Positioned opposite the entrance, Untransmittable is a photograph of a huge transparent phallus filled, in lolly-dispenser fashion, with a rainbow assortment of pills, around which is lovingly draped the arm of an unidentifiable man.
The title of the work refers to one half of the equation U=U.
Undetectable = Untransmittable (U=U) lies at the heart of the new HIV prevention narrative.
U=U means that people living with HIV who take antiretroviral therapy daily as prescribed and who achieve and maintain an undetectable viral load cannot sexually transmit the virus to a HIV-negative partner, according to the National Association of People Living with HIV Australia.
The promise, says Liu, is that “you can go back to a normal life and people won’t see you different[ly]”.
The reality, however, is far more complicated.
HIV Science as Art explores some of these complexities as it brings to life the latest scientific advancements in HIV through the work of 12 artists – including Liu – who are living with HIV.
It was held to coincide with the 12th International Conference on HIV Science in July, which presented critical advances in basic, clinical and operational HIV research.
The 12 artists created their works in collaboration with 12 scientists presenting at the conference.
Working over a 90-day period from March to May, all selected artists received a commission to create an original piece of work, in conversation with their companion scientist, in order to reflect the concepts of their scientific work.
Liu was paired with Kane Race, Professor of Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney, and author of The Gay Science: Intimate Experiments with the Problem of HIV (Routledge, 2018).
Race’s presentation was titled ‘Key Challenges for the Social Sciences in the Fifth Decade of HIV’.
The pair shared their ideas and impressions over about ten online sessions before Liu went to work.
“I (wanted) to tell people the idea that U=U is not the ultimate answer for everything,” says Liu.
Race points out that the idea of “undetectable” sounds simple.
“But there’s a lot of labour behind it,” he says.
“Not only does the person living with HIV have to take one or more pills a day, but it’s also about going to doctors every few months and doing viral load testing.”
That’s because to retain the “undetectable” status, a regular testing regime was required.
This represented a form of “clinical surveillance” which discouraged criminalised communities such as sex workers, drug users or even people living with HIV in some parts of the world from managing their health.
“For some people, (testing) is possible, because they have social privileges,” Race says.
“So, in Australia, it doesn’t seem scary to white gay guys to go in and do this,” he adds.
But a migrant on a short-term visa, who is hoping to become a permanent resident of Australia, might avoid testing because of fear of deportation, Race points out.
Others would sidestep testing due to the shame or the stigma.
Race says the melding of art and science in the exhibition broadens and deepens the conversation around these issues in a way that one, or the other, couldn’t do alone.
“(Art) also engages you emotionally in a way that my boring papers probably don’t,” he says.
For Liu, this work is deeply revealing.
He’s not just the man in the photograph whose face is hidden. He is – ahem – the owner of the phallus too.
Back home in Taiwan, Liu originally intended to create a sculpture using 3D scanning and printing techniques.
I (wanted) to tell people the idea that U=U is not the ultimate answer for everything.Kairon Liu
“I was like, ‘Why not make it more personal?’ So that’s why I chose to use my own body,” he says.
He then filled the transparent sculpture with more than 1500 donated antiretroviral tablets – all expired and some dating back to the 1980s – before soldering it shut.
“I wanted to create this invisible wall between two categories of people – who are outside the community or inside the community; or who are detectable and who are undetectable,” he explains.
Next Liu points to an empty sliver of space at the tip of the glans where there are no pills.
This, he says, represents the virus which still lingers in your body even when it’s “undetectable”.
(According to Ending HIV, any viral load of 200 “copies” per mL or less is considered undetectable.)
It was a bold plan on many levels, but as anyone who’s had dealings with Australian Border Force might already suspect, Liu hit a snag when it came to getting his artwork into the country.
That’s when he decided to turn it into a photograph as well, introducing another dimension – the intermingling of desire and fear, which is evident in the image.
Race notes that the importation headache effectively turned one artwork into two.
“I really love the photograph, as well as the sculpture, because it conveys how sometimes the simple act of taking a pill can be laden with a whole lot of feelings, including shame or ambivalence,” he says.
The explicit nature of the image also restores the role of sex to the debate.
“Because you can minimise your sexual transmissibility through pill taking … that’s very attractive to policymakers, because you don’t have to talk about sex in public, you don’t have to raise issues around homosexuality, drug use and all of those things,” Race says.
“That’s the idealisation of treatment as prevention.
“But in fact, when you’re living with HIV, you can’t just get rid of the sexual aspects or the sexual shaming.”
Other intriguing works in the exhibition include Dani Marti’s Ay Maricón! which used reclaimed domestic plastic to respond to RMIT’s Professor Melissa Churchill’s research on why single cells harbour latent HIV viruses.
When you’re living with HIV, you can’t just get rid of the sexual aspects or the sexual shamingProfessor Kane Race
There is also Jaewon Kim’s Brilliance in Fragments, which puts acrylic mirrors and LED signage to work reflecting research undertaken by Krittaporn Termvanich, from the Institute of HIV Research and Innovation in Thailand, on leveraging advances in technology and testing to promote self-care.
HIV science was “lifesaving and life-changing” but insufficient on its own, says Eamonn Murphy, Director of the Regional Support Teams for Asia Pacific, Eastern Europe and Central Asia regions, UNAIDS.
“We have always needed art to help us come to terms with what is and get up to speed with what can be,” he says.
All artworks, which span fashion design to painting to photography to sculpture, are for sale alongside catalogues, high-quality art prints, and postcard sets.
The proceeds will be used to support programs and services for people living with HIV in the Asia Pacific region.
HIV Science as Art runs until 5 August 2023 at Metro Arts (97 Boundary Street, West End).
It is a project of the National Association of People Living with HIV Australia in partnership with the Asia Pacific Coalition on Male Sexual Health, Holdsworth House Medical Practice, Metro Arts, the International AIDS Society, Queensland Positive People and UNAIDS.
Funding for the project has been provided by ViiV Healthcare through an unrestricted educational grant. Further information on U=U is available from the National Association of People with HIV Australia.