Wojnarowicz, slikar, književnik, fotograf (umro je od AIDS-a 1992.) jedan je od onih bijesnih umjetnika koji napadaju sustav, stroj za ubijanje zvan suvremeno (u njegovu slučaju - američko) društvo. Dikensovskog podrijetla, kao tinejdžer je na ulicama prodavao seksualne usluge, no iako bez akademskog obrazovanja postao je prvorazredan, provokativan umjetnik, karizmatičan poput rock-zvijezde. Danas je slavan zato što je "(fala bogu) mrtav", no nedavno je opet sablaznio religiozne konzervativce pa mu je eksperimentalni video Fire In the Belly bio "zabranjen" u Smithsonianu. Ove godine objavljena je i njegova biografija.
Artist in Extremis
The new biography of painter, writer, and photographer David Wojnarowicz
But fate arranged things differently, and today David Wojnarowicz is primarily famous for being dead. Unless, that is, he’s more famous for serving as a convenient bogeyman and target for the Christian arm of the American right wing. Wojnarowicz contracted HIV in the late 1980s and died of AIDS in 1992, and in his last years he did not mince words when it came to the government’s criminal negligence, with the active complicity of most of the Christian churches, with regard to the disease. He remains as much alive to the right wing as he does to his admirers, but what ostensibly inflames his enemies are not his accusations. On December 1, 2010—World AIDS Day—the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, capitulated to demands by the Catholic League and pulled Wojnarowicz’s work from the show “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.” At stake was an eleven-second sequence from his film A Fire in My Belly (1986), which showed fire ants crawling over a crucifix. They also crawled over watches, coins, and other items—the symbology was not subtle, but it probably wouldn’t occur to most people to consider it blasphemy, either. Although it’s quite possible that the sequence could have raised the ire of the league’s William Donohue, a sort of comic-opera Grand Inquisitor, had it been made by Joe or Jane Blow, the fact that it was the work of Wojnarowicz predictably evoked the cordite aroma of the Culture Wars, when people like Donohue made their names and their talking-head profiles. To those cartoon cowboys, Wojnarowicz, Karen Finley, and Andres Serrano were the Dalton Gang, and even in death his name can still cause their trigger fingers to itch.
What galvanized his anger, obviously, was AIDS and everything that accompanied it, but it had been simmering within him for the better part of his life. His childhood was traumatic, to say the least. Sometime in September 1954, his father, Ed, an alcoholic who had gambled away his salary, brandished a gun and threatened to kill his wife, Dolores, and their children. David was born on the fourteenth, but it is not recorded whether the incident occurred before or after that date. The parents were divorced a few years later, although that hardly improved matters, as David and his older brother and sister were swung back and forth between them in a ceaseless drama that involved threats, beatings, abandonments, and even a kidnapping. Both parents were wildly unstable, Dolores in her quiet way not much less so than the violent and dissolute Ed, who killed himself in 1976. In the accounts assembled by Cynthia Carr in her new biography of Wojnarowicz, Fire in the Belly, Dolores appears passive, recessive, often emotionally absent, not to mention passively aggressive and extremely unreliable. (She is still alive, although she did not respond to Carr’s requests for an interview.) It is telling that the three children—Carr had interviewed David late in his life on a number of occasions, in addition to talking to his siblings—could seldom agree on details from their childhood, were given to significant memory lapses, and habitually misdated their own recollections. A diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder would not appear out of the question for any of them, including their mother.
In general, biographies provide the reader with two patches of tough sledding: the childhood of their subject, which is usually sketchy, haphazardly documented, and sometimes stultifyingly dull, and tends toward the generic; and the years after fame has come, which most often resolve into mere lists of addresses and other famous names. In the case of Fire in the Belly, the latter phase is, of course, conspicuously absent, and the former is gripping and very much of a piece with the balance of the life. This is a reflection not only of Wojnarowicz’s extraordinarily difficult existence, but also of Carr’s doggedness and resourcefulness as a reporter—not to mention her wisdom, taste, and writerly skills. In addition to working out a plausible account of his childhood from piecemeal clues, she manages to document his adolescence with a thoroughness that makes the book one of the most vivid accounts of teenage creative development I’ve read yet.
This too is made possible by the reconfigured timescale of a short life: Every year lived becomes in retrospect proportionately longer and more full. If somehow Rimbaud had lived to a ripe old age, do you think that more than a handful of scholars would be bothering with his Latin school verse? But then you can’t quite imagine Rimbaud reaching even his terminal age of thirty-seven, which is also how long Wojnarowicz lived. And how easy is it to imagine him in middle age or beyond? The particular energy that connects his works in diverse media is emphatically young, even when he was ill and slowing down. You’ll note that well before anyone had heard of AIDS he was working on his extended “Rimbaud in New York” series, photographs of various young men wearing a mask of Rimbaud’s face as photographed by Étienne Carjat, posing in significant locations: Forty-Second Street, the meatpacking district, the subway, the West Side piers, where men met for sex. When someone dies young, everything comes to look like an omen.
