Autumn 1996

Graphic Responses to AIDS

Graphic Responses to AIDS

Curated by Sean Cole
Victoria & Albert Museum
London, Autumn 1996

If talking about sex and AIDS was not so difficult for so many people, then the graphics around HIV and AIDS probably would not be so good. But as the exhibition “Graphic Responses to AIDS”, at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London until 13 October 1996, demonstrates there is nothing like a taboo or touchy subject to get designers thinking creatively. To convey one of the predominant messages – to use a condom – liberal amounts of flair and humour are employed. The condom becomes a set of Olympic rings, a rocket in the illustrational style of Saint-Exupery’s Petit Prince, and a life belt; it is given a face, a personality, a speech bubble – anything to make it a more familiar product. Other campaigns take recourse to iconic images to get attention, from glossy-advertising- and fashion-style photography, to muscular, tumescent drawings in the style of Tom of Finland. A Thai poster has the nation’s hot young film stars acting out Western teen magazines photo-love stories for adolescent appeal, another borrows a travel poster aesthetic. The slogan says “If you love one person truly like this, there is no AIDS”. A series created in Queensland in 1987 has a local superhero. Condoman, dressed in the colours of the Aboriginal flag, on the beach.

The show, curated by Sean Cole of the V&A’s Prints department, is impressive for its global reach and therefore its message: that AIDS does not discriminate by nation or gender. Indeed, much of the work deals with issues of prejudice and denial. David Wojnarowicz’s 1990 screenprint for Act Up talks grimly about homophobia; the Hong Kong poster uses a simple graphic device to show how we bury our heads in the sand. If proof is needed that graphics like this can do its job, the comments book makes for interesting reading. In it, visitors praise the exhibition for the amount they have learned from it about HIV and AIDS. How wonderful to see graphic design working so hard. How unsettling to think that people are receiving critical health education via a design show.

First published in Eye no. 22 vol. 6, 1996

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