“So my heritage is some calculated fuck on some faraway sun-filled bed while the curtains are being sucked in and out of an open window by a passing breeze. I’d be lying if I were to tell you I could remember the smell of sweat as I hadn’t even been born yet. Conception’s just a shot in the dark.”
David Wojnarowicz encapsulated the image of late-20th Century shaman. He circumvented the traditional perception of the artist, that which focuses on the sanctity of the items of their production and the innate genius of the creator. But David Wojnarowicz (1954-1992) practiced a different kind of art, he had no formal training, and came to making via living rather than the careers adviser. He was not committed to one particular craft or medium, and the themes of his creation were not fixed. Is he an artist?A writer? An activist? A victim? Wojnarowicz proves a problem for those protagonists of definition.
His works could both be outspoken and insular, political and private. He used a variety of mediums, never committing to one particular art practice. He produced drawings, graffiti, graphic novels, photographs, films and music.
A distinctive theme of his many works is an obsession with personal and public freedoms. Wojnarowicz identified a profound contradiction in American society: That in spite of being told that one lives in absolute freedom one frequently runs into the barriers that apparently do not exist.
He is a figure of the fragmentary. The work and words of David Wojnarowicz chronicle the madness and melancholy of the 1980’s. He is witness to a time of technological revolution, spiralling globalisation, new neo-liberal market freedoms, and of a boom that lifted many into riches and power. However, a portfolio of Wojnarowicz’s work would project the alternative essence of the eighties, the poverty of many in an increasing divergent society, the homeless and dealers of the streets he used to live on, and the terminal plight of the HIV+ and the shameful response to it. Wojnarowizc witnessed the hysterics of the governments’ reaction to the Mapplethorpe show, The Perfect Moment, and the misrepresentation of his own work by religious groups. He asserted that we live in a ‘preinvented’ world, one of fixed normalities and expectations, that is essentially pre-prescribed by a male, white, heterocentric society. So, to Wojnarowicz, his erotic, violent and passionate imagery wasn’t a stab at sensationalism, but just a relaying of his normality, giving voice to something that society readily silences.
“To make public something private is an action that has terrific repercussions in the preinvented world…it lifts the curtains for a brief peek and reveals the probable existence of literally millions of tribes. The term ‘general public’ disintegrates.”
“The man who made the vile video died of AIDS. Had he followed the teachings of the Catholic Church on sexuality, he would be alive today. Instead, he blamed the Church. That’s why he liked to make videos showing Jesus’ head exploding, and that’s why he called John Cardinal O’Connor—whose archdiocese spent more money fighting AIDS than any other private source—a “fat cannibal from that house of walking swastikas.” Yet Kimmelman brands the artist a hero who fought bigotry!” Bill Donohue 2010
His place in art history is neither situated or solidified. He slips in and out of critical consciousness according to the fluctuating controversy his work inspires. His unabashed descriptions and depictions of his sexuality and relationships meant he didn’t find favour with the larger art establishments of New York, but found sympathy and alliances in the East Village. Even after his death from AIDS in 1992 he still found notoriety. Apparently no longer concerned with the homoeroticism and HIV topics in his art, the powers that be found issue with an eleven second piece of footage in Wojnarowicz’s film piece Fire in My Belly. The film is a mirage of the melancholy and anger Wojnarowicz felt after the death of his mentor and former lover Peter Hujar. Intimidated by religious reaction, the Smithsonian Gallery edited the piece. The fairly innocuous section of footage containing some ants crawling over a crucifix, no more explicit than a music video, became an object of 21st Century Western censorship. The Fire in My Belly affair exposed how readily galleries can bend to pressure, and how fads in offense can dictate the response to a 20 year old piece of art. Wojnarowicz even in death manages to antagonize, not by being explicit, but by slipping beyond the shifting borders of artistic freedom, bringing them back from invisibility and exposing the barriers that have been erected without our knowledge.
On David and Peter: ‘Some Sort of Grace’ Emily Colucci, 2010