In 1971, at sixteen, Wojnarowicz moved out of his mother’s West Side apartment and went to live on the streets. He had already tricked a few times and now started hustling professionally. That is a standard feature of his legend, and it is true, although the broader truth is as complicated as adolescence usually is. He lived on the streets, in a halfway house, in a squat, periodically at his mother’s and sister’s houses, and in legitimate apartments with roommates. He tricked, and bummed around on the road a bit, and worked at Pottery Barn and in a bookstore, and hung out with people who issued mimeographed poetry zines. The feral aspect of Wojnarowicz’s character coexisted harmoniously with the profile of an artistically inclined urban youth in his path through the 1970s, from uptown to downtown, poetry to bands to Super 8 to art, the progress of an entire microgeneration. (I was born the same year as him, lived a few blocks from him for over a decade, knew many people in common, hung out at many of the same places, but somehow we never met. It happens.)
Things truly started happening for him around 1980. It was then that he formed the band 3 Teens Kill 4 with his friends, and also that Sounds in the Distance, a collection of imaginary monologues he attributed to an assortment of street people, was published in London; he later made it into a play. He worked as a busboy at Danceteria and the Peppermint Lounge and hung out heavily—it was also the year that Club 57 and the Pyramid Club institutionalized gay-straight socializing on the Lower East Side. And around then he met the photographer Peter Hujar, twenty years his senior. The two were occasional lovers, but their relationship was more paternal-filial, or maybe fraternal. Hujar was an artist of the first water, with rigorous standards he passed on to Wojnarowicz; he was also a bohemian of the old school, intransigently committed to voluntary poverty as a consequence of resisting an impressively broad range of pursuits that could be construed as selling out. He exerted a powerful and lasting moral influence.
Wojnarowicz—who had for some time been stenciling vaguely political images around on the streets, most famously his iconic burning house—took his first steps in drawing and painting at the piers, crepuscular ruins with vast expanses of crumbling walls crying out for embellishment, beginning gradually at the well-trafficked Pier 34 and eventually taking over the hazardous, decaying Pier 28 with his murals. His timing was impeccable—in 1982 the East Village art boom was on, an efflorescence of galleries ranging from slapdash to slick (there were eventually 176 of them, although not all at the same time) that seemed to proliferate overnight and faded almost as suddenly. It seemed like everybody who’d been in a band the previous year was now having an opening. The scene was an assortment of wet stones on the beach. René Ricard summed it up pithily at the time: “The feeling of new art is fugitive, like the FUN [gallery]: here for a moment, gone forever. It’s only truly valuable before it’s surrounded by the mystique of money, while it’s still owned by culture, before it becomes booty.”
Artists could make a name for themselves in very short order—for instance Wojnarowicz, who “between the end of 1982 and the end of ’83 . . . had three one-man shows at three galleries . . . while also participating in fourteen group exhibitions,” not including his ongoing pier project. He was painting on driftwood, garbage-can lids, supermarket posters. His imagery alternated between homoerotic scenes and purposeful emblems, like the pictures on lotería cards: globes, animal skulls, burning children. He was a hot ticket, his works flying off the walls—which didn’t necessarily mean he was being paid commensurately, since the galleries had no backers and tended to run like Ponzi schemes when they weren’t being fleeced by their clients, who might not take them seriously enough to pay their debts. Wojnarowicz realized the irony that his success was owed at least in part to the relative flatness of the surrounding landscape—the scene’s excitement derived from what Brian Eno dubbed “scenius,” not so much individual genius. He told Dennis Cooper that “his success was destroying him because he couldn’t reject it in good conscience.”
While all this was going on, AIDS was gradually taking hold of the city, and Carr punctuates her story with an ominous counterpoint of incidents and dates. The New York Times story headlined “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals” ran on July 3, 1981. Larry Kramer published his call to arms, “1,112 and Counting,” in the New York Native in March 1983, and a few months later the incomparable Klaus Nomi died. In April 1985, Cookie Mueller could still tell readers of her health and advice column in the East Village Eye not to worry about AIDS: “If you don’t have it now, you won’t get it.” (She was to die of it herself four and a half years later.) But the toll was mounting inexorably; no treatment was available, just a menu of “holistic” placebos, mostly involving diet. Hujar was diagnosed in January 1987; by then there were more than thirty thousand cases in New York City. He died in late November, and Wojnarowicz was diagnosed the following spring. By the fall he had started making work that directly addressed the crisis. He had photographed Hujar on his deathbed, and he silk-screened the image onto canvas and laid over it a quote from an official in Texas: “If I had a dollar to spend for healthcare I’d rather spend it on a baby or innocent person with some defect or illness not of their own responsibility, not some person with AIDS.” From then until the end of his life, his work came so fast and was so highly charged it could look as if the disease had actually rekindled him rather than gradually draining his energy.
Under AIDS, the late ’80s and early ’90s were a kind of war; someone compared it to the first battle of the Somme, which decimated the young male population of Britain in just twenty-four hours. And the vast losses were aggravated by the inaction of the government and the murderous contempt of the soi-disant Christians who blamed the victims. Many of Wojnarowicz’s rants may now sound crude, adolescent, ineffective in their scattershot rage—fantasies of torching Jesse Helms, or his calling Cardinal John O’Connor a “fat cannibal from the house of walking swastikas”—but in their time they were not only understandable but necessary, expressing out loud all the stuff people were thinking but mostly kept to themselves, and that is one of the things that art is meant to do. Furthermore, his rage and its public manifestations were probably tonic—to the extent that anything could be tonic under the relentless advance of the disease—forestalling mere despair and collapse. He kept a schedule of work and travel that would have been grueling even for someone in the pink of health.
