Kairon Liu is a photo and installation artist based out of Taiwan whose work provides direct access to people’s understanding of their own lives as people with HIV. Through interviews and portraits, the subjects of Lui’s work are willing participants in a public reckoning of their lives. In Liu’s own understanding of the work, his exhibitions are to be of service to the audience, the subjects, and himself as a way to better understand and know people with HIV.
Manuel Solano is a painter and videomaker living in Mexico City. The lines of Solano’s work have, over the years, become bolder, thicker; they are hard-won and emotive renderings on canvas of singer-songwriters, dinosaurs, a favorite aunt, and transgender women. On video, Solano is the primary person on screen, with the ultimate subject becoming the viewer. Bringing the work together is a curiosity about the world through the individual experience of the self. There is nothing flat-footed about Solano’s work. A viewer is invited to either surrender or do the emotional and intuitive labor to keep up.
What bonds the seemingly disparate work between Liu and and Solano is a deep investment in humanity and ideas of witness. While only Liu could easily be classified as an artist/ethnographer, both he and Solano are using their talents to investigate open heart questions: What is it to experience beauty, to encounter grace, to express loneliness?
While one may be quick to suggest that this common bond is a result of the fact that they are both living with HIV, that would be a crude reduction of their lives. In the interview below, the two artists encounter each other first as strangers, knowing only each other’s art work, and end as confidants, bonded by experiences of alienation, talent, and hope. The conversation was originally published in The HOWLER: Transmitting Art and Activism, a newspaper created by artists and editors Anthea Black and Jessica Whitbread for the 2018 International AIDS Conference in Amsterdam. The interview was done over Skype, with Liu in his rented room in Williamsburg, NYC, where he spent the summer on an art residency, and Solano in an art studio in Mexico City. I recorded the conversation, and was present throughout, acting only as grateful witness.
– by Theodore (ted) Kerr
Manuel: Kai, you mentioned you felt lonely in Taiwan, but I didn't really gather if it was because of your project or something else…
Kairon: Yeah, because of my project. While I do get funding support for it, all I hear is, "Kai you have to stop because if you keep doing AIDS work, you will narrow your career as an artist."
We don’t have an idea of activist in Taiwan. You are either a social worker or an artist. This makes me feel sad because I want to do something, for myself and my other positive friends.
Manuel: Would you say that the situation that you're talking about in Taiwan is a result of social conservatism?
Kairon: I think so. We still have positive people being put in jail.
Manuel: Just for having HIV?
Kairon: If you had sex with someone without telling them your HIV status, the laws can criminalize you just like the US.
Manuel: I know where you are coming from, Kai. Being isolated was something that I definitely was very much afraid of, when I came out, so to speak, as positive, in 2014. I didn’t want to become just the guy who went blind from AIDS. I've struggled against that very much, but I think I've overcome it.
I'm happy to say I get less feedback now that my work is about HIV, which it never was. I obviously used an event related to my being positive as a kind of catalyst. I remember an interviewer asking—or basically, saying—that my work was about the virus, but it's about so many other things.
I guess, what I'm trying to say is, Kai, I think my approach when making work about HIV was contrary to yours. It sounds like you have gone the other way. You are directly addressing HIV and how it impacts people’s lives.
Kairon: I never thought I would have HIV. I had a belief that only “certain people” got AIDS, and I actually ended up getting it from my boyfriend. After I recovered and I started learning that anyone can have the virus, the first thing I wanted to do was interview as many positive people as possible. I want to find a way to stay alive and help others. This is how making art is like social work to me, there is a pleasure I get when I make the exhibition and feel my work is actually helping someone. Does that make sense?
Manuel: Yeah, and I think obviously what you're doing is big. It's a burden to normalize the condition of being HIV positive. When I look at your work, I feel relieved and kind of selfish, when comparing my work to yours, because evidently, my work is all about myself.
Kairon: For me, when I see your work, it's like I'm seeing you, you, you, you, you. I get all of you. And I’m happy. I need to see a person being there, in the world.
Manuel: Okay. Well, I have a question for you. I mean, it is actually from René, my assistant, who is also my best friend, who is also my first boyfriend. He wants to know why there's so many apples in your series. Is it a thing that you add, or is it just that people eat lots of apples?
