amidst mounting paranoia of German espionage and invasion, Cubism became the locus of syphilophobic psychopathologies of the decomposing, syphilitic body.

Following the Maison Cubiste and Cubist Salle XI exhibition at the 1912 Salon d’Automne, the Cubists were continually lambasted as “impotent barbarians”, “uncivilized savages”, “dangerous invaders”, “criminals”, “terrorists”, “lunatics” and “degenerates” obsessed with “grotesque”, “sick lifeless bodies”, bearing “repugnant deformations like syphilitics”. The target of the most violent hatred ever mounted in French art, according to Roger Allard, Cubism entered the Chambre des Députés twice as an “anti-French invasion” endangering French health. By no means did this polemic abate. At the 1913 Salon d’Automne, the Cubists were accused of “gangrenous art” featuring syphilitic bodies with “flesh decaying, eyes falling onto the nose, the nose slipping into the mouth and hair everywhere”. By the eve of the First World War, Cubism was the subject of controversy in the Senate. By contextualizing Cubist Salon art within Fournier’s syphilography, syphilophobic discourses and Avant-guerre biopolitics, this paper shall explore how Cubism became conflated with abject bodies and syphilitic contagions.

Enacting Livelier Biosecurity in Human-Yeast Engagements

Olga Timurgalieva (City University of Hong Kong)

Biosecurity typically functions in line with the principle of distinguishing 'valuable' life forms from 'less worthy' and protecting the former by isolating or eradicating the latter. More recent immunological studies, however, regard such an approach as insufficient. For, infections are induced not merely by pathogens rather by specific configurations of microbes, people, politics, economics, interspecies relations, and technologies. Hence, experts in epidemiology have begun to propose alternative practices of what they refer to as livelier biosecurity or more flexible measures that account for more nuanced interrelations between humans, various organisms, habitats, and contexts.

In connection with biosecurity issues, this paper discusses artworks of Australian artist Tarsh Bates, mainly her solo show, 'The Unsettling Eros of Contact Zones and Other Stories,' held in October 2015 at the Gallery Central in Perth (Australia). At this exhibition, the artist presented five projects, all of which featured Candida albicans, a potentially pathogenic microorganism that belongs to the yeast family. Since this microbe can cause infections, Bates was compelled to introduce a set of biosecurity measures in compliance with the national biosafety requirements. However, although conforming to the regulations, the exhibition functioned as a space that did not completely exclude pathogens but rather ensured their flourishing. Focusing on the oscillation between the proliferation of microbes in the gallery and the strict biosecurity measures, in this paper, I demonstrate how Bates' exhibition, among other interpretive possibilities, comes to function as a proposition towards a more-than-human life politics and a livelier system of biosecurity.

Poison to You, Purpose to Me: Candice Lin’s Reclamation of Colonial Toxicity

Tyler M Kuykendall (Louisiana State University)

In her multidisciplinary practice, California-based artist Candice Lin often works with living material such as plants, fungi, and bodily substances to explore themes surrounding colonization, gender, anthropology, and civic science. Her current solo exhibition at the Louisiana State University Museum of Art, entitled The Agnotology of Tiger, sprawls across two adjacent galleries: In one, a complex installation comprising oil barrels, barbed wiring, and swamp animals formed of brilliant white porcelain is slowly eroded by a brown liquid that drips above, from a sprinkler-like rig installed at ceiling height. Exposed tubing runs from the ceiling to the wall and around a corner in the next room, where a simple distillation system rests on a low table. The viewer slowly realizes that this liquid, in fact, is a tincture derived from tobacco, sugar, tea, poppy, and indigo—ingredients central to both local and global histories of trade, labour, and colonisation. 

Lin’s exhibition at LSUMOA is the culmination of research on the history of Chinese indentured servants in South Louisiana as well as an extension of the artist’s previous work with porcelain as a medium.  Examining Lin’s, The Agnotology of Tiger, this paper explores the tensions between toxic, yet medicinal, substances that feature in Lin's practice, their associations with colonialism, and their ability to enact change on the perception of white purity represented by the unfinished porcelain. Lin uses the notion of contagion to highlight how every interaction with colonialization results in permanent transformation, porcelain and tincture mix irreversibly to force new interpretation.



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