In his book Close to the Knives, published in his last year, Wojnarowicz considered memorial rituals, and suggested that the most appropriate expression of grief for victims of AIDS would be for the survivors to “take the dead body and drive with it in a car a hundred miles an hour to Washington d.c. and blast through the gates of the white house and come to a screeching halt before the entrance and dump their lifeless form on the front steps.” He died on July 22, 1992. Four years later his partner, Tom Rauffenbart, in the course of an ACT UP action, threw his ashes over the fence onto the White House lawn. Wojnarowicz was a gifted artist who was denied the satisfaction of achieving artistic maturity, but in the face of great odds he seized the chance to become an actor in history. Carr’s book is unimprovable as a biography—thorough, measured, beautifully written, loving but not uncritical—as a concentrated history of his times, and as a memorial, presenting him in his entirety, twenty years dead but his ardor uncooled.
With about a week left to apply for an Arts Writers Grant, we’d like to share an example of a recently completed Arts Writers project. Cynthia Carr’s Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz, awarded a book grant in 2008, is a biography of the controversial painter, photographer and writer, as well as a history of the East Village art scene, the AIDS crisis, and the “culture wars” of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. I recently spoke to Carr about the cultural histories she weaves together in this remarkable book, which will be published by Bloomsbury on July 17.
Kareem Estefan: When the experimental writer Kathy Acker performed alongside Wojnarowicz for an ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) benefit at the Drawing Center in 1991, she called him a “saint.” Yet one of the things I appreciate most about your book is that, far from a hagiography, it is a very critical biography. You show Wojnarowicz to have been irascible and selfish as often as he was gentle and generous, and so a very complex picture emerges.
Cynthia Carr: I had to show all the sides of him in order to create a true picture. It wouldn’t be a real biography otherwise. He was definitely not a saint. He was an angry person, and yes—complicated. He also created a myth around himself, as a kind of cloak, trying to hide himself. When he was first interviewed in 1984, he was already doing it: “I was a hustler, my father beat me…” and everything else is erased, because he didn’t want to talk about his mother or siblings. The father’s dead, so he can say what he wants about him, and he can go right to the hustling, “and then I met Peter Hujar [his long-time partner],” just to make it simple.
By the time I interviewed him in 1990, he told me that he regretted doing that. I mean, those things are true. He was a hustler; he just erased a lot. And one thing you have to do in a biography is break through that: what really happened?
KE: He definitely constructs a mythology for himself. Rimbaud was very important to him, and he made a famous photo-series called Rimbaud in New York, placing the poet in his own favorite haunts. You note the many similarities between their lives: born almost exactly a century apart, they left home as adolescents, and grew up impoverished, rebellious, and queer. They would die at the same age, 37. Reading your book, I kept thinking of Rimbaud’s famous quote: “I is an other.” There was no singular “I” for Wojnarowicz; he was always fragmented. He shared different parts of himself with different friends, and many of his close friends were later shocked at what your research revealed about him. At one point in his journal, he even separates an “I” from a “David”: I sometimes feel bad for that David and can’t believe he is dying. Can you talk about why he always felt so split?
CC: I’m sure it had to do with his childhood, with finding a way to feel safe. He always felt that something was wrong with him—that he was an alien, and that if people really knew who he was, they would not like him. If he knew that two friends talked to each other about him, it would drive him crazy. He didn’t want what he had told one person to be transmitted to the other, even something good; he really needed to compartmentalize.
David Wojnarowicz, Arthur Rimbaud in New York (on subway), 1978-79, silver print, 8 x 10 inches. Courtesy of the Estate of David Wojnarowicz and P.P.O.W Gallery, New York.
KE: How did he first respond to finding out that he was HIV-positive? As someone who was surrounded by poverty, violence and death much of his life, what did the awareness of his own impending death mean?
CC: He got very depressed, which is not surprising. That’s when he got involved with ACT UP and started going to demonstrations. And he began to work with great urgency on his next show, In the Shadow of Forward Motion (ITSOFOMO), which was the biggest show he ever did. He made that work thinking that it might be the last he’d ever do.
But for a while, he was asymptomatic. The doctor told me that David had full-blown AIDS from the time he was tested. His T-cell count was already low, below 200, but he didn’t have any opportunistic infections.
KE: It’s haunting how AIDS creeps into this chronological narrative, spreading from a strange, rumored disease—a New York Times article from 1981 reports on so-called “gay” cancer, and then Larry Kramer’s 1983 article warns about a crisis, which wasn’t yet recognized as a crisis—to an epidemic that devastated a whole community, until, as you note, every day began with a look at the obituaries.
CC: Until I started putting all this together in this book, I didn’t quite take it in myself—how much the AIDS epidemic was like the shadow behind the East Village scene the entire time. Even in the late ‘70s, the virus was already here and spreading, but no one knew about it. A few people died, but it was just a medical mystery for the doctors.
And then you’d start to hear about people you knew who were sick. I think even people who lived through those times try to forget it, because it was so traumatic. There were memorial services to go to constantly. An entire circle of friends could be wiped out. Young people were dying ugly, horrible deaths. And there was absolutely nothing you could do for them. It was like living through a war where hardly anyone comes back. It was an age of grief.