Kairon: It's a thing I add, for sure. During the interview, the people I photograph and I will exchange our personal life stories. After that, I ask them what objects/items they use in their daily life. So, besides the apple, everything in the resulting images is what they need and want to maintain their lifestyle. From there, I give them the apples and ask them to choose the meaning of the apple. It can be crime, desire, knowledge, the ability to tell right and wrong... and even the virus itself. They can also choose to show their faces. They are in charge of making up the image with me.
Manuel: René told me that most of them actually cover their faces; the case would be similar if you did the same piece here in Mexico. We are essentially a very conservative society.
Kairon: I'm surprised. Before I came to North America, I thought it was more progressive here. I actually have a friend who told me: "If you are a New Yorker and you're not positive, it's because then you're not hot enough.” After my diagnosis, I became like a suicidal person. When I'm going to sleep with someone, I would tell them, "I am positive. Are you okay with this?” Again, everyone said I shouldn’t tell anyone. Friends or even my case manager would say, "Don't tell everybody about your status, you should protect yourself.”
But being here now, everything seems different. Whenever I tell someone about my status, they will be surprised and say something like, "Oh, OK! Thanks for telling me. But you're the first one to tell me you are positive." It's quite impressive that people know how to protect themselves and yet, they don't really talk about it.
Manuel: It is not easy. I can’t say I told all of my partners early on. I kind of was terrified, and I thought, “Nobody told me, right? So, fuck’ em.” Obviously, that's the worst mentality I could have had. Nowadays, I would tell all my partners, if I had partners. But here is the thing, after diagnosis, I was only sexually active for a short time because I became very sick very quickly. During that short time, I would be on Grindr, I would start a conversation and then, eventually when it got to the point of like, actually meeting, I would say, “Hey, I'm positive. Are you okay?” 99% of the times the conversation would die there. A couple times I got insults.
Kairon: In Mexico City?
Manuel: Yes, I was at the art fair here in 2016, I opened up my Grindr and somebody, with no profile pic, sent me a message saying, "If you're positive, why don't you state so in your profile?" Clearly, this was somebody who knew my work or something. I went to settings, I changed my profile to say I was positive and Undetectable as of my last test. Then I went back and said, "I guess for the same reason you don't show your face." I kept my status on my profile and was very open about it. What happened was that nobody would respond when I initiated a conversation. And this silence is in one of the queerest places ever.
Kairon: Do you feel safe living in Mexico?
Manuel: It's a relatively safe place to be queer. But it's not a safe place in general, it’s a violent place, but it's not that we're targeted because we're queer. However, my experience of health care after I became positive has been terrible. I feel like I was being oriented away from retrovirals. I was told I didn’t need them for many years, that they are dangerous, bad for kidneys... Doctors systematically lie to positive patients in order to save the government money and nobody acknowledges this.
Kairon: You heard this in 2012?
Manuel: Yes. And then things started to get more confusing with TRUVADA. The medicine that is now being used in the rest of the world to prevent HIV, is the medicine that they are telling us that HIV people shouldn't take, unless it's extremely necessary. Only when we get very sick do they give meds. It's a clash—they tell us that this pill can kill you and they're giving it in other countries to people as if it was Vitamin C.
Kairon: Are antivirals free to citizens there?
Kairon: Okay, so maybe it is a way to stay in the budget?
Manuel: Yes, and it cost me my eyesight. From day one after I tested positive, I told the clinic I wanted to get on treatment as soon as possible, and if my wishes had been respected, none of this would have happened. I didn't know the treatment was safe. I didn't know the side effects were so mild. I didn't know that I knew people who had HIV, and I could have asked them questions. It turned out later, after I came out, a lot of people came up to me and like, "Oh, I'm positive,” I was like, “Why are you only telling me now?”
Kairon: Yeah, that always happens.
Manuel: I always am left feeling, I wish you told me, I wish we could have been there for each other. Someone I know passed away from AIDS six months ago. We were all shocked that he didn't tell any of us. Only one of his friends knew he was positive. He never sought treatment. It’s shocking. He was surrounded by open sex positive diverse people and he never felt safe. He never reached out to me and said, "Hey, I'm positive.” It says to me that he was feeling afraid and ashamed. I wish I could do more to stop that.
Kairon: Do you remember what it was like when you tested positive? Did you take action right away?
