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Bill Horrigan on Access to Life

Thu, Jun 26, 2008
Image from Access to Life

Image from Access to Life: Vietnam, 2007 © Steve McCurry/Magnum Photos

From March until the middle of June this year, I was involved in producing an exhibition on view (through July 20) at the
Corcoran Gallery, in Washington, D.C., titled Access to Life. Exhibitions on the scale of Access to Life typically require several years of planning but the urgency underlying it put everyone on the fast track – the eight artists from Magnum Photos' New York office whose work the exhibition highlights, the individuals from the Global Fund (an NGO based in Geneva) who'd commissioned the project, and the incomparably committed staff on ground at the Corcoran.*

The premise of Access to Life is based on the Global Fund's campaign of providing free antiretroviral drugs to people with AIDS in developing countries. Hoping to bring the face of the global pandemic to a wider audience, they entered into a partnership last year with Magnum Photos, structured around eight photographers traveling to nine countries to meet the individuals and their families in the process of receiving life-saving treatment. In the fall of last year and in the spring of this year, each photographer made two separate trips, first to meet the people about to begin drug treatment, and then, some months later, to witness how their lives had changed as a result of that. Each on his own schedule, the photographers returned with still images, video footage, audio files, even physical ephemera, and the immediate challenge was how to take stock of all this, and figure out how to render it into exhibition form, and how to meet the daunting exhibition opening deadline of June 14.

Enough, maybe, to say that those challenges were met, to the extent that the show opened on time, is up now, and has been getting gratifying press. But it's also entirely fair to say that none of us involved had an unerring sense, at the beginning of the ten day installation period, of what the show would look or feel like. We knew it came in eight sections, corresponding to the eight artists and the nine countries represented: Eli Reed (Peru), Steve McCurry (Vietnam), Gilles Peress (Rwanda), Jonas Bendiksen (Haiti), Jim Goldberg (India), Paolo Pellegrin (Mali), Alex Majoli (Russia), and Larry Towle (Swaziland and South Africa). Two earlier site visits to the Corcoran I made with Danielle Jackson, Magnum's estimable director of exhibitions and cultural projects, had allowed us to know generally whose work would go which walls; but once we arrived on Monday morning, June 2, to begin installing, we realized we were seeing much of the work for the very first time.

Hence began the adventure of the next ten days, as one by one the photographers themselves all arrived, and we each of us realized we'd done much right and also made some errors, although we'd probably disagree as to what rings right and what hits a false note. Certainly the exhibition as a single gesture comes off as far more dramatic and theatrical than I'd imagined, due principally to the interplay between those sections feeling intimate and modest and those feeling assertive and spectacular. That's due also to how the sections/countries are sequenced on the walls relative to each other; as I'd found myself saying more than once during the installation process, it made sense to view the Corcoran show as the beta version of Access to Life, in light of its forthcoming existence as a book scheduled for a fall release as well as the exhibition itself scheduled to be seen in Paris next December and thereafter, possibly, in Mexico City, Rome, and Berlin.

I was speaking to someone at the press preview who remarked to the effect that there hadn't been “an AIDS exhibition” in her recent memory, and I knew what she meant; at least in this country, the post-1980 genre of “AIDS exhibitions” seems to have largely drifted away as the “crisis” itself was assumed to have been solved by the widespread availability of antiretroviral drugs. That myopic untruth, one that only a citizen of a “developed” country would be likely to hold, lies at the heart of the Global Fund's desire to produce Access to Life: to provide visual evidence (and to give it a face and a heart) that the AIDS crises are ongoing. It's a heart-breaking exhibition, actually – something else we weren't expecting.

--Bill Horrigan, Wexner Center Director of Media Arts

*In a bit of insider trading, our first contact at the Corcoran was then-Exhibition Assistant Katie Murnane, who at that point was already planning on relocating to Columbus, and who as of June 23, now holds that position at the Wexner Center. Also, in planning the show, we were considering producing a gallery guide for visitors to the Corcoran, and after I showed the Magnum people the Wexner Center's Adi Nes exhibition guide, they contacted Wexner Center graphic designer Erica Anderson (who'd done the Nes piece), who ended up producing the terrific Access to Life document.
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