In the First Person
Elisabeth Lebovici: what AIDS has done to us
António Guerreiro

This interview is with Elisabeth Lebovici, a historian and art critic (in Libération newspaper and Art Press magazine, among others) and the author of important studies on contemporary artists. The conversation focuses on her book about the effect of AIDS on the art world: Ce que le sida m’a fait (2017), which won the Pierre Daix Award. As the title indicates, it is a hands-on account. In the 1980s and 1990s Lebovici joined highly active groups in the fight against the invisibility and extremely negative representations of HIV-positive people. And now her book tells all about the dread of the disease and its effects.


Elisabeth Lebovici
© Henry Roy


Elisabeth Lebovici (b. 1953) is a historian, art critic and author of monographs about contemporary artists such as Louise Bourgeois, Chantal Akerman and Zoe Leonard. She studied philosophy and art history at the University of Paris X and in 1979 joined the curatorial Independent Study Program at the Whitney Museum in New York. She was editor of Beaux-Arts Magazine from 1987 to 1989. Her work as a critic continued on the cultural pages of Libération newspaper between 1991 and 2008. Elisabeth Lebovici immersed herself in the arts world, where the AIDS epidemic caused havoc, instilled an atmosphere of morbid terror and ended the mood of liberation demanded and conquered in the 1960s. She heeded the call of activism and joined the Act Up movement in Paris. The movement engaged in a political struggle against the way in which institutions were handling the disease by closing their eyes to it as far as possible or equating it to sacrificial representations, ghoulish images and the passional suffering of the ‘victims’, thereby encouraging a view of the disease as a punishment. Act Up, which was founded in New York, brought AIDS into the political struggle and used political weapons.

In 2017, Lebovici bore witness to these times in a book entitled Ce que le sida m’a fait. Art et activisme à la fin du XXième siècle [What AIDS did to me. Art and activism in the late 20th century]. Although the title is in the first person, it is by no means a personal memoire; nevertheless it could only have been written by someone with intense experience of the milieu where the activism was at its fiercest. The book includes interviews, monographs about artists, essays and an introduction that explains why this diversity can form a unit. The pages contain contributions by many important artists and authors from the 1980s and 1990s: Nan Goldin, Félix González-Torres, General Idea, Gregg Bordowitz, Zoe Leonard, Lionel Soukaz, Roni Horn, Philippe Thomas and many others. The author warns us right at the start that it is not ‘a list of the dead or a catalogue of HIV appearances’.

A 1987 number of October, an important American art criticism and theory magazine, said, ‘AIDS is an epidemic with no representation.’ It was this lack of representation that was so much to blame for the spread of the disease and so harsh for those infected by it that it spawned an activism in the artistic world, which was hard hit by the epidemic. Nan Goldin was a pioneer in 1989. She set up an exhibition at the Artists Space in New York entitled Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing. It was against disappearance, against invisibility and became a cause that mobilised many artists, in different ways, some which were not actually reflected by explicit mobilisation. Art spaces often opened to what was happening in the city, streets, homes and hospitals, as the epidemic needed public art. Speaking about her book, Lebovici quotes this statement by Jacques Rancière. ‘Artists want to change the points of reference of what is visible and enunciable, showing what was not seen, showing what was not very clearly seen in a different way.’ His was a general statement. It belonged to a different context and was not motivated by visibility issues raised by moralistic, erroneous or inadequate responses to the epidemic from institutions and public authorities. However, Stuart Hall, a well-known cultural studies theorist drew attention to an urgent task to deal with the ‘AIDS crisis’. ‘Analyse what comes from the political idea and complexities of representation, the effects of language, textuality as a place of life and death.’ Lebovici’s book answered all these proposals and challenges while also bearing witness to those ‘AIDS years’ that were experienced in constant panic and mourning, where the utopias and euphoria of the previous two decades sank without a trace. By using the pronoun ‘me’ in her book title, she subscribed to this statement by González-Torres, a Cuban-born artist who died of AIDS in the United States in 1996 at the age of 39: ‘In this time of Aids, we all live and die in Aids, whether or not we die of Aids.’


Act Up Paris, World AIDS Day, Notre-Dame, Paris, 1 December 1994 © Diane Gabrysiak / Anne Maniglier




Group Material, AIDS & Insurance, 1990


ANTÓNIO GUERREIRO  Ce que le sida m’a fait, is the title of your book. Why did you choose the first person pronoun so emphatically, a subjective assertion, if you were talking about the ‘AIDS effect’ as a whole, especially in the world of the arts?

ELISABETH LEBOVICI  I think it would be impossible for me not to have used ‘me’. There is no way I would like my work to be ‘on... ‘. I think that is unpleasant, to put things in these terms. I hate it when artists tell me that they are working ‘on’, as if they were sitting on something in a position of command. We’re not talking about having a command of my subject here, of having a clear idea of what AIDS did exactly; we’re trying to recount the devastation, displacement, dissociation, and fragmentation. An effect that was at once medical, aesthetic, cultural, historic, etc, like anything that affects the world of the arts and affects the subject. It’s obviously a choice to put myself in there, although I don’t mention myself much. But I couldn’t stay out of it. What I also wanted to say was that working on the effects of AIDS in the art world, that is the world of culture, does not necessarily entail choosing artists and writers because they talked, intervened or spoke out about AIDS, meaning that they would be the good artists and the good writers. AIDS affected everyone.

AG  Tell us about those times as someone who was very active and had first-hand experience of this huge blow.

EL  I’m not sure if I was very active, but I do know I was astounded. I belong to a generation that began its sexual activity more or less in the mid-1970s. So we happily experienced some of the effects of women’s and gay lib in pretty euphoric times in the history of sexuality. Foucault might not entirely agree with me, but there you are… And it’s true that we were hit hard by AIDS in the early 1980s. That’s the story that I tell, a story of AIDS that apparently began right at the beginning of the 80s. I say ‘apparently’ because the story would most likely be told differently today, now that we know there were people who probably died of AIDS long before. The story is that of practices that became contagious, and these contagious practices were then socially transformed into contagious people, i.e. homosexuals, heroin addicts, haemophiliacs and Haitians, to quote the famous four H’s, the four stigmatised groups.

We immediately see how certain sexual and drug-use practices were transformed into stereotyped people, the homosexual, the heroin addict, etc. It was a transformation that began in the early 1980s and resulted in a degree of social ostracism and invisibility. That is the story I tell. I must say that my generation was hit hard by AIDS. People close to me were infected and died. I belong to that generation and I often feel that I’m practically alone with the memory of things that I shared with others. I’m the only survivor of things that I experienced with friends who are no longer around to talk about them. In addition to being really active, there were times when I was completely stunned, totally passive. There were moments of horror when we were incapable of doing anything at all. I clearly remember spending most of the 1980s in that state before I began to snap out of it a little. It didn’t stop me from being active and having people in my life, but there was that stunned feeling and a huge need to take care of friends who were ill and were being ostracised.

"We were trying to recount the devastation, displacement, and fragmentation of AIDS, an effect that was at once medical, aesthetic, cultural and historic."

AG  What were you doing at the time?

EL  I joined a curatorial programme at the Whitney Museum. That gave me the chance to go to New York, where I stayed for a few years until 1983. I must say it was pretty hard when I got back to Paris. For one thing AIDS was beginning, but I also had difficulty finding work. I taught at an art school in Caën and then I did some other things. I worked in the archives of Italian firework manufacturers who had come to France in the 18th century to work for the monarchy. Around 1985 I began to write small critical reviews after having defended my PhD thesis in 1983.


*Translated by Wendy Graça