These people are an Aids exhibit. They want you to touch them

An exhibition of suffering is designed to make people think, writes David Lister

It is, claims its creator, "conceptual documentary expressionism". To be prosaically accurate, it is someone playing the part of a man dying of Aids, sitting naked on a sofa, and you are encouraged to touch him.

But is it art?

In a sense it is where installation art in the Nineties has been leading. Damien Hirst has explored attitudes to death through preserved animal carcasses; the American video artist Bill Viola shocked crowds in the Tate Gallery with a video he took of his mother dying.

And now, in London's newest visual arts space, people suffering from Aids are the exhibits.

Talking to them and touching them becomes the artistic experience, an experience in which the striking live image is only a part of the overall effect.

Provoking the visitor into thinking about social issues is an integral part of the artistic experience for the exhibition's creator. One's thoughts are easily provoked. Phials of HIV contaminated blood are on the white table in front of the sofa.

The exhibition "Don't Be Scared" is the concept of Tony Kaye, the millionaire adman responsible for the unscreened Guinness ad of two gay men kissing. Last year Kaye "exhibited" a tramp to make people think about homelessness.

Yesterday, at a converted meat factory in St John Street, in London's Smithfield, Kaye opened an international touring exhibition whose focus was a person with Aids.

Five Aids victims are sharing the role of exhibit, four men and one woman. Four are American and one is German. Kaye's advertisements in the British press for a British prostitute with Aids received no response.

David Herndon-White, 35, from Los Angeles, has had full blown Aids for three years and is one of the exhibits on the black leather sofa in the corner of the vast room, underneath a sign: "Don't Be Scared. Please Touch." He wears a white robe but seems eager to remove it. "If you take the robe away, I'm sitting here with my disease," he says,"and that really scares people. People are terrified. Men tend not to come up close, women tend to engage in conversation."

It is important, he says, to talk about Aids at his first meeting with anyone. "I could walk out of here and pick up a girl or a guy in a bar within 30 minutes," he says. "I guarantee it will not occur to them to ask me about Aids. People who talk to me here will see a guy with Aids who looks quite normal and they will see that they should be thinking about safe sex more often."

But advice to wear a condom does not make an artistic experience, as Kaye realises: "This particular piece began when I saw a plaque in an art gallery saying `Please Do Not Touch.' All the exhibits are in boxes or behind glass. I wanted to turn that on its head with a Please Touch exhibit. I immediately thought of a person with Aids. Once they are diagnosed, they are stripped of that basic human pleasure of being hugged. So I thought maybe I can do something here.

"I'm 43 and I'm trying to carve a career as an artist, and what I'm doing here is art. When Constable painted landscapes without people in, that wasn't considered art. This has a social message with a resonance that comes from the experience of interacting with someone with Aids."

The new gallery is run by Jibby Beane, who runs the Soho Arts Club. She intends it to be a venue for exhibitions, readings and performance art. "The Aids situation has to be addressed," she says, "and this is a beautiful and poetic way of doing it."

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