In the five and a half years since Cleve Jones, a San Francisco AIDS activist, decided to stitch a six-foot-by-three-foot grave-shaped “quilt” in memory of his lover, the AIDS Memorial Quilt has become the chief focus of mourning for hundreds of thousands bereaved by AIDS, as well as a canny organizing tool in the global battle against the disease. Ironically, in its present immensity–filling eight 48-foot tractor trailers, weighing 26 tons, covering the equivalent of 12 football fields when displayed on the grounds of the Washington Monument in October, and growing by another football field and a half just that weekend from new panels streaming in–the Quilt is perhaps nearing its effective social and political limits.
This may have been the last display of the Quilt in its entirety, say its coordinators, who are beginning to find themselves the stewards of a sacred leviathan of mourning, difficult both to preserve and to show, and subject to much debate now as to its future course.Yet as a great community artwork and symbol of postmodern culture, even as postmodern performance, the quilt’s measure has hardly been taken. It is startling to visit the Quilt, for instance, and realize that its plan is inspired by the modern cemetery. This walking along the nine miles of black plastic walkways, this searching the eleven different color fields on the Quilt map to find which of the 22,000 “plots” is dedicated to, say, Charles Ludlam, suddenly feels familiar: This is what we do at Woodlawn, Mount Auburn and Laurel Hill.
And indeed I did feel that I had come to a site radiating the specificity of what Walter Benjamin called an “aura,” that Charles Ludlam was in some sense actually “here.” Perhaps it is the acute sense of hereness about each person remembered in the Quilt, impossible not to experience, that leads on to the thought Wait now! This is not Woodlawn, but its symbolic double, its parody even, or better still, its performance. And a road show at that. The AIDS Quilt as traveling graveyard.
How do you “perform” a graveyard? First you need performers. There are the live ones, like the white-clad volunteers, fully 1,000 of them in Washington, who have developed a balletic ritual of laying out the Quilt. There are the readers–some 500 were scheduled over the weekend–who make the showing of the Quilt a performance by calling off the sad litany of names and names and names: 32 for each speaker at the podium, eight hours a day, for three full days. There are also the visitors, who are invited to leave their own names and messages on the signature squares set aside for that purpose.
But in truth it is the brio of the dead performers that captures our attention. There are moments when the entire vast field of the Quilt, riotous with the iconography of show business, takes on the aspect of a players’ cemetery. The top hats, tap shoes, gleaming black and white keyboards with flying notes or actual staves of music stitched in; the cut-work doublets, smiling and frowning masks, the programs and ticket stubs carefully sealed in plastic, the feathers, ribbons, junk jewels, a whole black slinky drag costume, the painting of Ludlam as Camille with all the ring curls these brilliant traces of vanished talent not only tell a tale of devastation to “our crowd,” but lead to reflections on the deeper structures of performance here.Real cemeteries of course specialize in “permanence.
” Granite and marble are their natural materials. They seek to foster a “sense of perpetual home,” as one 19th-century enthusiast put it, and will offer, for a prepaid fee, “perpetual care” for your gravesite, though the idea lacks somewhat in historical probability. Despite the fact that a tangential cult of stitchers and gluers called “Handmaidens of the Quilt” has sprung up to repair panels already aging, the Quilt, like painted flats of scenery representing rocks or pyramids, is clearly not for all time. Its fragile materials will decay long before a tombstone, and must always be protected from the weather.
October’s showing of the Quilt, in fact, was marred by rain for the first time in three Washington displays. Volunteers gloomily waited out the rain for half of the three-day weekend, then had to leap into a one-minute rain-fold when the weather on the final day posed another serious threat.Still, one must not understand words like “serious” too seriously around the Quilt. With all the suffering it represents, the Quilt playfully sends up the solemnity, the rigidity, of mourning, including “permanence.
” Imagine a cemetery putting all its attendants in white jeans and sneakers. Then imagine rows and rows of marble headstones etched with teddy bears, Hawaiian shirts and Mickey Mouse. Imagine jumbling Jews, Catholics, Muslims and New Age Buddhists in the same subdivision of the “everlasting abode.” Imagine finding a sublime design of mountains, bordered with “Comfort, oh comfort my people” in Hebrew and English right next to a splash of sequins celebrating “Boogie,” and directly below a grinning depiction of Bugs Bunny.
