Casting spells

By GREG COOK  |  October 21, 2009

Nearby are the caskets — his and her outer and inner coffins — fashioned from heavy imported cedar planks. The “masterpiece” this time is his outer coffin, which is inscribed with spells and painted with elaborate patterns, magic eyes, piles of offered meats and plants. It’s a fine example of Egyptian coffin painting — the birds are particularly well rendered, with an unusual fluid style — but the piece didn’t dazzle me. In reproduction, it’s more radiant. Maybe the gallery lighting is too dim.

The linen-wrapped mummy head sits enshrined under a spotlight in a darkened gallery that’s the same size (11 feet square) as the tomb in which all this stuff was found. (The ceiling here is taller than the original’s five to six feet.) A screen shows CT scans peeling and unpeeling the rotating head, as if questing for the ancient soul. (The MFA has sent a molar for DNA testing; results are expected before the run is over.) It feels like the modern-science and museum-show-biz equivalent of the spells carved into the coffins. And it works its magic in this uncanny transmission across the millennia. Hello, hello, ancestor. What was it like — what is it like — to be you?

“Two-thirds of this room could be dead in less than five years,” prophesied Larry Kramer — the cantankerous co-founder of Gay Men’s Health Crisis in 1981 and the author of the first major AIDS play, 1985’s The Normal Heart — when he spoke at the Lesbian and Gay Community Center in New York on March 10, 1987.

Kramer called for the formation of an activist group to push for better AIDS treatment, for better public education about safe sex, for access to healing drugs, for better drugs, for more government help, for an end to the AIDS crisis. Within days, the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power — ACT UP — had formed. It would spearhead a movement that compelled governmental leaders to address the AIDS epidemic.

ACTING UP Gran Fury’s 1988 sticker is a reminder that part of the fight — then and now — is education.
VIEW More photos from "ACT UP New York" at the Carpenter Center

“ACT UP New York: Activism, Art and the AIDS Crisis, 1987–1993” at Harvard’s Carpenter Center is a landmark survey of 70 posters, stickers, and other graphics by artists and collectives operating under the banner of ACT UP. It also features the premiere of video interviews from the ACT UP Oral History Project. Organized by Harvard curator Helen Molesworth and curatorial intern Claire Grace, it’s a reminder of the disease’s continued threat, and of the complacency that has set in since treatments pioneered in 1996 have, for many Americans, turned AIDS into a chronic, manageable illness.

The movement had a knack for catchy slogans and graphics. A 1988 sticker by the collective Gran Fury declares, “Men: use condoms or beat it.” It’s a reminder that part of the fight — then and now — is educating people about how AIDS spreads.

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Related: Pottery, Potter, mummies, and a 'Rare Bird', Slideshow: Chihuly: Through The Looking Glass at Museum of Fine Arts, Dale Chihuly's glass wonderlands, plus Shellburne Thurber, More more >
  Topics: Museum And Gallery , The Normal Heart, John O'Connor, Richard Deagle,  More more >
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