Manuel: I tested positive, and they told me I needed to go to this other clinic. I went the following morning. This began all the paperwork. It's a lot of bureaucracy that you have to go through. It took me one month to be enrolled into one of the clinics. I did everything as fast as the system allows. I went to the clinic, and said, “I'm here because I'm trying to get on retrovirals as soon as possible,” and every time they said, “No. We don't know if you need them yet.” They told me that it was them who decided when to start up the treatment. This is wrong. It is the patient that decides.
Kairon: How were you feeling?
Manuel: My health was deteriorating very bad. I lost seven kilos, which was more than 10% of my body mass. I was terrified.
Kairon: Did they do labs? Did they tell you your CD4 count?
Manuel: My CD4 count was okay, but my viral was 1,800,000. But I had no idea what it meant. The doctors said, "Oh, you're very fine. It's a relatively high viral count but you'll be fine. Come back in six months and we'll do another test.” I didn't know how bad it was. They lied. Then one day, I needed care for what seemed like an allergic reaction and I ended up in a private hospital. The doctor there was evil. He was very derogatory towards me, in front of his staff and the students. He wouldn't address me, like, wouldn't look at me and wouldn't respond when I spoke to him. One afternoon he yelled and humiliated me in front of my mother, saying, that he had “zero tolerance for my kind.” I never knew exactly what he meant by my kind, but after that, I signed myself out of the hospital, and I never wanted to see another doctor ever again. But I got very sick and I panicked and fell into the hands of somebody who I thought could help me. But actually, they couldn't. They were very kind and sweet and I thought, "Who knows. Maybe this is my last chance." Looking back, I know that I was scared. I had reached out for help and met so much rejection and shame. And even today I hear similar stories. A friend, who went to one of the same clinics I did, recently tested positive and the person who performed the test said, “I hope you've learned your lesson.”
Kairon: Oh, my god.
Manuel: Yeah, and this is the main clinic for the LGBT community in Mexico and still, we're being routinely shamed and threatened and misinformed by our government, and nobody wants to address it. When asked to answer for what they have done wrong, they treat it as something normal. Like, “Oh, the doctor misspoke. Oh, you should have known better.” But it is not that. It is like someone in a health office is calculating a way to spend less on retrovirals.
Kairon: Hearing you speak, I can say the medical situation in Taiwan is much better than Mexico. And still, when I am working with someone, I feel like I am providing a service that is missing from the care we receive. There are these people that are like managers, and after I tried six different medications and they didn't work well, the manager asked me, "Are you doing drugs or are you sure you're taking the pills?” I feel like, when you are a patient and you're facing a doctor and the nurse, you are already lower than them, because they actually have a right to control your life. I can often leave the doctor’s office feeling like I did something wrong.
Manuel: It's the same here. Whenever I try to talk about my health, I feel like they will try to find any excuse to excuse themselves from addressing themselves as the issue. Like if I complain about an upset stomach, they will ask what I ate, or if I am taking another medication. Unless I bring it up, they will never consider that it could be a result of something they have prescribed me. And when it comes to mental health, it is the same. I was on efavirenz. It makes you very depressed, very anxious, very paranoid. Gives you crazy dreams. It's awful. Every HIV patient that I know in Mexico who takes that drug, every time that they go to their doctor, they give the same complaint, that the side effects are horrible. My other ex-boyfriend is on this pill, and he's having nightmares and is very unstable emotionally. His doctor, rather than agreeing to change to a better medicine, sent him to a psychiatrist to get anti-depressants.
Kairon: Every time I have a side effect, I would think something like, "Oh, yeah. That's a small price I have to pay to stay alive." It’s a way to convince myself, I guess.
Manuel: Yeah, but it shouldn't be.
Kairon: I'm curious, when did you start to go blind?
Kairon: That is interesting because around that time, the lines of your work become wider, no? Is that actually the way you see things?
Manuel: No. I mean, back then, when I had just become blind, I still had some vision. I was legally blind, but if there was enough contrast, I could see slashes. Which is why I started that series of paintings, the blind transgender with AIDS, I would paint a layer of white on the paper and then add the rest of it because that would increase the contrast. I would start with something black, like the mouth or the eyes, but as I added more elements, I would stop seeing. It just become blurred. I'm even more blind now, and so I have to rely on other things.
