A virus walks into a bar… and does what? Exactly what all viruses are programmed to do: it seeks to infect its host environment. The Machiavellian methods of deceit, trickery and corruption employed by the invading organism in John Walter’s short film may be unconventional, yet the absurd 20-minute dramatisation (influenced by the artist’s fascination with soap operas and surrealism) provides a simple, unapologetically humorous way of explaining the life cycle of HIV.
The piece sits at the heart of CAPSID, Walter’s major solo exhibition opening at HOME in Manchester on 10 Nov. Named after the outer protein shell that protects, cloaks and delivers a virus to its host; the multimedia, maximalist installation addresses what the artist views as a crisis of visual representation surrounding viruses such as HIV, and presents a new way of understanding the biological agent based on the latest scientific research.
The title also relates to another core aspect of the show: Walter drawing on the process of infection, virology and capsids (which he conceptualises as ‘sneaks’) to provide the framework for a wider conversation concerning the spread of ideas between groups and systems – aiming to move beyond ‘an increasingly hackneyed discussion’ around memes, and towards a more in-depth investigation of how culture is transmitted.
Filling HOME’s entire ground-floor gallery with a gaudy, engulfing mass of colour, pattern and Walter’s signature ‘shonky’ aesthetics – privileging the handmade, the awkward and the asymmetrical – CAPSID sets out to immerse visitors in a complex yet playful world in which science provides the springboard for art. Entering the space, prepare to be inundated by what might initially seem like a baffling array of references lifted from children’s television and the pharmaceutical industry through to LGBTQ+ culture, science and art history. These fragments of ‘foreign material’ form part of the artist’s attempt to find an expanded vocabulary through which to discuss the traditionally marginalised topics that lie at the heart of his work – smuggling the outside world into the white cube like a capsid himself.
As Walter states: HIV “is a problem that people may think has gone away but hasn’t. It’s mutated, and it needs a different form of representation.” CAPSID (like the artist’s highly celebrated Alien Sex Club project in 2015) sets out to do this with remarkable joy and ambition.
CAPSID is curated by Bren O’Callaghan and accompanied by a programme of related activity including film screenings, discussions, tours and the first UK Flash Collective with Avram Finkelstein (founding member of The Silence=Death Project and Gran Fury collectives within the ACT UP New York movement).