KE: The East Village art scene died out before most of its artists were dying of AIDS. Talk about this rapid rise and fall, from roughly 1980 to 1985.
CC: When it started with FUN Gallery and Gracie Mansion, I was living in the East Village because it was a cheap place. The main thing going on was drugs. It was frightening to even walk down certain streets. I was covering performances in the clubs. I remember leaving my house for shows late at night, and I would sometimes walk down the middle of the street because every building I passed was abandoned.
Then the galleries came in. It was so exciting for a while: all these crummy little storefronts full of paintings. The spaces were so tiny. Like Civilian Warfare. It was about the width of an airplane; it was almost comical that it would become an art gallery. It was like a cartoon version of the art world. The landlords were overjoyed: “You want to have a gallery in this bodega?” They could see the gentrification process beginning.
One night I went to [performance space] 8BC and David Lee Roth, the lead singer for Van Halen, was there. I thought, “What the hell are you doing here?” In this crummy little club that had a dirt floor when it opened. And I realized, “Oh my god, it’s over.”
KE: You suggest that the whole idea of being “marginal” or “underground” evaporated with the passing of the East Village scene…
CC: There was a cultural change. I wrote a piece once called “The Bohemian Diaspora,” about this idea that there wasn’t a physical location for bohemia anymore. No room for an “autonomous zone.” During David’s lifetime, there were definitely many such zones, even in Manhattan. Not just the empty buildings in the East Village but the piers along the Hudson. Now every inch of ground has been colonized. And there’s so much media looking for the Next Big Thing. As soon as anything “underground” attracts the spotlight, it disappears. Or it gets expensive and the “marginal” have to go.
KE: Talk about Wojnarowicz’s relationship to the established art world. I’m thinking of the time he threw bloody cow bones onto the steps outside Leo Castelli Gallery. Or let his “cock-a-bunnies”—cockroaches he gave rabbit ears—loose in a PS1 group exhibition from which he felt excluded.
CC: He had an adversarial relationship with the art world right from the start, and that’s why he liked being in the East Village, at Civilian Warfare, where he felt like the dealers were just like him. They had an adversarial relationship, too.
KE: Wojnarowicz had a striking phrase for all he rebelled against: “the pre-invented world.” What did this mean to him?
CC: It’s everything that is imposed on you when you’re born—the official reality. He talked about the “regulated world, the fenced-in world.” He thought it should all be questioned. He writes about it more beautifully than I ever could, in a passage from his memoir Close to the Knives, which I include in the book:
The world of the stoplight, the no-smoking signs, the rental world, the split-rail fencing shielding hundreds of miles of barren wilderness from the human step. A place where by virtue of having been born centuries late one is denied access to earth or space, choice or movement. The bought-up world; the owned world. The world of coded sounds: the world of language, the world of lies. The packaged world; the world of speed in metallic motion. The Other World where I’ve always felt like an alien.
Impossible Mike: SILENCE STILL = DEATH
I wanted to write about this, or at least mention it here, because it’s occupying my mind to the point where I feel guilty for spending two hours recording videos of myself singing songs by Ke$ha , watching a shitty horror movie, or even listening to stoner metal last night. Hell, basically the fact that I did anything other than “be angry” is making me feel guilty. But on the other hand I know that’s ridiculous, and that the unfortunate fact of the matter is being angry wouldn’t have accomplished anything. To be fair nothing I actually did accomplished anything either. I don’t know what I could have done that would have been helpful, so I guess getting the information out to people who don’t know is something I can do at least.
The above video is a 4 minute and 11 second excerpt from David Wojnarowicz’s experimental film Fire in My Belly. This is all I’ve seen of the film (in fact I didn’t even know that this was only an excerpt, as opposed to the entire film, until yesterday), but I’ve watched it a lot. Wojnarowicz is an artist that I find really powerful, both from the entire scope of his life story and in the art he produced itself.
By 16, Wojnarowicz had dropped out of high school and was living on the streets, due to a shitty home life and the terror he faced due to his own homosexuality. Homeless, he hustled for a living, eventually hitchhiking cross-country a few times before settling in NYC in the late 70s. In the 1980s he was diagnosed with AIDS.
Not to pull attention away from his earlier works–virtually everything he made throughout his visible life as an artist is amazing–but the work he started to make after being diagnosed, well, the work was angry. David Wojnarowicz was angry because he was invisible–because queers were invisible. Something that he said, that I think is really fucking just so to the point, is what follows:
”I want to throw up because we’re supposed to quietly and politely make house in this killing machine called America and pay taxes to support our own slow murder and I’m amazed we’re not running amok in the streets, and that we can still be capable of gestures of loving after lifetimes of all this.”The thing is, he’s right. No matter how much you personally want to distance yourself from the idea of politics, of being political at all, there’s an entire world of people surrounding you that is just getting walked over again and again, even today, whether because they’re queer, or because they’re women, or because they’re poor, or because they’re old, or because they’re not white, or just because they’re different. It’s severely fucked up.