Kairon: After you start taking the medicine, the vision should be better? No? It's already damaged?
Manuel: The damage was irreversible.
Kairon: I am sorry. Can I ask another question?
Kairon: Why are all your models female?
Manuel: It’s not a conscious decision. When I paint anything, I'm painting myself. Like, you will see a painting of my aunt, but what you should really imagine is me. It's not that I'm that person or that I wanna be that person or that I have that much in common with that person, but like in this one instant there's something about this attitude that resonates in something about my own self.
Kairon: It's kind of like you share an attitude with them?
Manuel: Yes. But now I have a question for you. You mentioned earlier that each of the people that sits with you for your project selects objects to be photographed with. What would your objects be?
Kairon: I mean, it is a good question, right? Another way I ask is: if I'm going to burn your house down, what object would you grab first?
Manuel: Okay. I need to start conversations like that. But so, if I were to burn your house...
Kairon: Okay. Camera, computer, underwear, pills—of course, each of us will need pills—and if I was back in Taiwan, I would grab all photos.
Manuel: Good list.
Kairon: That is one of the things about the project, people have a chance to consider what you need and want in this life. Like, after diagnosis I forgot what I wanted, how to be selfish in a good way. I think that is why I like your work. As I said earlier, I see you in your work! I see someone who can completely just love themselves. I admire that. It is something lacking in my work. I share things in the process, but it is like I am not there. Or, I am there for them, not for me. We have things in common, and that is good, but….
After the interviews people will say, I have never had a chance to do this before. Even with their boyfriends. We hardly ever are able to talk about our HIV in a meaningful way. We create a bond. Now, some of the people from the project call me when they are depressed. It is good. But I wonder, what about me. So, please, give me some suggestions, some advice.
Manuel: I would say one starting point for you could be the interviews. Like, you just said, you just said it yourself that, while you're interviewing these people you find a lot of things in common. Maybe that could be the subject for another project, like maybe you can focus on what you share with these people and why.
Kairon: When you create art, do you feel like mentally cured after you finish the work?
Manuel: No, no I, no, I feel I'm driving myself crazy.
Kairon: Okay. So the more you paint, the crazier you feel?
Manuel: Yeah, I mean by now I feel very far from the world, very lonely, misunderstood and unseen. The last year I have been working a lot, and getting attention for it, which is nice. But, doing these things that I thought would make me happy, haven’t worked. I feel trapped and bored. The last time that I felt at ease was months ago when I went dancing with my friend Johnny.
And my feelings are not just because I am positive, but also because I live far from the center of the city, and my friends live far away, and all my personal relationships are worn out. Like my mother, my brother, René, we're all so tired of being around each other. Like I've been around them non-stop for the past four and a half years, demanding so much of them, taking so much of their time and their assistance and it's just—we all need a break. And I can't get a break so far.
Everything I've done after I became blind is so that I can get away from my family, so that I can become independent, and I still can't. It's so very frustrating. Especially knowing that, if I stay in Mexico, that it's my permanent situation. I'm gonna be dependent on my family and maybe friends, for every single thing. I can't accept that. So, I'm trying hard to change that, but it's also gonna make me even more isolated and lonely.
And my sex life is completely in shambles. I don't have a sex life. And that wears me down. I am constantly surrounded by people who are my age, in my field, we share a lot. Normally you think that I could find some kind of interaction, but I don't. It's almost like I'm separated by something.
Kairon: Do you think it's because you are transgender?
Manuel: No. Most people don't see me as transgender. I don't know what it is anymore. I guess it's a combination of the blindness plus being HIV positive, plus being trans and maybe not being the taste others like. I've never been one to conform to the taste. I've been going to therapy with a sex specialist for a couple of months now, to try to figure these questions out. I will report when we find something.
Kairon: If you need someone to talk with, we are just one call away, you know.
Manuel: Before we go, I want to say, I think it's important work that you are doing.
Kairon: I'm just worried I'm too vulnerable. My family's poor, I'm poor, and I don't think I'm strong enough to do this work without company. Even if there were others, I think I would still feel isolated, and maybe that is the point: to be an artist is to deal with loneliness because you are seeing something that the general people don’t. And the price, is the loneliness. Could I be a happy person? I don't know.
Manuel: I guess we just have to stay in touch.
