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Alex Kress, Brunswickan: All my little Band-Aids — Andrew McPhail brings his unique story, exhibit to Gallery Connexion

All my little Band-Aids — Andrew McPhail brings his unique story, exhibit to Gallery Connexion
by Alex Kress, September 7, 2011

When Hamilton-based artist Andrew McPhail began working on little sculptures made of Band-Aids, he wasn’t entirely convinced anything solid would come from it. At least, not until he heard about a young Muslim girl in Mississauga who was strangled to death by her father for refusing to wear her hijab to school.

He started thinking about the idea of the hijab and the burka – their physical forms, and what they represent – and was struck with the poignancy of the young girl’s failed struggle to live as an unmasked individual. He could immediately relate.

McPhail has been living with HIV since 1993 and has often felt his own identity has been defaced by the illness.

The product of this is an exhibit called ‘All My Little Failures,’ being shown at Gallery Connexion until the end of the month. About 60,000 Band-Aids make up a burka draped over a mannequin. On the surface, there is perhaps a sombre tone about the exhibit because of its origin, but McPhail intended to inspire a lighter tone with his piece.

“I want people to see the humour in it, and the sort of funny desperation in 60,000 Band-Aids,” he said.

“I think everybody has those moments of self-doubt and regret. Part of the humour of the piece is that you can’t do anything about those and that it’s futile to wish to engage them, because the past is the past,” he said in reference to the title ‘All My Little Failures.’

He seems especially aware of his own mortality; he recently turned 50.

“Boy, I never thought I’d be here.”

Advances in medicine have certainly extended the lives of many people living with HIV/AIDS, including McPhail’s, since its outbreak in the early 1980s.

“I think a lot of younger people don’t realize how frightening it was at first, where there was this thing that was killing people and there was no idea what it was. It was just this mystery illness,” he said.

“There was no cure, and there was no treatment. If you got it, basically, in a few months you would be dead.”

McPhail has noticed the issue of AIDS has been drifting from the radar in North America, which he attributes partly to the fact that people are managing with the illness; he’s living proof.

At the same time though, ‘All My Little Failures’ is not a crusade to raise awareness.

“I’m certainly not a spokesman for AIDS, but I think it’s a convenient way for people to enter the work because it’s a huge issue. I’m just there to tell my own story.”

And he’s not passive about telling it. In fact, McPhail likes to perform his piece in public, pedestrian spaces. He wears the Band-Aid burka and experiments with different ways of interacting with passersby. He tries to give people Band-Aids as they walk past, or tries to stick them on. Many are bewildered at the ghostly figure approaching, and the tendency is to look away or not engage with him. He said children are always the most curious and the least afraid to interact.

When he was here in Fredericton this July for his artist-in-residence program at Gallery Connexion, he performed his piece at the Regent Mall and witnessed one of the most peculiar reactions yet.

“People tried to give me change. I guess they thought I was panhandling.”

He said people’s reactions often say more about who they are than what he’s doing.

As for reactions to the work in its gallery form, he said many people have been quite moved to share their own stories about coping with illness in the family.

He’s been working on the piece for about three years, and it’s never quite finished. He’s continually adding to it. It will be shown at the Textile Museum of Canada in Toronto this October in a slightly different, larger form.

‘All My Little Failures’ will be at Gallery Connexion until Sept. 30.

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