Let me tell you a story...of a time, of a deadly decade in my city, San Francisco.
It was a time that already cannot be imagined, even though we lived through it. It was, here in the village-like Castro, a time when hope was hidden away so it would not die.
Let me open up a story that still rests on the shoulder of any person who lived among these foggy hills between 1981 and 1997. If you lived in San Francisco you were living with AIDS; you were living with death.
AIDS arrived among us like a stealth bird of prey.
The first death was recorded in 1981. A frightening curiosity. 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 1000 and 2000.
Four gay men died in San Francisco each and every day between my 30th and 40th birthdays.
Almost all these men lived within a one-mile radius of my home.
Is this the story I want to tell?
If humans are by nature inveterate storytellers, then artists are consummate storytellers.
In one way or another every work of art, literature, music, theatre, fashion and design presents a narrative. Narrative can be quite literal and documentarian. It can be historical or prospective. It can be metaphoric or metonymic.
Every story is a set of agreements. Each narrative provides symbols which speak of the human condition. A story is a pattern that helps explain the chaos that surrounds us. It calms the cyclones in our heads. Playing a reflective and socializing role in every culture, stories are a fundamental aspect of civilization.
The form of stories shifts from culture to culture. The idea that an event takes place in a temporal context is a constant construct. But there is not a universal construct of temporality. Some cultures layer time so that the notable deeds of ancestors may appear in stories of contemporary life. Transversely, the storyteller may place his own experience into the realm of his ancestors.
Within our Indo-European tradition we want to hold a narrative that reflects the way we experience our lives—as a sequence of events that follow a chronological order that includes a past, present and future. (From once upon a time to happily ever after.) We need stories—in structure and purpose—to provide an explanation. (And the moral of the story is…)
The artist, however, can step out of the linear form and capture that symbol or metaphor with stroke of a brush or the placement of a stone. The artist can manipulate time and space with to provide the message.
The opportunity, if not responsibility, of the artist/storyteller, is to see things that others cannot, and to offer ways for people to pay attention to their world. Writer Barry Lopez observes that the artist is not in the position to solve the problems of society; it is his or her role to illuminate and translate. The artist sees the disruptions and tears in the patterns of our lives long before others. It may be easier to make art about the darkness and disorder, says Lopez. Still, the opportunity exists to illuminate, to construct and share new patterns that are conducive to re-order. The artist can “take the darkness that was shoved down your throat and breath it out as fire.”
So let me step back a bit further.
Let me tell you a story of a time before AIDS.
I can’t say that I remember it terribly well. I was young and much too busy to be paying close attention.
It was the gay community’s Golden Age of liberation. It was a time of deliverance, impunity, sovereignty and immunity.
Each day held the promise of self-determination, ascendancy, enlightenment and cultural revision. Each night offered Bacchanalian delights.
The hippies, the faeries, the activists, the clones, the leather-men, the A-gays, the feminist dykes, the New Left, the artists, the sweater crowd, the separatists of both genders—I played in every camp. Being different was a condition to be treasured. We wanted to be “the people that our parents had warned us about.”
We lived wildly. We took on the patriarchy. We took on new names. We took drugs. We dressed to shock—in gender-f**k or leather. We ate brunch. We didn’t just build bodies, we used them. Sex wasn’t just fun, it was one of many ways to stimulate the imagination, to create instant family and build community.
In the chilly post-modern “critique” of today, our promiscuity was “maximized social contact and consolidated alliances,” our drugs “stretched human powers and consciousness,” and our dancing was “an effervescent release of compression.”
But, damn, it was fun.
In the countryside of southern Tuscany rest the ruins of a 13th century abbey.
It was to be built next to the site of a medieval miracle to take advantage of pilgrims en route to Rome. Cared for by a community of monks, glorious gothic windows would vault to the sky liberating the spirit from this earth.
Before the Church of San Galgano was completed, the Black Death froze the hunger for commerce and the tradition of pilgrimage. When the practice resumed, the primary route to Rome had shifted to pass a different miracle site.
And so, the unfinished church sits as a shell. Thick stone walls stand against the wind, but hold no windows. There is no roof other than the azure Tuscan sky. Instead of benches and altar, grasses and wildflowers cover the floor.
