Although outside the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA), the atmosphere is imperceptibly somber, nothing screams out to the students ebbing and flowing from their dorms that there are 21.8 million people dead from HIV and AIDS as of last December. In fact, it is not readily obvious that inside this building lies the exhibition which marks the 12th observance of the Day With(out) Art/World AIDS Day.
Yet once inside, visitors to the exhibit are moved to quiet reflection about the permeating effects of such a devastating illness. The Day With(out) Art was originally invoked in 1989 as an occasion to mourn and remember the innumerable artists who were lost to the disease before they could leave their mark on the world. WCMA has been an annual supporter of and vehicle for the memorial.
“Museums and galleries have made an effort to remember, mourn, educate and activate,” said Linda Shearer, director of WCMA.
Abigail Guay, a graduate student in the art history department, undertook this year’s commemoration as a part of her work-study job. Her interpretation is marked by a call for individual education about the disease, along with an attempt to portray the solitude that a fatal illness injects into its victims’ lives. The title of the event is perhaps misleading ? Guay’s adaptation expresses alternative viewings of exhibits, explaining how each painting or sculpture could relate to the AIDS pandemic.
Guay designed HIV/AIDS-pertinent labels to complement particular works on display in the museum. She researched the information on infection statistics and comparisons between international responses to the pandemic. Of the experience of educating herself on the effects of AIDS, she said,”[It] was one of the most terrifying things I have ever done. Some nights I sat at my computer and cried.”
Each label is placed to the left of the work it interprets, denoted by professor of theatre Ed Epping’s red-ribbon design featured on the Day With(out) Art posters. The labels address issues of disparity in infection rates between groups in the same population or between continents.
Guay chose pieces from every gallery in the museum, selecting work from medieval icons up to modern work, such as Phillip Pearlstein’s Two Female Nudes with Red Drape, which Guay used to symbolize Haitian prostitutes. In the label, she notes that “countries with the highest rate of infection are those in which a large segment of the population lives below the poverty line and where women have a markedly inferior social status.”
The exhibit emphasizes AIDS awareness inside the Williams community by using comprehensible and relevant statistics. For example, it compares the size of the student body to the number in the millions of those infected in India and sub-Saharan Africa. However, its primary focus is on the worldwide implications of the disease.
“I decided to emphasize the international aspects of the pandemic because I feel pretty strongly that, because Williams students do not consider themselves a high-risk group, we can at least involve ourselves in global advocacy and awareness,” Guay said.
The Day With(out) Art draws on both peripheral, abstract statistics and personal stories, including one describing how some incarcerated Floridians place personal ads in spite of being both imprisoned and HIV-positive. The overall effect is one of hope ? if not for a cure, then at least for an end of ignorance.
In years past at Williams, organizers have taken a more direct approach to rousing awareness by placing the events centrally. In 1997, for example, students created an expanse of graveyard out of Baxter Lawn, constructing rows of waist-high cardboard ribbons, each bearing a personal inscription handwritten by a Williams student.
This year’s remembrance, though perhaps regrettably relatively hidden in a corner of campus, is compellingly sober. “The combination of remembering and spurring to action should hopefully be inspiring, especially for students,” said Shearer. “It is your future.”