The moment Art Institute of Chicago visitors enter I Wanna Be Well, the first comprehensive exhibition of conceptual artist Gregg Bordowitz’s 30-year body of work, they will encounter a 20-foot-long bright yellow banner that reads “The AIDS Crisis Is Still Beginning.” Yet this particular piece debuted at the Museum of Contemporary Art 17 years ago.

“When a younger person in my classroom says that they’re not old enough to have direct experience of the AIDS crisis, or don’t know people with HIV, I say, ‘Well, I’m standing right here,’ ” says Bordowitz, who’s director of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s summer MFA program. “It’s not over for me or my friends. I’m part of a generation of people who’ve been on lifesaving drugs the longest. I’m a laboratory subject.”

‘Drive’ by Gregg Bordowitz
Drive (2002–19) Art: © Gregg Bordowitz

Over the years, Bordowitz, 54, has relentlessly examined AIDS and identity through various media — videos, sculptures, drawings, essays, and poems — and I Wanna Be Well will touch on all of it. His seminal video Fast Trip, Long Drop, from 1993, channel-surfs through multiple sequences: Bordowitz addressing the camera about his HIV, homosexuality, Jewish heritage, and grandparents’ deaths in a car crash; public demonstrations by the advocacy group ACT UP; and disastrous daredevil stunts. “It tries to capture all of the complexity of my life,” he says. “It all came together for me with that film.”

Says Robyn Farrell, the Art Institute’s assistant curator of contemporary art: “His work simultaneously addresses large international issues while bringing them down to a very personal level.” One example is the 2001 autobiographical documentary Habit, which was filmed in Chicago and alternates between scenes of Bordowitz as he goes through his daily medication routine and footage he shot of the International AIDS Conference in South Africa in 2000. Through these juxtapositions, he contrasts people like himself who have access to medication because of financial resources with those who don’t.

Born in Brooklyn in 1964 and raised mostly in Queens, Bordowitz always knew he wanted to be an artist — and escape to Manhattan. He did both when he turned 18. Living in “a queer, artistic, drug-using community,” he says, coincided with a new reality. “People around me started getting sick, and I realized I could get sick because of the kind of sex I was having.” He recognized the political context for his personal plight: “There were people who wanted us to die, and the government was doing nothing.”

Bordowitz leading a crowd in a 1988 protest at the Food and Drug Administration
Bordowitz leading a crowd in a 1988 protest at the Food and Drug Administration Photo: Courtesy of the artist

Since then, his art and activism have gone hand in hand. Within two years during the mid-1980s, Bordowitz created his first video, joined ACT UP, tested positive for HIV, and came out to his family. He started teaching at SAIC more than 20 years ago and now splits his time between Chicago and New York.

In the past decade, Bordowitz has ventured further into live performance. For I Wanna Be Well’s opening weekend, he will present Some Styles of Masculinity, in which he takes on a different persona — comedian, rabbi, and rock star — in each of three shows. As in his videos, Bordowitz will play with his audience’s assumptions. His comedian, for instance, might have a microphone and barstool and use a standup’s speech patterns, but there are no clear laugh cues.

“As an artist, I feel it’s my job to produce moments of productive confusion, to give people the opportunity to question their shared assumptions about the world,” he says. “It’s my job to produce instances when the audience doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry.”

Details:Gregg Bordowitz: I Wanna Be Well Apr. 4–July 14. Loop. Art Institute of Chicago. $14–$25.