Yesterday was World AIDS Day. Google commemorated World AIDS Day by reminding their millions of visitors of Rosa Parks’s civil actions. The Smithsonian commemorated World AIDS Day by conceding to the pressures of the Catholic League & other conservative groups by removing Wojnarowicz’s video, above, from a show at the National Portraiture Gallery, where a show on the visibility of queer love is currently being exhibited. While this is ultimately ironic, it’s also fucking infuriating.
At ArtInfo, Tyler Green brings up “Ten Key Points About the Smithsonian/NPG Controversy, and I think the most relevant point is as follows:
“A key part of these events is the refusal of religious conservatives to acknowledge that gays and lesbians are Americans in full, as worthy of being studied and contextualized by historians as Catholics or Montanans. The religious right wants nothing less than for gays and lesbians to be made as invisible as possible, to be hidden or removed from our shared national history.”I’m not sure if the conservatives who targeted Wojnarowicz’s video were trying to be clever, or ironic, or if it was just by some fucked up & convenient accident accident that this was the work they chose, but as I’ve mentioned, Wojnarowciz’s entire motivation for making art was to further the idea that queers should not be invisible.
And now, in 20-fucking-10, we have part two of the NEA/Mapplethorpe “Controversy”. This is sickening, and makes me want to walk down the streets with piles of acid to pour on the world so we can all just melt into the goddamn earth, maybe starting over again in a millennium or two. Or use the combined psychic distress of everyone who has been marginalized ever to destroy the world. Or write fan fiction about a “post-rapture world” where bigoted Christians are finally gone and Real People can live in peace. Because I’m tired of having to ignore shit like this just to be able to convince myself that doing anything is a worthy pursuit. Because if I actually remind myself of how terrible people can be I find it really, really difficult to just be alive.
So, I guess the question is, what can be done? I think it’s incredibly important that Wojnarowicz’s work remain visible, not only as a voice for disgruntled queers, but for marginalized youths in general. There are a bunch of facebook groups that you can join to show your support, or you can “write on the Smithsonian’s wall” and tell them that they’re fuck-heads. But these things seem pretty passive to me. So, I guess instead, here’s my suggestion. Tell everyone you know, everyone you meet, that this is a terrible fucking thing. Tell people who don’t care. I think it’s important that this event, this fucking shameless bowing to the Right, is visible. I think this is something that is far bigger than the artworld, because it’s fucked up. It’s a microcosm of the terrible shit that happens to both marginalized art & people on a daily basis.
"One way of reading the slowly cooling controversy over the Smithsonian's removal of David Wojnarowicz's "A Fire in My Belly" video is that it was desperately necessary. In the attacks and defenses, the protests and petitions, one sensed a palpable relief. Finally, the art world was back to normal. Religious people got angry; the culturati got angry. It was Mapplethorpe's Concoran and Ofili's Sensation all over again. The players took their places, the scripts were handed out, the media yelled "Action!" and everyone knew what to do. Senator Jesse Helms was replaced with Representative John Boehner, and Andres Serrano was replaced with Wojnarowicz, though it wasn't urine on the crucifix this time. It was ants.
But as the media scans for the next controversy, having drained this one of its potential, a more positive art world development endures: The return of religion as a serious concern. Two shows closing this month told a far different story than have the season's cultural headlines. First was Enrique Martínez Celaya's exhibit at Manhattan's Museum of Biblical Art, entitled "The Wanderer," in conjunction with a parallel installation at the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine entitled "The Crossing." Martínez Celaya's paintings and sculptures at MOBIA were anything but straightforwardly religious -- they were gravid with mystery and doubt. But they were presided over by shelves of antique Bibles, as if to remind the viewer that the Scriptures themselves pose similar questions. Likewise, the paintings installed at St. John the Divine contrasted early 20th century stained glass that celebrated Christian civilization, with the brooding interrogations of a God-haunted artist. Art and religion, both Martínez Celaya's installations seemed to suggest, can help one another succeed.
Ironically, Makoto Fujimura's exibition, "The Four Holy Gospels," though more explicitly religious, inhabited the supposedly secular Chelsea district at the Dillon Gallery (though reappearing at the MOBIA this summer). The paintings show just how far "evangelical" artists have come, from Timothy R. Botts' calligraphic transcriptions of Bible verses, to Fujimura's airily abstract, wordless meditations on the Holy Writ. Fujimura, a member of Manhattan's Redeemer Presbyterian Church, came to faith as a painter and has made a career of showing Protestants how faith and art can be symbiotic. Neither Martínez Celaya's nor Fujimura's show received overwhelming press, but those who visited them were assured that far more interesting things are afoot than an art world/Republican party standoff.
