This newly commissioned installation by American artist A.K. Burns (b. 1975) for the Harvard Art Museums takes the life and art of David Wojnarowicz as a point of departure. Wojnarowicz’s work is part of the exhibition Analog Culture: Printer’s Proofs from the Schneider/Erdman Photography Lab, 1981–2001, also on display at the museums May 19–August 12, 2018. Burns provided this description of the installation:
The human body requires a tremendous amount of maintenance: fuel, protection from the elements, psychic safety, buffers from violence and illness. Yet the bodies that persist do so in a state of uncertainty between lethal events and the inevitable degradation caused by time. Survivor’s Remorse looks at the valuation of various forms of vitality—not only lives but the material residue of lives—particularly through the economy of art. This work was spurred by a painful realization I had while looking through David Wojnarowicz’s photo prints in the Harvard Art Museums study rooms: art institutions take painstaking care of bodies of work (the art object), yet medical, political, and social institutions would not properly care for David’s body throughout his lifetime—because he was queer, had AIDS, and at times was homeless.
The Lightbox Gallery looks onto the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies. Here, in the sterile, evenly lit environment dedicated to the restoration of artwork, one may observe conservators at work both in real life and amplified in detail within the video work itself. Survivor’s Remorse includes a shipping crate that holds one monitor. Removed from the other eight screens on the wall, and contained within a protective tomb, the lone screen appears to be in sync while at other times it falters.
Survivor’s Remorse queries how various institutions value different types of bodies and in what ways creative labor can be particularly toxic. Why does the value of an artist’s work often increase after death? In what ways does the fluctuating and irregular valuation of an artist’s cultural capital affect his or her ability to live? As the old narrative goes, the artist, or visionary, or genius lives on “the fringes of society” or is seen as “ahead of her time”—in other words, is perceived as being “out of sync.” Marginalized bodies exist on “the margins” because institutions either ignore or do not adapt to the experiences of the non-normative, non-citizen, poor, ill, or racialized subject. Yet the marginalized “genius” or others deemed exceptional (sometimes by the extreme scale of their loss, as in the case of genocide) may be recuperated and highly valued through historicizing institutions—but often only after they are gone. Survivor’s Remorse examines this paradox and the sociopolitical influences that create the chasm between these value systems.
Organized by Jennifer Quick, John R. and Barbara Robinson Family Associate Research Curator in Photography, and Chris Molinski, Associate Research Curator for Digital Initiatives, with Jessica Bardsley, Agnes Mongan Curatorial Intern, Harvard Art Museums.
A. K. Burns: Survivor’s Remorse is built for the Lightbox Gallery, an experimental space for the research and development of digital tools for the Harvard Art Museums. Developed in collaboration with faculty, staff, students, and visiting artists, projects in the Lightbox Gallery challenge how we document, share, and examine collections and collections data. Some of these projects are responsive, allowing users to navigate and manipulate the collections; others are cinematic, transforming the museums into a landscape of digital performance.
Modern and contemporary art programs at the Harvard Art Museums are made possible in part by generous support from the Emily Rauh Pulitzer and Joseph Pulitzer, Jr., Fund for Modern and Contemporary Art.