BUT IF THE ’80s was a time of rebellion, it was, in part, a rebellion against death, brought on by AIDS. “It was a tough and severe period,” Van Beirendonck tells me, “when several people around me got sick and died. So did so many of the artists and creative people who we looked up to.” And yet, even at the height of fear, even when there was little hope of a cure, even when the shame and metaphor of the virus had become intertwined with gay culture, Van Beirendonck remained joyful about sex. His work from those years, such as 1995’s fall collection, Paradise Pleasure Productions, recognizes and celebrates various subcultures and codes of gay sex: There are latex suits dripping with flaccid phalluses and bondage masks made to look like cheap blowup dolls. They have been leitmotifs ever since — the fall 2012 collection, Lust Never Sleeps, featured more bondage masks, made from a tan leather and tweed, evocative of a British dandy — half respectable, half subversive.
The frankness of these collections makes them mesmerizing now, but when they were first shown, when many governments were actively trying to stigmatize gay sex, drawing a line between it and the disease, they would have been shocking. Their bravery is in their lack of apology. And yet Van Beirendonck doesn’t consider himself a provocateur; his intention has never been to shock, only to present. And he persists: The fall 2018 collection, Worlds of Sun and Moon, had pink, yellow and black ponchos, silk bomber jackets and jumpsuits, all punctuated with glory holes. “I know that certain things I am doing could be shocking for certain people,” he said in a 2011 interview with ShowStudio. “But they are definitely not for me.”
This dedication to depict, unflinchingly, a certain subculture and to explore the toll AIDS had taken on his community reached its apotheosis in his 1996 spring collection, Killer / Astral Travel / 4D-Hi-D. Held in the Lido nightclub in Paris, the show presented an intergalactic world filled with neon-colored clothes, moon boots and enormous space-age topiary-like wigs, along with a narrative about a young girl named Heidi who befriends a space goat. The show’s Heidi character was a direct reference to the work of the American artists Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy, both of whom Van Beirendonck cites as major influences in confronting the violence and oppression of childhood (Kelley’s work was more abject, even plaintive; McCarthy’s remains more aggressive and sexually threatening). In 1992, the two collaborated on a video work called “Heidi,” inspired by the Swiss writer Johanna Spyri’s 1881 novel about an orphan sent to live in the woods with her grandfather. Kelley and McCarthy were attracted to the allegory of Heidi’s story: an innocent girl living with an old man she wants to please. But in Van Beirendonck’s interpretation, projected onto a screen at the show, Heidi’s sweet little mountain goat is transmogrified into a devil, who represents AIDS. He called their encounter a fatal attraction: the story of something that looks benign suddenly transforming into something deadly.