While the Smithsonian controversy made it seem like art and religion could never be more distanced, the truth is that religion has become an increasing point of artistic concern. Art historians, to be sure, have long ignored the last century's religious art, but such a tiresome approach is recently being itself ignored. The title of Yale art historian Sally Promey's article says it all: "The 'Return' of Religion in the Scholarship of American Art." Likewise, it's no mere coincidence that the Art Seminar series, a major forum in the fields of art and art history, concluded with a volume on religion, entitled "Re-Enchantment," questioning why religious concerns have been unjustly excluded from the world of art. Most recently, a symposium designed to continue this line of investigation, entitled "Why Have There Been No Great Modern Religious Artists?" is scheduled alongside the meeting of the College Art Association in Manhattan next month. The Symposium aims to challenge the "narratives of modernist and post-modernist art history that have tended to omit serious consideration of Christian strains in 20th century and current artistic practice." Art's chilly attitude toward religion is thawing, expressed perhaps most directly by Harvard's Camille Paglia:
I would argue that the route to a renaissance of the American fine arts lies through religion. Let me make my premises clear: I am a professed atheist and a pro-choice libertarian Democrat... For the fine arts to revive, they must recover their spiritual center. Profaning the iconography of other people's faiths is boring and adolescent. The New Age movement, to which I belong, was a distillation of the 1960s' multicultural attraction to world religions, but it has failed thus far to produce important work in the visual arts.To be sure, the art world suffers from a secular hangover still. But one can't shake the feeling that religious concerns are the elephant in the gallery, waiting to be more fully addressed. When the dust settles from the controversy over Wojnarowicz (whose work should be understood apart from it), this refreshing proximity of art and religion, not their temporary alienation, will endure.
At the end of the day, the silliest part of the passing kerfuffle is that it betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of Christianity. The cross, at least according to St. Paul (1 Corinthians 1:23), is already an intentional offense, and nothing done to it by artists can make it any more horrifying than it already, quite intentionally, is: The most hideous of spectacles, a hole impossibly black, absorbing every awful deed committed and every good one left undone. Just what is a crucifix? It's impossible to say: "As the depths of the sea cannot be fathomed by any human gaze," wrote Gregory of Nyssa, "so too the secret of Hell is impenetrable to all human knowledge." But such was the cost of redemption. Compared to the bracing reality of the gospel itself, urine and ants are as offensive as Champagne and butterflies." - Matthew Milliner
"Wojnarowicz’s work emerged directly from his life. He knew little art history, had no training past high school, and made a point of not trolling the galleries to see what everyone else was doing. Exposed to unusual hardship as a boy, as a sexually active teen, and as a street person, he didn’t see his experience reflected in the culture. Art was his antidote. Art was his way of witnessing." - C. Carr
"David Wojnarowicz is recognized as one of the most potent voices of his generation, and his singular artistic achievements place him firmly within a long-standing American tradition of the artist as visionary, rebel and public figure. Art historian and critic John Carlin likens Wojnarowicz to the great American 19th century poet Walt Whitman, the preeminent celebrator of individual freedom. Carlin likens Whitman’s verbal poetry, which was inspired by the rhythms of New York slang and the rhetoric of American journalism, to Wojnarowicz’s visual poetry, which emerged from social history, popular culture, and his own dreams and visions.
Often overlapping text, paint, collaged elements, and photography, and sometimes organizing them in quadrants or comic strip-like frames, Wojnarowicz created provocative narratives and historical allegories dealing with dialectical themes of order and disorder, birth and death. His funky collage sensibilities are rooted in Bay Area assemblagist methods of the 1950s and 1960s practiced by such artists as Jess, Bruce Conner and George Herms. Wojnarowicz’s signature method of compressing historical time and activity with an accomplished collage technique further intensifies the impact of his work. In Crash: The Birth of Language/The Invention of Lies (1986), Wojnarowicz depicts Western culture as a metaphorical train wreck that crashes into and destroys past indigenous cultures, ultimately giving birth to language which facilitates questionable “progress” and reckless human expansion.
A strong identification with uniquely American idioms is manifest in Wojnarowicz’s art. His source materials include comics, science fiction, news, and mass advertising. Wojnarowicz developed a distinct vocabulary of symbols that took on meaning through careful combinations that played off one another ironically and metaphorically. Iconic and idiosyncratic at the same time, his recurring cast of characters includes a burning man, a man with a target over his left eye, a cowboy riding a bull, a dinosaur, and an upside-down cow.
Wojnarowicz was inspired by such Pop Art luminaries as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. He drew upon the common experiences of most Americans, and used ordinary images to construct abstract formal relationships. Symbols of the American dream are recontextualized and deployed as searing indictments of American capitalism and violence. Advertisements are transformed into visions of horror, as in his supermarket ad series. Untitled [Sirloin Steaks] (1983), is a fusion of eroticism and death, a powerful indication of the rage he felt at how much more attention society gave to killing men rather than loving them.
In his rebellious struggle against conformity, materialism and mechanization, one can see the formative influence of the 1950s Beat writers on Wojnarowicz’s art. Just as the Beats found America in the 1950s to be a dehumanized prison of exclusionary mainstream values, Wojnarowicz found America in the 1980s to be in a similar ethical state of emergency. His allegiance to the Beats, especially Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs also can be seen in his profound concern with spiritual matters. In The Death of American Spirituality (1987), Wojnarowicz depicts a cowboy riding a bull, collaged from newspaper articles referring to gangsters, Oliver North, AIDS and advertisements for cars and electronics. Images of a kachina doll, a snake charmer, and Jesus fade into a background of factories and exploding rocks. The work suggests many layers of meaning, but the implication of the loss of belief in myth, religion and history is clear.
In Water (1987), one of the “Four Elements” series, Wojnarowicz attempts to create a semblance of order from events and forces that were completely beyond his control. The painting contains a black-and-white storyboard juxtaposing explicit sexual imagery with biological specimens, circular abstractions, landscapes and other fantasy images. In this deeply personal interpretation of its theme, Water offers a wrenching glimpse of the sadness at the heart of Wojnarowicz’s struggle to become a painter, on the threshold of the final, most productive phase of his life.
