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Especially in New York City, the AIDS epidemic is a natural comparison to draw to COVID—the last time people were going to their friends’ funerals every week, complete with an acronym to which there will be memorials & uncaring politicians & scars & memories to last a lifetime. Last fall, I read a story about the magnificent artist David Wojnarowicz from during the crisis, & wrote about it:

When a fellow artist expressed her anxiety that her photographs were not contributing to the AIDS resistance, Wojnarowicz told her: “These are so beautiful, and that’s what we’re fighting for. We’re being angry and complaining because we have to, but where we want to go is back to beauty. If you let go of that, we don’t have anywhere to go.”

“One Day This Kid Will Talk”

It can feel overwhelming & paralyzing that there’s so little we can do to actually help people heal. It’s easy to wonder why we continue to make art during a time of crisis, to feel hopeless & dejected about it. Aren’t there more important things to be doing?

But if we let go of beauty, we don’t have anywhere to go back to. We can’t let go of beauty. We can’t slip, lose control of our grasp, our attention to our consciousness & our reality. We must keep producing, creating, recording, synthesizing, sharing. Because…

If we solved the pandemic but came back to a wasteland, would we be better off?

“Initially set to the same time, these identical battery-powered clocks will eventually fall out of sync, or may stop entirely. Conceived shortly after Gonzalez-Torres’s partner was diagnosed with AIDS, this work uses everyday objects to track and measure the inevitable flow of time…In 1991, Gonzalez-Torres reflected, “Time is something that scares me… or used to. This piece I made with the two clocks was the scariest thing I have ever done. I wanted to face it. I wanted those two clocks right in front of me, ticking.”
“Untitled” (Perfect Lovers), MoMA

Clocks by Felix Gonzalez-Torres

Felix Gonzalez-Torres, another artist from the AIDS epidemic, made this piece. Though created for a very different era, it resonates deeply right now. One of the most profound aspects of this piece is the uncertainty: when will they stop? When will they fall out of sync? And now, here we are again wondering: when will it stop? How long does each one have?

At the beginning, when the world seemed to be crashing downhill so fast, I was wondering if we’d run out of food, and that’s clearly not the situation anymore. But the uncertainty has shifted: what’s safe? What’s safe enough? When will our clocks run out?