Shakespeare writes in Hamlet that one purpose of art is “to hold as ‘twere the mirror up to nature.”1 One fundamental part of nature is our own human nature. Indeed, many artists endeavor to create works that lead us to examine, question, reflect on, and marvel at the human experience.
Ronald Lockett, whose work was on display this semester in a special exhibit in Ackland Art Museum, is one such artist. He created a wide array of works that explored topics such as isolation and suffering, sometimes focusing on tragic events like the Holocaust or the 1995 bombing of Oklahoma City. One of the defining elements of Lockett’s own nature came to light sometime in 1994 when he discovered he had contracted HIV. In response Lockett created two works, both entitled Fever Within. These were both on display in the Ackland, and the two are the exhibit’s namesake.
Here at HHIVE, we believe that these two works, among others, offer tremendous insight into how he viewed himself and his disease following his HIV diagnosis. So, what can we learn from Fever Within?
For me, the first word association I had with both works was “isolation”. The two works both feature a solitary figure sitting cross-legged on a platform, isolated against an otherwise empty background. Their features are blank – they are nameless and faceless. In one, a woman has her head turned up toward the sky, perhaps appealing to an invisible God. The backgrounds are plain and devoid of any other discernable shapes or patterns. The result of this is that both figures look truly, profoundly, even disturbingly alone. At a distance, the figures begin to fade into the background, becoming almost undiscernible from the rest of the works. Lockett may have felt exactly like that – alone and isolated. An afterthought with no help or hope around him. Sadly, this was and still is the outlook for many who are diagnosed with HIV.
The media choice is fascinating as well. For both works, Lockett repurposed old tin siding, complete with rust and oxidized paint. He hammered, cut, punctured and colored the metal to achieve his purpose. The overall effect is rather intimidating; sharp edges and rusty points abound all over the works, especially the figures, who were painstakingly cut or outlined into the metal. I hesitated to get too close, afraid to accidentally brush up against one of the jagged parts. This is akin to how many people interact with those who are sick – maintaining a safe distance and thereby totally isolating the sick person.
That might have been how Lockett himself felt, afraid that the world would view him and his illness as dangerous, leading him to feel completely isolated as well. The metal once had a use as siding or shelter in a farm building but had since been discarded, viewed as if its usefulness had worn out. This served as a reminder to Lockett of his own mortality, especially in the light of his diagnosis.
Information like this is of paramount importance to many groups of people, both inside and outside the field of medicine. Knowledge of how people view themselves and the world around them in the light of their circumstances (time, place, diagnosis, or otherwise) allows us to better understand each other, and it might enable practitioners to provide even better care, targeted to meet the specific medical, physical, and emotional needs in an unprecedented sort of way.