Writer and critic Lucy Lippard draws a parallel between the works of Wojnarowicz and those of Robert Smithson, the sculptor and photographer associated with 1970s conceptual and process-oriented art, which rejected the commercialization of art and embraced anti-urbanism. Lippard notes that both artists were accomplished writers and photographers, and shared a mutual fascination with maps, reptiles, dinosaurs, and imagery related to science fiction, geological time, the industrial landscape and industrial decay. In Wojnarowicz’ art there are frequent and ominous references to clocks and time, and he uses cut-up maps and money repeatedly to suggest the artificiality of geographical, social and political boundaries.
Natural subjects like insects and tornadoes are employed to suggest the biological forces of nature and mankind’s present disharmony with those forces. This is powerfully illustrated by the artist’s emblematic photograph of a herd of buffalo being driven off a cliff (Untitled, 1988-89), an image taken from a diorama at the National History Museum in Washington, DC. The “Ant Series,” (1988) in which plastic ants are placed on the surface of photos that are then re-photographed, plays with sexuality, art, death and religion in an almost carefree manner.
With the unfolding of the AIDS crisis, Wojnarowicz’s analysis and critique of society became increasingly focused in the late 1980s. He used his own diagnosis of AIDS as the impetus to speak out and to emphasize the artist as a public figure. Unlike many of his contemporaries such as Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, Wojnarowicz’s iconic imagery struggles to retain emotive content, with direct connections to his personal experience and political beliefs. The work of his later years convey a sense of urgency and imminent mortality, as well as capture the inherent dynamism and diversity of human experience.
Through mixed media works, photomontages, and many performances and installations, the artist addressed the personal and political dimensions of AIDS with moving clarity. In the “Sex Series,” (1988-89), Wojnarowicz adds a disturbing undertone to stock images of the city, a feeling heightened by the incorporation of photos, mostly explicit sex images clipped from gay pornography, set into round frames. The combination and composition of images invite us to imagine that these smaller scenes are being carried out undercover within the larger ones.
In Untitled [One day this kid…], a photo-text collage from 1990, Wojnarowicz includes a 1950s snapshot of himself as a young boy, surrounded by a foreboding text that outlines the probable outcome of the discovery of his homosexuality. The boy finds out that his desire is not controlled by himself, but by the family, church, school, medical community, law enforcement and government, and that he inevitably will be driven to conform, be silent, or suffer the disciplines of society.
It is Wojnarowicz’s refusal to be silent that imbues the work with such power. His heavily documented life and the art he produced have become examples of one man’s attempt to awaken social consciousness and transform the world’s disdain into a powerful indictment against intolerance and apathy." - Dan Cameron
David Wojnarowicz, Rimbaud in New York, 1977–79
rimbaud hoped to arrive at "the unknown by a derangement of the senses," a "delirious state of mind out of which self-knowledge and poetic truths might emerge." wojnarowicz seems to have hoped not to arrive but to pass through as one would go through a subway, glimpsing through the windows the ghost of biological locations and the movements he made between them which led to his predicament. the persistant outlaw in the face of impending self-destruction.
"i didn't see myself as rimbaud but rather used him as a device to confront my own desires, experiences, biography, and to try and touch on those elusive "sites of attraction"; those places that suddenly and unexpectedly revive the smell and traces of former states of body and mind long ago left behind"
the figures he looked up to - genet, burroughs, and rimbaud - showed him that "one could transcend society's hatred of diversity and loathing of homosexuals" through creative strategies, while demonstrating the value of preserving records of personal experience. through the rimbaud series he could be on the streets without ending up on them, commiting himself to art instead of drugs or prostituition that might precipitate an early demise.
A Renegade of Expression: David Wojnarowicz's Autofiction in Comics
|Author: David A. Beronä|
Abstract (E): This essay examines autofiction, as defined by Serge Doubrovsky, in the work of the celebrated American artist and writer David Wojnarowicz who collaborated with the artist James Romberger to create a graphic novel called Seven Miles a Second. I compare this comic book example of autofiction to Wojnarowicz’s autobiographical textual works and examine the differences between autofiction in a textual and a graphic format. Wojnarowicz’s life is examined with special focus on surrealism and queer theory. Čitaj ovdje
Many people know that David Wojnarowicz was an excellent artist, but fewer probably know that he was also an excellent writer. Consider this passage from his graphic novel 7 Miles a Second:
When I’m pressing my foot to the accelerator of the car and there is that sensation of being just on the edge of going airborne drifting fast and soundless on a narrow strip of asphalt that ribbons into the further distance between the black hills I feel for a second that I can outrace my own being I can outrun my own existence the terrible weight and responsibility of my own body but it’s not true.Those unpunctuated sentences are thrilling and crushing. They barrel forwards, capturing not only the image Wojnarowicz is creating, but its feeling. And then they stop, having run head-first into reality: “but it’s not true.”
