The London HIV/AIDS Memorial statue proves collective histories triumph over individual tributes

By Louis Shankar

Published Mar 26, 2024 at 05:28 PM

Reading time: 4 minutes

On last year’s World AIDS Day, 1 December 2023, London Mayor Sadiq Khan announced new £130,000 funding from the Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm that would go towards London’s first HIV/AIDS permanent memorial. And now, the shortlist of artists selected to create the memorial has finally been announced. The chosen artists include Anya Gallaccio, Ryan Gander, Harold Offeh, Shahpour Pouyan and Diana Puntar—with the winner set to be announced this summer.

The monument will be unveiled in 2026 in Fitzrovia, near where the Middlesex Hospital once stood. Middlesex had the UK’s first dedicated AIDS ward, infamously opened by Princess Diana in 1987.

The project is being organised by AIDS Memory UK, with support from Khan. In 2018, the mayor signed the Paris Declaration on Fast-Track Cities Ending the AIDS Epidemic, which aims to end new HIV transmission by 2030.

The memorial’s judging panel includes playwright and director Neil Bartlett, artist Rana Begum, writer and critic Olivia Laing, art historian Satish Padiyar, and Professor Jane Anderson, a physician specialising in the management of HIV/AIDS. AIDS Memory UK’s Artistic Director, Ash Kotak, has been working with HIV-positive and HIV-affected communities since 2016. This has included consultation with groups and individuals from four of the most affected communities and sub-communities, including the trans community, sex workers, and Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) LGBTQ, women and young people.

It’s a really exciting shortlist of contemporary artists from a range of backgrounds working across a litany of mediums, all of whom work in the UK and produce socially engaged art.

Anya Gallaccio is a British artist, part of the Young British Artists (YBAs) generation. Gallaccio creates site-specific installations, usually minimalist in form, often incorporating organic matter like chocolate or flowers, which decay and transform throughout the course of the installation.

 

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Ryan Gander works across a wide range of forms and mediums, including sculpture, film, writing, graphic design, installation, and performance. Gander’s work is often public-facing and responds to its environment, “reminiscent of a puzzle, or a network with multiple connections and the fragments of an embedded story,” as stated on the Royal Academy’s website.

 

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Dr Harold Offeh works between performance, video, learning and social arts practice. Living in Cambridge and working in London teaching at the Royal College of Art, his work is interested in “the space created by the inhabiting or embodying of histories,” often incorporating humour to confront his viewer.

 

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Shahpour Pouyan is a multimedia artist who holds a ceramic fellowship at the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A). Pouyan’s work interrogates “power, domination and possession” through material and object histories, drawing on references including the ancient cultures of Sumer, Babylon, Iran and Hinduism.

 

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Diana Puntar is a London-based artist and educator originally from New York City, currently part of CUBITT, an artist-led co-operative built on a belief in the value of art and artists in society, and a resident at Wysing Arts Centre. Her cross-disciplinary works include sculpture, installation, and printmaking practices. She has explored the history of utopian inventions intended to “relieve humanity of suffering.”

 

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Middlesex Hospital was closed in 2005 and demolished in 2008. The former chapel, now known as Fitzrovia Chapel, is the only surviving building of the hospital. It runs events and exhibitions,  many of which are linked to the history of the location. In 2022, it hosted an exhibition of outfits by Leigh Bowery—who was treated at Middlesex Hospital and died there from an AIDS-related illness. And last year, they revisited Gideon Mendel’s The Ward, a landmark series of photographs portraying AIDS patients and their loved ones in Middlesex Hospital.

The New York City AIDS Memorial was opened on World AIDS Day, 1 December 2016. It takes the form of a large steel canopy occupying a traffic island in front of the new St. Vincent’s  Hospital Park in Greenwich Village. St. Vincent’s Hospital housed the city’s first and largest AIDS  ward. The memorial is intended “to honour New York City’s 100,000+ men, women and children  who have died from AIDS, and to commemorate and celebrate the efforts of the caregivers and  activists.”

 

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Munich also has an AIDS Memorial, Germany’s first, which was unveiled in 2002. 13 international artists were invited to compete for the commission, which was won by renowned photographer Wolfgang Tillmans. The piece recreates one of the blue tiled columns of nearby Sendlinger Tor station, with the inscription: “AIDS / to the deceased / to the infected / their friends / their families / 1981 till today.”

Such public memorials are vital in preserving memory. There’s obviously ongoing debate about the role and use of public statues—although these tend to memorialise individuals, rather than events. Individuals are often flawed, their legacies easily contested, from Winston Churchill to Emmeline Pankhurst.

Many of the most important and interesting works of public statuary in London (and beyond) mark events, often disasters, from Monument in the City of London, which marks the Great Fire of London, to the Bethnal Green Tube Disaster Memorial. (I also recommend looking up the Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice in Postman’s Park, near St Paul’s Cathedral.) And London has a long history of commissioning interesting and timely public works of art, especially via the  Fourth Plinth programme, which just announced the next two commissions.  

Works of art that engage with recent history are vital for public memory. Some claim that this is the case for all statues, which, as we know, evidently isn’t true. Public art can challenge history as much as narrate it. The London AIDS Memorial intends to commemorate those lives lost to the crisis while simultaneously challenging the stigma that still exists when it comes to this disease. It would be great to see similar projects crop up both in the capital and beyond.

Donate now to AIDS Memory UK and help create the first permanent AIDS Memorial in London:  https://donate.kindlink.com/Aids-Memory-Uk/6979 

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