The Pope and the Penis

In 1990, Gran Fury was invited to exhibit in the “Aperto” section of the Venice Biennale.  They used this platform to criticize the position of the Catholic Church towards the AIDS crisis in a work entitled “The Pope and the Penis.”

The work is made up of two huge posters hung next to each other.  The first poster features previously-used images and slogans from Gran Fury works, including “Sexism Rears Its Unprotected Head,” which features an erect penis as the main visual focal point, as well as “Men, Use Condoms or Beat It” and “AIDS Kills Women.”

The second poster is an image of Pope John Paul II with a quote from Cardinal O’Connor, the archbishop of New York at the first Vatican conference on AIDS in 1989, which says “The truth is not condoms or clean needles.  These are lies…good morality is good medicine.”  The latter part of that phrase, equating morality and medicine, was often used by Ronald Reagan in his misrepresentation of the AIDS crisis.  That image is surrounded by Gran Fury’s reply: “The Catholic Church has long taught men and women to loathe their bodies and to fear their sexual natures.  This particular vision of good and evil continues to bring suffering and even death.  By holding medicine hostage to Catholic morality and withholding information which allows people to protect themselves and each other from acquiring Human Immunodeficiency Virus, the Church seeks to punish all who do not share in its peculiar vision of human experience and makes clear its preference of living saints and dead sinners.  It is immoral to practice bad medicine.  It is bad medicine to deny people information that can help end the AIDS crisis.  Condoms and clean needles save lives as surely as the earth revolves around the sun.  AIDS is caused by a virus and a virus has no morals.”  The work also featured panels on the surrounding walls giving information in English and Italian about AIDS prevention campaigns in different countries, like informational street performances in Cameroon and clean needle distribution in Germany.

The work was deliberately provocative.  It presented Pope John Paul II next to an erect penis.  It jokingly teased the Church’s historical failure to accept science it didn’t like by referencing the earth revolving around the sun.  But Gran Fury used these provocations to garner more attention to the exhibit and the AIDS cause.  The director of the Biennale, Giovanni Carandente, publicly declared before the exhibit that the piece wasn’t considered art, and that the exhibit wasn’t a place to “fight ideological and political battles,” and even threatened to resign if the piece was featured.  The work was so provocative that customs officials refused to let the poster into the country at the Italian border.  In response, Gran Fury called a news conference including newspapers from around the world who had gathered in Venice for the Biennale.  Within 48 hours of that news conference, the posters were allowed into the country and installed in the exhibit.  Mr. Carandente did not resign.

“The collective had used censorship as a means of political propaganda.  By producing a work which deliberately went beyond the boundaries of what was considered acceptable and consciously verged on blasphemy, it brought the AIDS crisis to the front pages of every Italian newspaper” (Speretta, 187).