They also encapsulate the primary concern of Wojnarowicz in this book, and we can guess, by extension, throughout his life — “the terrible weight and responsibility of my own body.” 7 Miles a Second, originally put out by DC Comics in 1996 and recently republished by Fantagraphics Books, is a memoir comprised of personal stories mixed with dreams, hallucinatory images, and social commentary. Nearly all of those center on Wojnarowicz’s incredibly weighty relationship with his own body — a body that he sold for money so he could survive; a body that was abused by those to whom he rented it; a body that was infected with HIV, that dragged him down with its virus. “I can’t abstract my own dying any longer,” he writes on the second-to-last page. That must be among the most poignant expressions of the reality of illness ever written.
* * *Memoirs today are everywhere. If you’ve undergone something terrible, there exists a vast market awaiting your contribution. We want to read about your trials and tribulations. The banalization of suffering has come.
But memoirs, by and large, are not about failure. Cancer survivors write memoirs; those who die of cancer generally do not. That’s what makes Wojnarowicz’s writing, from 1992, the year of his death, so remarkable. It’s of a piece with Harold Brodkey’s equally penetrating narration of his own death, also from AIDS, This Wild Darkness. Wojnarowicz and Brodkey didn’t win the great game of life; they lost bitterly. To hear about those losses firsthand, to watch them unfold in words that essentially position us as front-row spectators, is devastating.
To be clear, and fair, 7 Miles a Second isn’t only about death. But it is filled with mostly painful experiences: Wojnarowicz drugged and abused by a man who’s paid to sleep with him; Wojnarowicz and a friend nearly mugging a homeless man because they’re desperate for money; Wojnarowicz watching his friends die around him of AIDS. The weightiness of life is inescapable, nor is it meant to be, although it’s mollified somewhat by the artist’s dreams and visions — hazy, sometimes abstract passages that jumble natural images with surreal hallucinations, political rage, and poetry:
It sparks in the inversion of wind then flowers out momentarily in black petals of smoke and light. Vibrating in the mist that exudes from its center a huge fat clockwork of civilization the whole onward crush of the world as we know it all the walking swastikas yap-yapping cartoon video death language a malfunctioning cannonball filled with bone and gristle and knives and bullets and gears and pistons and lightning, spewing language and motions and shit and entrails in its wake.The darkness is also lightened by the artwork in the book, images by James Romberger and watercolors by Marguerita Van Cook. Their brilliantly and loosely colored panels — which isn’t quite the right word anyway, because nearly every spread deviates from the typical grid-like comic book format — don’t quite illustrate the text; they accompany it, much like Eric Drooker’s animations published with the rerelease of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl.”
Sometimes Romberger and Van Cook turn Wojnarowicz’s frenetic visions into explosive surrealist creations; other times, they hew more closely to the words, images colored with paint that seems to stain the page like bodily fluids. Given that Wojnarowicz was himself a visual artist, as well as a brilliant writer, Romberger and Van Cook’s seems like it must have been an impossible task. Yet they pull it off, their art simultaneously imaginative enough to meet the writing at its fever pitch and practical enough to complement rather than compete. One of the most haunting spreads features blocks of text that get progressively longer and angrier while three panels show Wojnarowicz lying in bed, watching TV and transforming into a rotting corpse, the skeleton of an extinct animal watching over him. That animal skeleton recurs later, in a two-page image that seems to harness all of the energy of Wojnarowicz’s writing, its unstoppable former motion, into a techno-apocalyptic cityscape.
* * *If there’s another theme in 7 Miles a Second, one that counteracts the weight of the body, it must be motion. Evident in both the form and content of the text, motion offers the promise of escape. Even the title contains it, and Wojnarowicz explains in the epigraph:
The minimum speed required to break through the Earth’s gravitational pull is seven miles a second. Since economic conditions prevent us from gaining access to rockets or spaceships we would have to learn to run awfully fast to achieve escape from where we are all heading …Those lines strike me as eerily prescient and eternally potent. None of us can outrun our destiny, Wojnarowicz included, but thankfully, that didn’t stop him from trying. -
Fever : The Art of David Wojnarowiczby David Wojnarowicz, Dan Cameron, Mysoon Rizk, Cynthia Carr, John Carlin, Amy Scholder (Editor)
Hardcover - 160 pages (January 1999)
Rizzoli Bookstore/New Museum Books, 2
|Close to the Knives : A Memoir of Disintegration|
by David Wojnarowicz
Paperback - 276 pages 1st Ed. edition (May 1991)
|David Wojnarowicz : Brush Fires in the Social Landscape|
by David Wojnarowicz
Hardcover 1 Ed edition (March 1995)
|Vertigo Verite : 7 Miles a Second|
by David Wojnarowicz and James Romberger
Paperback - 64 pages (April 1996)
|The Waterfront Journals|
by David Wojnarowicz, Amy Scholder (Editor)
Paperback - 144 pages (June 1997)
Close to the knives: a memoir of disintegration
In Close to the Knives, David Wojnarowicz gives us an important and timely document: a collection of creative essays -- a scathing, sexy, sublimely humorous and honest personal testimony to the "Fear of Diversity in America." From the author's violent childhood in suburbia to eventual homelessness on the streets and piers of New York City, to recognition as one of the most provocative artists of his generation -- Close to the Knives is his powerful and iconoclastic memoir. Street life, drugs, art and nature, family, AIDS, politics, friendship and acceptance: Wojnarowicz challenges us to examine our lives -- politically, socially, emotionally, and aesthetically.