Kairon Lui (b.1992, Taipei, Taiwan) is a visual artist and photographer. Kairon's practice reflects his observations concerning beliefs in human society through the creation of narratives, exploring different issues related to religion, disease, and universal values. Generally, his role in a project would be the activator, in a democratic approach. He would collaborate with the individuals rather than create the images of them. Since 2017, Kairon has started the project Humans As Hosts which focuses on understanding the living situation of people with HIV and heightening awareness about HIV/AIDS. In collaboration with social networks, NGOs, and Health Authorities, he recruits HIV-positive individuals to volunteer as participants to join the in-depth interview and photoshoot. The resulting images are to be viewed as the proof/disproof of the stereotypical prejudices and discrimination produced by society. Delivering the rendition of facts that human beings, no matter what field they are in, are subject to or exposed to the virus. We are merely human beings, and now we are all facing an emerging threat
Manuel Solano (b. 1987, Mexico City, MX) completed their BFA at the National School of Painting, Sculpture and Printmaking, La Esmeralda, Mexico City in 2012. Solano was most recently in the New Museum Triennial and is currently in the group exhibition El Chivo: Expiatorio: SIDA + VIOLENCIA + ACCIÓN at the Museum of Mexico City. Their work has also been included in solo and group exhibitions at the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art (2017), Museo de Arte Carrillo Gil in Mexico City (2016), and Museo Universitario del Chopo in Mexico City (2014). Additional exhibitions include Solano’s first US institutional solo exhibition at the ICA Miami (October, 2018) and group exhibitions at David Lewis Gallery in NY, as well as Peres Projects in Berlin. In May of 2019, Efrain Lopez Gallery, wmounted a comprehensive exhibition highlighting the expansive breadth of Solano’s practice.
The HIV Howler: Transmitting Art and Activism, is a limited-edition art newspaper focusing on global grassroots HIV art and cultural production. It serves as a forum for dialogue, a demand for aesthetic self-determination, a response to tokenism, and a guide to navigating the vibrational ambiguities between policy, pathology, and community. It is rooted in the understanding that artists have played and continue to play a fundamental role in shaping broader societal understandings of HIV and working within communities that are most impacted by the virus: queer and trans people, people who use drugs, sex workers, people of color, and indigenous peoples. Together The Howler reflects the immediacy and urgency of global HIV/AIDS dialogues as well as their historical continuities.
Howler Editor Anthea Black (b. 1981) is a Canadian artist, writer, and cultural worker based in San Francisco and Toronto. Her studio work takes the form of printmaking, drawing, publications, textiles, and performance to address feminist and queer history, collaboration, materiality, and labor. Black has exhibited in Canada, the US, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Norway, and has circulated collaborative print editions in cities across North America through the artist-curatorial project, Looking for love in all the wrong places. Her texts on contemporary art, craft, and performance appear in numerous publications, including FUSE Magazine where she was a contributing editor from 2008-2014. Her writing with Nicole Burisch is included in The Craft Reader (Bloomsbury, ed. Glenn Adamson) and Extra/ordinary: Craft and Contemporary Art (Duke University Press, ed. Maria Elena Buszek). Black is the co-editor of two books, HANDBOOK: Supporting Queer and Trans Students in Art and Design Education with Shamina Chherawala (OCAD U Publications, 2017) and Craft on Demand: The New Politics of the Handmade with Nicole Burisch (I.B. Tauris, 2017).
Howler Editor Jessica Whitbread is a graduate of the York University Masters of Environmental Studies program, and she has a degree in Building Communities to Ignite Social Change. She is a queer activist and artist who has been working in the HIV movement since shortly after her diagnosis in 2002. She works in the realm of social practice and community art, merging art and activism to engage a diversity of audiences in critical dialogue. Her work includes LOVE POSITIVE WOMEN (2012); Tea Time (2012); No Pants No Problem (2004) and is a co-curator of POSTERVirus (2011). In 2014, Jessica published Tea Time: Mapping Informal Networks of Women Living with HIV, a photo collection of her Tea Time community arts practice. Jessica was selected as the Wesley Mancini Artist in Residence at the McColl Center for Art + Innovation (2014) and received the Premier’s Award from the Government of Ontario (2014) and the Visual AIDS Vanguard Award (2016). In 2016, she birthed twins and advocated to openly breastfeed them in a Canadian context.