I walked past the New York City AIDS Memorial one scorching June day, and the scene took me aback. Usually when I pass by the site, located at Greenwich Avenue and 12th Street in downtown Manhattan, I see a few people sitting on the memorial’s curved benches, chatting, reading, eating a sandwich beneath its primary element: an abstract white steel canopy, composed of inverted triangles. Or I notice someone taking time to read the text carved into the paving stones, lines from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” which spiral outward and are often chopped off mid-phrase as they reach the park’s limits. It takes effort to trace the verses around and piece together their meaning, which is maybe as it should be. Paying homage to lives cut short ought to require more than a barely perceptible slowing of one’s stride.
But what broke my own stride that summer afternoon was the sight of several toddlers splashing happily upon the site’s water feature—a thigh-high, round, polished granite platform, covered with a layer of constantly flowing water. Their moms stood nearby with expensive strollers; a small dog jumped up to join the sloshing. Were they just standard New Yorkers, claiming space, as we do, for our many personal purposes? Or were they desecrating a site meant for more somber activities, like the men who infamously posted Grindr pics of themselves leaning against the stelae of Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe? Or, perhaps like those men, were they answering devastation with life-force, blessing the site with the vital chortles of gleeful children?
Yes to all of the above. Which is to note that, within six months of its unveiling on last year’s World AIDS Day, the memorial was doing what memorials always do: melting into the landscape for some people, while inviting the public to make for the present what meaning of the past it will. As the scholar James Young has written, monuments are “inert and amnesiac” in themselves and “dependent on visitors for whatever memory they finally produce.” Now, on the 30th World AIDS Day, the question of what it means to “remember” AIDS feels both old and pungently fresh, both rude (could any of us who lived through its ravages have forgotten?) and acutely pertinent (the pandemic rages on).
It’s not just the memorial, designed by Brooklyn’s studio ai architects, that provokes these questions. The last couple of years have seen a flood of retrospective projects about AIDS: a spate of new memoirs, dance and theater performances, social-media sites, museum exhibits, art shows, podcasts, participatory events, films, TV movies, a mini-series, narrative nonfiction, biographies, essays, and novels—too many even to name here. Three major programs took place in New York last season—at the Bronx Museum of Art, Danspace, and the Museum of the City of New York. An elaborate AIDS Monument is underway in West Hollywood. There’s even talk of an AIDS Museum in San Francisco.
In many ways, this outpouring makes sense. Those whose lives were gripped by AIDS in the 1980s and ’90s are at least in their 50s now. In whatever ways they were engaged—caring for the sick and dying; educating themselves about medicine and epidemiology; inventing and promoting safe sex and harm reduction; developing and performing fierce forms of horizontal activism to win changes to housing policy and drug research and approval processes; burying far too many friends and lovers—these survivors share a compelling need with the survivors of wars and other atrocities: to assure, while they still can, that their struggles and their dead will not be forgotten.