The Quilt is cemetery as All Fools’ Day, a carnival of the sacred, the homely, the joyous and the downright tacky, resisting, even in extremis, the solemnity of mourning. There’s room for everything here: a joke, a prayer, a flower, a measuring spoon, a Harvard flag, a beer can, even (I saw it) an air-conditioner vent.Washington abounds with the aesthetics of solemnity. In October, the Quilt was laid out beneath the Washington Monument, that mighty Egyptian obelisk once used to celebrate gods and commemorate the lives of rulers, swollen to the size of America’s aspiring imperial ego.
In 1988 and 1989, the Quilt was spread on the Ellipse, a few yards from the First Division Memorial, an 80-foot marble pillar designed by Daniel Chester French, festooned with wreathed swords and topped by a statue of triumphant Victory. Compare that memorial’s bronze tablets naming the first division of soldiers to fall in America’s three major 20th-century wars, with the 58,000 names in order of reported death on the Vietnam Memorial’s sunken granite wall a few blocks away, with the Quilt names so fiercely collected by the NAMES Project, and you follow an historical trajectory from modern imperial politics, through chastening transition, to the postmodern breakdown of the “master narratives” these being not only the stories we tell ourselves about how our world is organized, but the cognitive devices that organize the stories.The organization of the Quilt, for instance, relies on none of the ways culture have traditionally classified their dead. We do not make a fuss here about religion or family or even complete names.
There are 28 quilts naming only “Dennis,” 53 for “Joe.” These may or may not be different Dennises and Joes, but Michel Foucault, the same Michel Foucault, appears on three different panels in widely separated locations. (Imagine a cemetery providing three gravesites for the same man, and you have the stuff of farce.) As the Quilt grows, each new panel assumes a permanent place in an eight-quilt unit, but this so-called “12×12” circulates in different company depending on whether its appearance is local, regional, national as in the Washington displays, international as in the showings in Moscow, Israel, New Zealand, Botswana, Helsinki the list is long or in a special “gig,” like last summer’s showing on daytime television’s One Life to Live.
The very idea of the Quilt, combining monumentality with patchwork, expresses at once the scale of the leaping world AIDS crisis and its assault on humanist faith in order and social continuity. Pastiche and defiant disunity are by now familiar hallmarks of the postmodernist artwork, but here they are returned to a humanism which insists that this exuberant life not be forgotten. In the way it remembers, the Quilt is more relaxed, more inclusive, more sensual, more human, more theatrical than anything previously imagined in the protocols of mourning. It rolls into town on its three-day bus-and-truck tour, throws down its brilliant rags and rugs like the players before Claudius, and with chilling clarity performs its play of mourning in the very face of remote and fearful authority.
Each Washington appearance has been a calculation to catch the conscience of the king.Cleve Jones is reported to have said, when he first envisioned the Quilt and the gathering of the names, that he wanted to make something he could take his grandmother to. Who can miss the shrewd conflating of tradition and subversion in the gay community’s reaching back to a 19th-century collaborative women’s craft form for inspiration? Women have long understood how to “give the needle” to dominant social forms while perfectly fulfilling them. Thus the Quilt, without an ounce of apparent confrontation in its soft and comforting body, is a hugely visual riposte to official culture’s fervent wish that AIDS would just disappear from view, like some distant famine.
By now the Quilt includes many panels dedicated to women, children, I.V. drug users and hemophiliacs. But its association of gay sexuality with Reaganite cultural mythology the celebration of the rural American, family American, homemade American, nostalgic American in effect forcing its spectators to embrace in a single image what to many is an impossible contradiction this is no doubt the Quilt’s most brilliant and far-reaching element of ironic masquerade.
Without losing its healing associations, the Quilt is far more than “comforter.” It is an inspired multiplex of grieving, art and social activism. Shaped by thousands of hands, it is, one might almost say, a seismic social art eruption, in so deep a region of the mind does it originate. It plays out a terrible connection between death and the erotic, thinks past mourning’s ancient links to church, family, class and state, yet re-imagines a connection between politics and the sacred.
The Quilt is a new cultural form, a unique symbolic representation emerging in response to an unprecedented crisis, but it is renewing tragic themes that have always been the province of ritual performance.