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Chaos and Creativity
Jim Hodges on AIDS, Social Change, and Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ Art

By Paul Schmelzer

Artist Jim Hodges’ film Untitled is a stirring audiovisual collage that jumps from the 1980s HIV/AIDS activism of ACT UP to snippets of TV shows such as The Golden Girls, Dynasty, and The Wizard of Oz, from images of the burning oil fields of Iraq and the smoke clouds of 9/11 to the razor wire of Guantanamo and the death camps of World War II. Rolled in are nods to Noam Chomsky, Jacques Derrida, the Smiths, and Nancy Sinatra. It’s an emotional, if chaotic, presentation. But it’s not art, Hodges says.

The film—screening December 1 at the Walker and at more than 60 other organizations in commemoration of World AIDS Day—arose when Hodges was asked to do a presentation in 2010 at Artpace in San Antonio, Texas, about his good friend, the late artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres. What Hodges initially planned as a multimedia PowerPoint presentation became, through a collaboration with Carlos Marques da Cruz and Encke King, a 60-minute mash-up of cultural references from the front lines of protests and political confrontations on a range of social justice issues.

Hodges characterized the work as “a fragment of a continuum”—that is, an ever-unfinished work that could be added to and reworked endlessly. Such revising is possible before the film is included in the Walker’s 2014 survey of Hodges’ work, co-curated by Walker executive director Olga Viso and Jeffrey Grove of the Dallas Museum of Art.

With a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage on the 2012 ballot in Minnesota, and the Occupy Wall Street movement building steam in the streets nationwide, Hodges recently told Walker web editor Paul Schmelzer that the goal of his film was to present the context in which Gonzalez-Torres—the maker of poetic and often autobiographical conceptual art—worked, and to link the ongoing struggles of that era to today.

Paul Schmelzer

Aside from the obvious connections—Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ death from AIDS complications in 1996 and his work about his late partner, Ross, who also succumbed to the disease—how does your film reference his art in other ways?

Jim Hodges

We were attempting to create a context that would somehow mirror or echo the environment that Felix was producing in. I don’t know what Felix was thinking about, but I do know the context in which he was living, and I remember the time.

The film, as a structure, mimicked Felix’s “dateline” pieces, so there’s a crashing together of times. We bounce around from World War II to current times and back to the ’60s. There a lot of different times, and the tempo is quickly changing from one to the other. References in the film were references of Felix’s. The mirroring was a reference of Felix’s. Doubling of things was a reference of his.

The Smiths’ songs were references to Felix, because he loved the Smiths. The last song is “Death of a Disco Dancer,” and the first one is “Last Night I Dreamt Somebody Loved Me.”

The songs are really important because they’re the voice of art in the film. There’s an honesty, a directness. There’s something very specific that happens in the music that doesn’t necessarily happen in politics and the kind of conflicts that continue over and over, with people struggling to have self-expression and self-empowerment, struggling up against government. So, this is part of the continuum. It’s nothing new, and it’s still going on.

Schmelzer

You discussed Felix’s use of mirroring, and that’s a strong theme in your sculptures and mixed-media works as well, which often feature mirrors or reflective surfaces.

One scene in the film that seemed key to me is an excerpt from a documentary about French philosopher Jacques Derrida discussing Ovid’s Metamorphoses; in particular, the myth of Echo and Narcissus, with its mirroring themes: Echo’s voice bouncing back to her and impeding her expression of love for Narcissus, and Narcissus’ ultimately fatal enchantment with his own reflection on the surface of a pond.

That section came shortly before a series of split-screen clips showing Iraq War scenes: grieving Iraqi mothers and footage of children killed or maimed in the streets alongside clips of Americans waving flags and putting up yellow ribbons for the troops.

Hodges

There’s a lot of mirroring going on in the film. Right after Derrida is a scene of paper flying from the World Trade Center towers and the smoke rising from burning oil fields. Then comes this doubling of Halliburton guys, who are there to extinguish burning oil wells, yet are actually lighting them on fire with Molotov cocktails—igniting them because, of course, that meant they’d have another job, and they’ve got millions and millions of dollars coming in. Who’s watching these guys while they’re spending money/making money, burning oil? And then probably Dick Cheney came in and said how proud he is with the job he did.

I was watching on the news last night as school police in California sprayed kids who were protesting. It’s the same thing that happened to the kids protesting at the WTO in Seattle—being just hosed down with pepper spray, or whatever poison they’re spraying on these kids. So these are the repeated horrors we see over and over again.

Schmelzer

In the clip you use, Derrida says, “To see only oneself is a form of blindness.” After seeing the film, I went back and read the myth he was analyzing for more:

While [Narcissus] is drinking, he beholds himself reflected in the mirrored pool—and loves; loves an imagined body which contains no substance, for he deems the mirrored shade a thing of life to love. He cannot move, for so he marvels at himself, and lies with countenance unchanged.

Inclusion of the clip from Derrida seems to say that we as Americans can be blind to suffering in the world—whether those living with AIDS, Iraqi families, or the poor in our own communities—because we’re so fixated on an image we have of ourselves. Behind this patriotic view of the unerring benevolence of our country, there are children in Iraq with their faces blown off from our munitions.

