At the end of September in 1992, the performance artist Karen Finley arrived in Buffalo in a state of grief and anger.
It was a decade into the HIV/AIDS crisis, which had claimed nearly 200,000 American lives including many of Finley’s friends, and two years after her involvement in a painful national controversy over government censorship.
For an installation in Hallwalls, then at 700 Main St., Finley painted an entire room gold and filled it with several tons of sand and dozens of candles. Visitors were invited to wade into the room’s artificial dunes and write the names of friends and family members they had lost to AIDS into the soft sand.
It was a graceful way to acknowledge both the importance and impermanence of those lives and a quiet counterpoint to her much more provocative performance piece, “A Certain Level of Denial,” which picked apart the government’s frustratingly slow response to AIDS and its most recent censorship crusade.
Tonight, Finley will premiere a new performance titled after that Hallwalls exhibition, “Written in Sand: Collected AIDS Writing,” in the University at Buffalo’s Baird Recital Hall in Amherst. Finley’s visit, the latest of more than a dozen trips to Buffalo since the early 1980s, is part of a two-day residency sponsored by UB’s visual studies department and a highlight of its popular Queer Art Lecture Series.
Finley, who gave a lecture on trauma and creativity on Monday in the UB Center for the Arts, will lead a discussion on censorship in the arts at 11:30 a.m. today in the UB Student Union. All events are free and open to the public.
In the space of 21 years, Finley’s grief for her lost friends and her anger at the indifference or outright cruelty of the official response to the AIDS crisis have not abated. But they have taken on new and sometimes quieter forms.
“I just felt so sorrowful and pained that so many close friends that I loved were dying around me, and I saw the way they were treated and ignored by their family and society,” she said in a phone interview from New York City. That personal sorrow and anger flowed into her 1992 piece and came out on the other end as broad social commentary.
Her new performance, more specific to AIDS, is made up of her writings about the disease from the ’80s interspersed with compositions by victims of AIDS and other music from the period performed by jazz musician Paul Nebenzahl.
Like other performances in which Finley has marked important anniversaries – John F. Kennedy’s assassination and 9/11, for instance – she said her new piece is meant both to honor a “collective trauma” and to encourage people to confront serious issues head on. It is timed to mark the 25th anniversary of Visual AIDS, a New York City-based organization founded to honor the lives and work of artists with the disease.
“I also would like for the next generation to realize that speaking out is important to do,” Finley said.
For Jonathan Katz, a UB professor and curator who launched the lecture series, the relatively safe distance of a quarter century since the height of the crisis is finally enabling many to reconsider the period. Finley was invited for this residency by UB graduate student Anne Marie Butler.
“We’ve developed a kind of cultural amnesia over what AIDS once meant,” said Katz, whose exhibition “Art, AIDS, America” opens in Los Angeles in 2015. “What is lost is the sense of siege, the sense of plague and urgency and the pain that so many us came to accept as part of daily life. It didn’t take much to want to put that in a shoe box in the back of the closet.”
Finley’s performance, Katz said, is part of a renewed attempt to understand what happened during those dark days in the ’80s and early ’90s and extract some kind of meaning from it.
“What this is part of is an attempt to recover a lost moment, to think it through, to chew it over,” he said. “And I think it took this long to get here.”
Art that emerged from the AIDS crisis, Katz said, took two very different directions. There were unapologetically political rabble-rousers like Finley and David Wojnarowicz, who wore their social missions on their sleeves and caused breathless denunciations from Sen. Jesse Helms and other conservative politicians. And then there were more subtly subversive artists like Felix Gonzalez Torres, who was much more sly about the political nature of his work and thus more widely accepted by an art world suspicious of consciously political artwork.
“We’re more than happy to celebrate, and for good reason, the Felix Gonzalez Torreses, but we’ve tended to see other artists … as artifacts of a past, an historical moment,” Katz said. “Part of what I want to do is explore their relevance today and to point out that it’s too easy and predictable to make our most powerful voices of that moment those who chose to seed discontent rather than express it.”
Finley doesn’t mess around with seeds. She prefers to get right to expression.
Her Monday lecture on creativity and trauma, for instance, grew out of her work as part of a residency in Graz, Austria, where she constructed a memorial to children who were killed during the Holocaust. The piece, a simple ceramic tribute in the shape of a heart to the previously forgotten lives of those children, is now a part of Holocaust education in Austria.
The lecture, she said, deals with her journey as an artist: “How do you do research on creating creative response to trauma? How do we consider that? Are we able to consider that? Who can speak for whom?”
Since her 1992 performance in Buffalo and her many subsequent pieces – often including nudity, smearing her body with viscous substances and other unprintable provocative elements – Finley has explored all those questions and more. And her message, though it may be wrapped in a slightly more demure package, is no less urgent or subversive than it has ever been.
“What’s changed of course is the vehicle and the tone, which is more elegiac and poetic than confrontational,” Katz said of Finley’s newer work. “I have no doubt that if Jesse Helms were magically resuscitated in all his hideousness, we’d go back to it. But it’s a different political moment.”