Visual Artist Daniel Dallabrida's "Damage Is Done": A Call to Revisit AIDS Crisis Years
Posted on Thursday, July 14, 2011 by Jim Norrena
Daniel Dallabrida's "Damage Is Done" [photo: Jim Norrena]
Remember that someday the AIDS crisis will be over. And when that day has come and gone there will be people alive who will hear that once there was a terrible disease, and that a brave group of people stood up and fought and in some cases died so others might live and be free.
~ Vito Russo (1946–1990)
(Excerpted from "Why We Fight," a speech delivered
in front of the Department of Health and Human Services
during a demonstration on Monday, October 10, 1988)
Make Art That Matters
Daniel Dallabrida (MFA Fine Arts 2010) presented Damage Is Done (Ormai il danno é fatto), an installation/performance/artifact project, as part of CCA's 2011 Graduate Thesis Exhibition in May. The work made a lasting impression as it epitomizes how CCA's Graduate Program in Fine Arts students (and beyond) are constantly reinventing how to make art that matters . . . for themselves and for others.
Simplistic when taken out of context, yet making art that matters is anything but simple. One need only examine Dallabrida's Damage Is Done for its ideological, psychological, spiritual, and historical layers that are interwoven through and through to grasp the complexity of meaning in this multifaceted work.
Did This Really Happen?
In his thesis, Did This Really Happen? Narrative and Multiple Loss, Dallabrida writes: "Now, almost 15 years after the crisis passed, this fog of trauma continues to take a hypothermic toll on both individuals and community. It is no longer the relentless knell of death that chills us, but reverberations of unreleased rage, disenfranchised grief, and unsorted identity. It is an invisible gap between generations. It is a community without direction."
The metaphorical fog the artist alludes to is what psychiatrists today refer to as AIDS-Related Multiple Loss Syndrome. "Without a collective awareness, however, and without dialogue, there can be no resolution. No healing. No construction of a new normal."
The intention behind Dallabrida's thesis isn't to prescribe that we merely look back and remember, but rather that "we need to reconnect to the past and uncover the need for artists of different generations to reestablish the legacy of mentoring, which was lost during the pandemic."
And so the artist has actually issued a "proposal for the role of the artist in response to a cultural fissure that has been successfully shrouded with a communal patchwork but left unhealed."
Damage Is Done
Two principle elements, Faggots and RSVP (In Now's waters burn the stars of Then), 1990–2011, comprised the program. Each part addressed the impact of the AIDS crisis years on today's community. The result—a unique perspective that simultaneously commemorated loss, critiqued community, and ultimately pointed to the past to suggest a solution for today.
In describing gay men living in San Francisco, Dallabrida writes: "In 1983, 137 men dissolved in ways that were quick, mean and indescribable. The scent of fear rode every bus. Dread flavored every meal. The number of deaths doubled the next year. Then doubled again. And then tripled. By 1986, there were 907 deaths in San Francisco. Each of the following years, until 1997, the mortality count hovered between 1,000 and 2,000." (Journals. Vol. 52, Treviso, IT)
Rather than offer a perfunctory recounting of the loss of lives in San Francisco (see slideshow for demographics), the artist contemplates a deeper purpose: "Is this the story I want to tell? The story of a virus, of the collapse of an immune system, of the wasting of a human body, of terrified eyes looking out from an unrecognizable face? . . . Does anyone want to hear them? Do words release or erase? We shall see."
Dallabrida is clear about his art: "My art is made for a public. While some elements are performative, their value is not in what happens, but what is seen and what is not seen. My role in the art’s creation, construction, and submission is to be present while I am making it and to be a trustworthy storyteller. It is the viewer’s role to interpret the work."
For the exhibition, Dallabrida displayed 132 bundles (six rows, 22 bundles tall) of wooden sticks, aka faggots, on a wall, each suspended by two heavy nails. The faggots had been dipped in liquid clay and mixed with naturals pigments of different kinds of refined earth from different parts of the world. The effect was intriguing yet somewhat discomforting. The promise of deeper meaning was evident.
Dallabrida's intent was to create a ritual effect, which was necessary in regenerating the equilibrium of a community. Accompanied by a sound technician and wearing microphones to amplify his breath and heartbeat, he moved slowly and methodically within the space, eventually selecting one of the wall-mounted, ceramic-glazed faggots, and then violently smashing it against the ground, as a stunned audience observed. This ritualistic behavior was repeated over and over again throughout the performance. Despite Dallabrida's determinedly composed pace, attendees could hear his racing heart and his heavy breathing.