There are no moldings, no icons, no tapestries. Only the cool pure lines of stone adorn the space. The morning field mist wanders through the gaping doors.
I imagine my community, my San Francisco, my Castro as that Church of San Galgano.
After the plague years, it lives abandoned at the end of a dirt road. The monks have moved away.
Without a community to celebrate its miracle, it has become a tourist destination, a photo opportunity, a not-so-sacred ruin.
We tell our story in generalities with statistics. We dare not touch the indignant rage, the unresolved grief or the invisible gap between generation. Like veterans of other wars, we live in silence. If we speak will we forget? Will we dishonor our proud past? Will the ghosts flee?
Or will the warmth of sun and new rituals burn away the mists and allow new memories to be built upon the old?
The stories must be told.
“I will tell you something about stories…They aren’t just entertainment. Don’t be fooled.They are all we have, you see, all we have to fight off illness and death.” L.M. Silko, Ceremony
__________See more of Daniel’s work at (www.dallabrida.com).
Read about Daniel at Visual Artist Daniel Dallabrida Damage is Done Call Revisit Aids Crisis Years.
View additional images of Daniel Dallabrida’s “Damage Is Done” on Flickr.
Check out Daniel’s contributions to a limited edition The Visual Aid Pillow Project Visual Aid Pillow Project.
Meet Daniel at his upcoming solo exhibition at Magnet, 4122 18th Street, San Francisco, CA. Opening reception March 2, 2012 8-10 pm.
Daniel Dallabrida is a story-teller, una racconta favole. Like a story told, his art exists simultaneously on a continuum of process, performance, ritual, installation and artifact. Though he favors earthen materials—clay, water, metal, wood, fire and the body—he enlists any media, any dimension necessary to illuminate or illustrate the themes, elements, emotions or narratives of the story he wants to tell. He uses photographs, writing, sound and social gatherings to allow people to experience the story in a multi-dimensional yet non-linear way.
Prior to making art, Daniel facilitated relationships between the healthcare activist and pharmaceutical communities. His agency help non-profits, government and companies focus their objectives, articulate their ideas and find common ground. He also worked with the Pangaea Global AIDS Foundation (http://pgaf.org/) establishing medical infrastructure in Rwanda and South Africa.
“Being a good facilitator often means masking your own voice to insure that others are heard,” says Daniel. “After 20 years of helping others speak, after 20 years of living with the virus…it was time for me to discover what I might have to share, what I had to say. And it was time to return to a love abandoned decades ago…making art.”
In 2003, Daniel stepped away from his corporate career. He moved to Italy to reboot and to learn the art, culture, and language of his heritage. He apprenticed at a family foundry in the Veneto. Attracted by the Tuscan tradition of anti-Fascist ceramic sculpture, Daniel received a post-bacc certificate from Studio Arts Center International in Florence. Last spring, Daniel received an MFA in Visual Arts from California College of the Arts.
Daniel has exhibited at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni http://english.palazzoesposizioni.it/Home.aspx, Museo San Giovanni de’ Fiorentini (Rome), Casellio Ovest di Porta Venezia (Milan), Silverman Gallery http://www.silverman-gallery.com/ (SF) and Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts http://www.wattis.org/ (SF).
Born in Wilmington DE, Daniel lives and loves with his partner Deary Duffie in San Francisco.
Featured Artwork –
All American Faggots (Mênis), 2011
Porcelain, earthen pigment, wood, hemp, cinnamon, terra-cotta
Limited edition documentation c-print
Damage is Done / Danno é fatto, 2011
Process / performance / installation / sound / artifact
Porcelain, earthen pigment, wood, hemp, cinnamon
In Now’s black waters burn the stars of Then /
Nelle acque scure di Adesso, brillano le stelle di Poi
(Memento Mori), 1990-2011
Artist’s archival image, billboard poster
63” x 92”
Passando attraverso specchi di luce – 2 febbraio 2008 – Passing Through Mirrors of Light
Incisa Valdarno, IT
Environmental installation of paper, water, ice, sand, flora, reflection, stone. 30’ x 20’
Metallic c-print, 45” x 32”