Hodges

This country went to war with Iraq based on silly ideas that we needed to go and find these weapons of mass destruction. Why would we miss an opportunity when the World Trade towers were destroyed and we were left with that rubble, the fear and unknown, and the stillness that overtook the city for a few days? The crazy people actually stood out, because everyone else was in this state of shock. Wandering the streets. Quietly walking. Respectful of each other. We were all in a state of shock.

What you have in you as a person, through this, is: I would never want this to happen to anyone else. This is so horrible. This should never happen to anyone, to have this kind of horror imposed on you from you-don’t-know-what.

I felt: Wow, I know what this feels like. This feels like what it felt like in 1988, when Scott was diagnosed with HIV. This is what it felt like when he died in 1993 of AIDS. It was like, “Oh my god, that’s the same feeling.” I thought: “Okay, now the circle just expanded. It’s not just me and my friends and a small percentage of the population who are suffering from this phenomenon. Actually, all of us have been brought into this reality of horror.”

So now, we’re all vibrating from that same place. We’re all on the same ground. So now is the time to actually have a dialogue: What’s going on in this world? How could this happen to us? Why would we never want to do this to someone else?

What’s the politicians’ answer? This is a time to, boom-boom-boom, beat those drums and, boom-boom-boom, make some money and blow somebody up and expand ourselves and take advantage of someone in this weakness. Let’s use this horror and shock that people are in and take them into a place that’s even more horrific. This is the kind of grossness of the machinery of politics. I don’t know what it’s about, ultimately. I know it’s about power and holding onto it. I know it’s aligned with economics. But I know it’s not about what I went through or what people go through.

I don’t think Americans are different from other people. When you see mothers suffering because their kids are being killed, I think that mothers, no matter where they are, universally would say, “I would never want that to happen to someone else’s kid.” But the government isn’t a mother. And that’s part of the problem.

Schmelzer

What about that image of Narcissus at the pond as the water gets scuttled? It seems this movie could be one way to do this, to disrupt this image that we’re always beyond reproach and that we’re always doing things with the best of motives.

Hodges

I think so, too. There are people saying that. Naomi Klein said that. Noam Chomsky certainly isn’t afraid to critique society and the government.

Parts of the film that are so memorable are the ACT UP actions. One, specifically, is in Grand Central and raising a sign that says, “Money for AIDS not WAR.” And the whole place, this huge arena of people, all point up to this sign. It’s such an amazing and empowered place. So powerful. And these guys and women did this. They didn’t vote on it. They planned it, and they did it. They didn’t get funds from some special group. They did it, and it changed things.

Schmelzer

With things improving on the HIV/AIDS front—the HIV infection rate worldwide is down 21 percent since a high point 14 years ago—it’s great to see how you link the struggle about HIV/AIDS to other issues, including war and racial injustice.

Hodges

Thank you. The way our government irresponsibly didn’t address the health issue at hand when the AIDS crisis first became known is the problem. We have people in power who are disrespectful, who are prejudiced, who don’t see, who refuse to acknowledge an aspect of the society at large because of their ideological position. They won’t allow themselves to see the humanness that’s there. This is the problem that I see: this continuation—and the continuum—where the powers deny the humanness of the other. It creates the other and then destroys it, or is indifferent to it and lets it be destroyed. This is continually happening.

Felix had AIDS. Obviously, it was an important issue—not one that he was talking about all the time, but clearly it was affecting his work, his psyche. It ended his life. It had to be addressed in work by me as someone who was going to speak about him and his production, but it wasn’t the only thing that Felix talked about. It wasn’t the only thing where one can see, “Oh, here’s this problem. It’s just existing here, for us queer people.” No. Uh-uh. And it’s not a new problem, where people aren’t treated with respect.

Schmelzer

The chaos of the film—the ACT UP actions, the grief, violence, and conflict—does have a stark counterpoint in images of Felix’s billboard of birds in the sky or even the absence represented in the bed billboard, this moment of calm in a sea of insanity.

Hodges

It’s pretty amazing. That’s really what I wanted people to experience. Think about where we are, what we suffer through, what we deal with—and what do we put forth? What are we bringing out and putting into the world, considering that the time bomb is ticking underneath our chair and there’s all this shit going on?

Felix Gonzalez-Torres, “Untitled,” 1991

Installation view in Manhattan for Projects 34: Felix Gonzalez-Torres at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1992

Photo: Peter Muscato ©The Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation

Jim Hodges

Still from Jim Hodges’ Untitled, 2010

Smoke from the implosion of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, and burning oil wells in Iraq

Still from Jim Hodges’ Untitled, 2010

Footage of Halliburton employees igniting oil wells in Iraq

Still from Jim Hodges’ Untitled, 2010

Philosopher Jacques Derrida discusses the myth of Echo and Narcissus

Still from Jim Hodges’ Untitled, 2010

Two views of the Iraq War

Still from Jim Hodges’ Untitled, 2010

Two views of the Iraq War

Still from Jim Hodges’ Untitled, 2010

A 1980s ACTUP action in Grand Central Station

Felix Gonzalez-Torres, “Untitled,” 1995

Installation view in San Antonio, Texas for Felix Gonzalez-Torres: Billboards at Artpace, San Antonio, 2010

Photo: Todd Johnson ©The Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation