THE AIDS MEMORIAL
IN CONVERSATION WITH DIRK H. WILMS (2019)
Stuart: Where you come from, where you grew up, where you were born?
Dirk: I was born in Wegberg, a small town in Western Germany. I had three step-brothers but I felt I was on my own. As a kid, a ten year age difference has its problems, you have different interests. The older ones also moved out early. I remember that we moved several times to other small towns and that my mother and her partner were always arguing. Sometimes the situation escalated, and my mother and I fled to neighbors. It was a strange childhood, lonely at times. Shaped by deprivation. I never had friends. It was like I wasn't part of a family, or a part of something, and I never felt accepted, happy or safe. I grew up in a picture of Joel-Peter Witkin. Even in school I felt alienated and isolated. But when my art teacher found out that I collect calendars with pictures by Magritte, Matisse or Ernst, he encouraged my inborn talent and brought me small catalogs of famous painters and photographers and allowed me to study them in the class after school. I had hidden things inside me that I never dared to show and I think he knew that. A few years ago, I began to reflect on childhood. That has led to a clarity that I did not expect.
Stuart: So when you say “inborn talent”, artistically what was your focus back then?
Dirk: Artistically my focus was always photography. I went into it because it seemed like a fast way to express myself and to tell stories without using words. I always try to tell a story with a picture and I always search for a story in other peoples work. Unfortunately I'm quickly bored by photographers who don't tell a story. I wish I wasn't.
Stuart: I read that you said your life changed in the winter of 2001 with your HIV diagnosis. But you said it was a big mistake when you told family and friends. Why did you feel this way? Do you still feel this way?
Dirk: I felt that something was wrong with me in 2000. I constantly was so tired that I could hardly walk from the kitchen to the living room. Early 2001, my immune system was in such a poor state because of oesophageal candidiasis. I could no longer digest food, and breathing was getting more and more difficult. My doctor sent me to a clinic and there I was diagnosed with HIV. I immediately told that I had AIDS. It was surreal. I mean, I was careful, but somehow I got infected with HIV. My CD4 count was 9. The doctors assumed I got the virus since the mid-1990s. It was unbelievable painful because the treatment didn't work for the few next months. It even triggered an immune system reaction where everything in my body was fighting. I thought I would die. I want to be truthful, but sometimes it's hard of hearing myself telling the story.
I don’t want to allude to things, but when I told family and friends about it, I was shocked by their reactions. For example, one friend said 'when you have it, you deserve it', or my brother who said 'how dumb can someone be!' But most of them said nothing, they just ended all contact. I realized that the gap between understanding and ignorance is not so wide. Well, when you're afraid to die you expect other reactions. I honestly did not know that I was surrounded by such ignorant people. Going through the diagnosis and treatment, and losing most of my so called social life, was the hardest thing I've ever had to deal with in my life. It was my specific human experience of exclusion. But today I think that it was right to be honest about the infection by not lying to people. I think it's even harder to live with a lie. And really nobody needs fake friends you can't count on.
Stuart: When did your diagnosis start to reflect in your work? Do you think being HIV positive defines you as an artist?
Dirk: Shortly after my release from the clinic, I decided to start documenting my life with HIV in form of conceptual staged self-portraits. I was aware of what I'm doing and that I had no financial security to count on, but that didn't hold me back from pursuing my track. I preferred to work alone in my studio and this is my working method till today. I use my own personal history and my own body as the subject of my photographs. I don't think that HIV itself defines me as an artist, but the work I create in context of HIV.
Stuart: When I first started the aids memorial I remember in one of your posts where you mentioned that you received negative feedback about your art and the fact it relates to HIV. Can you tell me more about that. Also generally what kind of feedback do u get on a daily basis? What are you trying to achieve with your work? Is there a message ?
Dirk: It was foreseeable that my kind of photographs would also provoke negative reactions. You can't make everyone happy. It's strange, but some say I take advantage of HIV, and I am always surprised when I read somebody say that my images are pornographic. I know my work is sometimes provocative, and I do that on purpose because I think art has to be provocative. But pornographic?
This year alone about 10 of my pictures have been deleted by Facebook or Instagram, because users have complained about. There are also gallery owners who do not want to show my photos because of the HIV background. One said "We really like your work, but AIDS? Seriously?"
I guess, people usually don't like to be confronted with topics like AIDS, depression or sexual gay practices. On the other hand, people recognize the honest and aesthetic dimension of my work. And most of the feedback is positive, that move me a lot.
Stuart: So you told me about your earlier influences as a child i.e. Matisse etc what about now? Who inspires you now? Who do you admire?
Dirk: I have the impression that my photos get substance, or a deeper sense, whenever I am depressed, ill or angry. Issues of death and mortality have always been components of my work. These mental states, beyond joy and happiness, are the biggest influences on my photographs. For me, photography is always a kind of fight. I still adore all the artists I discovered in my childhood. And I really love the work of Joel-Peter Witkin and Pierre Molinier, and I' became a big fan of Bernd Preiml, Ethan Hill or artists I discovered through Instagram like Félix Velvet and The Ljilja. When Sam Stoich, a young artist from New York, recently drew my attention to his work I was surprised by the intensity of his series 'In the red room'.