On September 17th, 2016 the Block Museum will open the exhibition Keep the Shadow, Ere the Substance Fade: Mourning during the AIDS Crisis in the Katz Gallery. This unique exhibition curated by Block Museum fellow C.C. McKee, juxtaposes objects and artworks related to mourning from the Victorian Era and with those created during the AIDS crisis. The exhibition proposes that these historical periods uniquely relied on the materiality of the individual body, and items associated with it, as relics in order to grapple with mortality and persevere in the face of death. In preparation for this fascinating show we sat down with McKee to discuss his work.
1. You served as the Block Museum Fellow throughout 2015-2016, working closely with the curatorial team. Can you share a bit about what lead you to the Block and the nature of your work within the fellowship?
In my approach to art history I am equally interested in archival research, theoretical approaches, and a sustained attention to objects themselves. One cannot be separated from the other. Curation is of great interest to me and I previously worked as a curatorial intern for the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. The Block Museum has an incredible curatorial mission and has deep ties with resources across the university. I was honored to have the opportunity to work within this exemplary academic museum. During my tenure as the graduate fellow, I conducted a number of collections based research projects in addition to the work on Keep the Shadow. This gave me the opportunity to work with and learn from the museum staff as a whole.
2. Can you tell us about your inspiration for the exhibition and the complex parallel at its core, a comparison of the aestheticized mourning practices of the nineteenth century and those of the HIV/AIDS crisis in the 1980s and 1990s?
I began my fellowship knowing that I wanted to engage with the McDowell Death Collection that was acquired by the university library’s special collections in 2012. While I was sifting through this rich collection, my mind continued to wander toward the role of mourning during AIDS crisis in order to understand what was happening during the earlier period of the nineteenth century. Looking to the collections of the Leather Archives and Museum, I found a rich archive of materials that preserve the mourning practices of the leather fetish community during the height of the epidemic. When these objects are considered with artwork from the period, these collections parallel the nineteenth century in ways that allow the viewer to conceive of aesthetic production during the AIDS crisis outside of a lens that is overdetermined by viral transmission and social exclusion.
3. How closely does this exhibition tie to the larger work of your dissertation and research practice within the Northwestern University Art History department? Has the work on this show shifted or influenced any aspect of your dissertation work?
This project is distinct from my dissertation in terms of objects, historical period, and geographic location. My dissertation explores the relationship between artistic exchange, abolition, and emergent conceptions of racial subjectivity in the French Atlantic world during the long nineteenth century. However, these two projects are consistent with my overarching intellectual concern with the ways in which art, visual, and material culture can constitute communities and reveal the conditions for minoritarian identities to persist and flourish in the face of oppression.
4. Were there any surprises in researching within the Block permanent collection or works that you found particularly influential in the conception of the exhibition?
The Block’s permanent collection was an incredibly rich resource from which to draw. The two Mapplethorpe photographs are beautifully composed; the Eric Avery lithographs pointedly reference a specific history of HIV within the medical field, and Andres Serrano’s Milk and Blood is a perfect aesthetic and conceptual partner to the Felix-Gonzalez stack piece from the MCA.
5. In conceiving of Keep the Shadow you have worked with loans from a variety of institutions including the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, the Leather Archive, and the Northwestern University Libraries. What have been the challenges or the benefits in bringing together works from these varied institutions?
Working with collections both on campus and in Chicago has been an invaluable experience. Firstly, these loans were essential to demonstrate the thesis that proposes a fundamental connection between the nineteenth century and the AIDS crisis despite their historical distance. And, with the support of the curators at the Block, collaborating with other collections and institutions has been an incredible opportunity to learn and practice other facets of curatorial work.
6. For those compelled by Keep the Shadow – what additional resources, books, exhibitions or even other artists would you point them toward as essential references on these topics?
I would urge the viewer to think beyond the gallery walls to the voices that did not make it into this particular exhibition. How do the defiant snaps in the African-American artist Marlon Riggs’s video Tongues Untied expand the terms of Keep the Shadow to think more deeply about the black experience during the HIV/AIDS crisis? How does the continued work by organizations like Visual AIDS reformulate the terms of “AIDS art”?
7. Can you tell us a bit about your forthcoming research and projects, after the exhibition?
I will be conducting archival research and writing the first chapter of my dissertation in Paris during the 2016-2017 academic year as part of Northwestern’s Paris Program in Critical Theory.
Keep the Shadow will be on view at the Block Museum of Art September 17 – December 11, 2016. Join C.C. Mckee on Thursday, October 13th, 2016 for Keep the Shadow: The Body and Mourning a gallery tour and conversation with Alessia Ricciardi.