Theo Gordon - The Courtauld Institute of Art

Theo Gordon

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Theo Gordon

PhD student

‘The AIDS Wars: A Kleinian Analysis of Art of the American AIDS Crisis’

Supervised by Prof. Mignon Nixon

I must remind myself constantly that murderous feelings toward the sick and dying are common.’ (Gregg Bordowitz)

My thesis examines art made in the United States between 1987 and 1996 that addresses itself to the socio-political crisis of the AIDS epidemic. I consider three distinct but related projects that each expose violence and aggression as central to an understanding of art of the American AIDS crisis.

I explore how artists manifest socio-political violence in works that address the experiences of people with AIDS as discriminated against in an aggressive and unequal society. I work my appreciation of violence in art through psychoanalytic object relations theory, notably the writings of Melanie Klein. I hence take representations of destructive phantasy as key to an understanding of the complex intertwining between subjective experience and political activism, individual and collective responsibility, and the psychic and the social, as manifest in politically engaged artistic practices at the height of the AIDS epidemic. I investigate three projects in diverse media that variously address the question of how to accommodate and incorporate violence into a non-destructive reality.

In my first chapter I discuss Gregg Bordowitz’s video work Fast Trip, Long Drop (1993), in the context of direct action AIDS activism and the history of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) in New York City. I pay attention to Bordowitz’s depiction of activist despair in the early 1990s, with a particular focus on destructive phantasy and collective responsibility, considering the place of negativity in an activist politics, and attending to the significance of the metaphorical framing of the AIDS crisis as a ‘war.’ By using a Kleinian account of aggression to think through destructive phantasy, I consider the history and status of psychoanalytic object relations theory as a framework for radical social critique, in the context of feminist and queer theories.

In my second chapter I examine the representation of women with AIDS, looking at the photographs of Ann P. Meredith in her series Until That Last Breath! (1989). I consider the particular stigmatised histories of women with AIDS in relation to photographic (in)visibility and phantasies of violence against women’s bodies, charting how Meredith’s project represents such aggression.

In my third chapter I stage a Kleinian reading of Félix González-Torres’s candy pile pieces (1991), focussing on the role of oral sadistic phantasy in the artist’s socially engaged practice. I describe a theory of relationality and responsibility during the AIDS epidemic that turns on the fundamental role of aggression in mourning and in the social bond, so tying together all three artistic projects.


  • MA History of Art, The Courtauld Institute of Art
  • BA English, University College London

Research interests

  • modern American art
  • sexuality and queer culture
  • histories and theories of psychoanalysis
  • war discourse and American politics

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