The destruction of the ceramic bundles created an archeological layer of terra-cotta and porcelain shards across the gallery floor, artifacts of shattered community.
"Rage. Fit of anger. Incomprehension. Sadness. These are the feelings that the act of destroying the faggots (a term whose Latin roots suggest strength through unity, but in North America is a slur against gay men) against the ground seeks to release; it is the first step of the bereavement," explains Benoit Antille (MFA Curatorial Practice 2011). "Dallabrida’s work not only helps realize this first step but also goes beyond. Through this reenactment, realized years after the trauma, the artist wants to free the speech sealed into the distress and to find a way to help the community to deal with the weight of this memory."
"RSVP (In Now’s waters burn the stars of Then), 1990-2011"
A photograph taken by the artist in 1990, titled RSVP (In Now’s waters burn the stars of Then), 1990-2011, was positioned next to the performance area. The image captures the view from the upper deck of a cruise ship, looking downward at men in various stages of repose: sunning themselves, chatting, and sleeping in deck chairs. The men are presented in rows, and the association to the arrangement of the bundles was easily discernible.
At the time the photo was taken, the middle of the AIDS crises years and the apex in death rates of gay men in San Francisco, when no one knew who would next be afflicted by the ravaging virus, Dallabrida and so many others in the community saw death as a macabre dance of probability—revolting and traumatizing—not unlike the inescapable counting and random choosing of bundles to "sacrifice."
Art that Builds Community
In preparation for the Graduate Thesis Exhibition, Dallabrida hosted a "Faggot Bee" (think quilting bee) and invited more than 30 queer and nonqueer CCA and non-CCA community members to partake in the process of building and dipping the bundles. The event was, by definition, a "social and utilitarian event that allows socialization during an otherwise tedious chore." It also was an effective means to unite community, while building the foundation for what would become the hugely symbolic driving force for Damage Is Done.
CCA Faculty: A Community Within a Community
"In my experience," Dallabrida explains, "all of the faculty members offer their own contribution to CCA's brew of challenge, support, and inspiration. For example, Brian Conley and Jordan Kantor demanded a rigor and preparation that pushed me to question and defend my assumptions. Claudia Bernardi inspired me, through her own work in Argentina, to consider my life as source material and to risk pulling the lessons of my experience into the present.
"Damage is Done is the complex synthesis of my time at CCA. Mark Thompson helped me see the strength of the first 'faggot' during one of my early reviews. Gloria Frym and Fred Dolan supported my efforts to find the links between the battlefields of Homer's Iliad and my experience with the AIDS crisis. Ceramics chair Nathan Lynch encouraged my irreverent use of clay. Honestly, every instructor, every visiting artist, had something to offer. It was my goal to figure out what that was and to squeeze every drop from the opportunity."
From the Artist
"My current work investigates the chill of trauma that infects individual and community long after a crisis has passed," explains Dallabrida. "In the wake of epidemic or war the physiological reactions to multiple loss and societal betrayal are cross-cultural. The unreleased rage, disenfranchised grief, and unsorted identity of post-crisis existence reverberates across generations. My art approaches that rage, grief, and the wrath of violation with a desire to repair the damage of cultural trauma."
Dallabrida explains that as a returning student in his 50s, he approached CCA's Graduate Program in Fine Arts with much naivety and humility. "For me, learning requires a willingness to be curious—to be a novice again. I had to let go of what competence and confidence I might have in other arenas. As I took chances, I accepted that I would stumble. The CCA faculty was there to help me get back on my feet. I wanted to be stretched by my CCA experience. You have to be careful what you wish for."
Dennis Leon and Christin Nelson Award
Dallabrida was honored with the Dennis Leon and Christin Nelson Award, which was created in the memory of long-time faculty member in Sculpture Dennis Leon, who passed away in 1998, and honors the work of MFA students. Professor Leon believed very strongly that the possession of meritorious qualities as determined by the faculty are essential in selecting the winners of this award. Each year the award is given to three to five students who have made an outstanding contribution to the graduate community, while maintaining academic excellence.
About CCA's Graduate Program in Fine Arts
Central to CCA's Graduate Program in Fine Arts curriculum is the idea that developing a sustained, critical practice is an essential part of creating a dynamic career as a professional artist. The MFA program helps students to gain a deeper understanding of their own ideas and practice, to gain greater awareness of the global context of contemporary art, and to develop skills in presentation needed to pursue a career in the visual arts. Learn more about the program, including how to apply »
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Visit Daniel Dallabrida's website
View additional images of Daniel Dallabrida's "Damage Is Done" on Flickr
CCA gives back to community at AIDS Walk San Francisco 2011
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