David Wojnarowicz: A Story of Time

On the occasion of the recent release of the documentary, Wojnarowicz: Fuck You Faggot Fucker, Emmanuel Olunkwa reflects on David Wojnarowicz’s life, the AIDS epidemic, the New York City Pier as a gay cruising trope, and being succumbed to the role of "activist" and "artist," when you put more than your life on the line.
art
Image of a young boy surrounded by biographical text.
“Untitled (One Day This Kid...),” 1990. © Estate of David Wojnarowicz and P.P.O.W Gallery, New York.

A few weeks ago, I found myself in bed watching an online screening of Wojnarowicz: Fuck You Faggot Fucker, a documentary directed by Chris McKim, which showcases and explores the artist David Wojnarowicz, speaking, living, and leaning into his truth. I hesitated writing about him, worried that it could seem I am interested in a black or gay artist simply on the basis of our ideological similarities. But my art and theory education didn’t include Wojnarowicz.

Instead, I learned about him on assignment as an editorial assistant at Artforum; I went to document the 2018 Wojnarowicz retrospective at the Whitney—David Wojnarowicz: History Keeps Me Awake at Night. I didn’t know who David was at the time, what he was supposed to mean to me. I naively entered the gallery, scanned the works on the wall and found and photographed what I thought to be the most compelling works in the show, making for an early departure. A month after the Whitney opening, I found myself in the basement of the McNally Jackson bookstore on Prince Street for a reading and release of Weight of the Earth: The Tape Journals of David Wojnarowicz. Again, I was totally green and ignorant of who and what this person was and symbolized to people. At the front of the room, David Velasco, the Editor of Artforum, was reading the introduction he wrote for the book. He spoke about engaging with DW’s live journals that mostly consisted of him recounting his memories late at night into early morning or while on a road trip heading from New York out West. A few key bits have stuck with me since:

“Something happens when I read David where I imagine I’m him, or he’s my friend, or he’s not dead, or I think what he thinks of me, or like maybe he thinks he’s me. I think he sees me. I cannibalize him. But I don’t really feel bad about it, like I might with someone else. Maybe it’s because his name is David too. Or Maybe it’s because I sense that he wants it. His searching, moral voice, a bottom’s voice, a voice that says, “Use me if you’ve been used and enjoyed being used because I’ve been used and enjoyed it too.”

In my daily life I find ways to protect myself, not because I own my body or have anything except maybe a privileged relation to it—I’m just a freeholder—but because as David has said, or actually written, elsewhere, “Survival is such a lovely thing, such a transient thing.” Survival is a moral good, possibly the only moral good. But my survival is not for myself but for others. I alone don’t get to decide what matters. It’s only when we meet that this becomes something. My body is precious and special because it’s yours. If you want it.”

David died of AIDS in 1992 less than two months shy of his thirty-eighth birthday. In Wojnarowicz, the documentary opens with David speaking over collaged footage of a black-and-white American flag that then bleeds into footage of a rollercoaster navigating its tracks, as he recounts, “When I was diagnosed with this virus, it didn’t take me long to realize that I contracted a diseased society as well.” A few moments later we’re thrust into his apartment, witnessing him having a telephone conversation, “It could be construed as critical,” he says, “But if you’re doing a show about AIDS, there’s absolutely no way that you can separate politics from AIDS. Bottom line is that I might be dying of AIDS in America in 1989, isn’t that political? I don’t have health insurance and I don’t have economical access to adequate healthcare, isn’t that political? To try to pretend that the subject of AIDS does not have a political tinge to it is ridiculous.” Immediately following the call we see David grapple with the frustration of not having recorded the conversation himself for his personal archive, though he was being recorded by his friend’s camera. It’s a cruel thing to watch a video of a fallen hero, someone who comes to represent a moment or serves as a stand-in for certain types of people who are concerned with the livelihood of others though using their own body and existence as a vessel.

An article promoting the documentary, Wojnarowicz: Fuck You Faggot Fucker, which premiered at last year’s DOC NYC festival, stated, “He was an artist and activist among contemporaries Keith Haring and Robert Mapplethorpe.” I struggle with this level of narrativizing because it washes the palette and rigor of David’s life away and groups him with people who had different practices or agendas with varying priorities (to be fair though, they were friends, Keith and David, and worked at the Danceteria together in Times Square). It’s not to say that Wojnarowicz’s way of existing is superior to theirs but more that he often experienced and lived his life in the embodied, often putting his body and his mind on the line for the things he believed in, or as they say in the church, he practiced what he preached. One of the things that haunts me most from the documentary and Wojnarowicz’s legacy writ large is how he’s often posed to have been savior when all he wanted was to be saved himself.

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In Wojnarowicz, we get to witness the inner world of David, not like in the tapes where he reveals who he wants us to believe him to be, but we can get to see him for who he is­—someone who’s very decided. Hailing from Red Bank, New Jersey, where he was the youngest of three, having survived the utter brutality of growing up with an abusive father and becoming an orphan. As a teenager he moved to his mom’s apartment in Hell’s Kitchen and gave himself over to the city, giving over his body and his mind. One thing that remains clear about his existence is that he always felt like an outsider on the inside, where he says, “Fuck these people that want me to be courageous, there’s no expression in that other than silence,” and he was someone who struggled to be discerning with who he let occupy space in his life. He notes, “I try on some level to be normal. I try very hard to be accepted, but on some level it’s a terrific waste of time.” He gravitated towards figures like Jean Genet and Arthur Rimbaud, who were outlaws that represented what he felt inside.

In 1976, at age 21, he hitchhiked across America with his friend John Hall, where he started recording his tape journals. Two years later, DW moved to Paris to live with his sister Pat, with the claims of moving there “for the rest of his life,” where he shopped Sounds in the Distance, a collection of monologues that he had tried to get published while he was abroad. While living with his sister, we witness him alone with her tape machine, recording himself as he speaks of having dreams of America, and the American roads and highways, and speaks of missing the energy in New York. He says, “Paris gives you a strange sense of security, which doesn’t make me happy.” After nine months of living amongst the French he departs and heads back to NYC.

What’s made clear in the documentary is that his life was his art—the way he moved through the world and how he existed, he wasn’t trying to make sense of who or what he was, but more trying to make clear what happened to him and its effects, asking questions of who and where we are as a society and how are we going to get there, beyond this present place to a distant reality—a future. We remember DW not for what we see or what he saw but what he felt and what he heard as a witness passing through the world.

The documentary features many people who shaped the artworld in the ’70s and ’80s such as David Kiehl (Curator Emeritus at the Whitney), Fran Leibowitz, Richard Kern, Carlo McCormick, Alan Barrows, Dean Savard (of Civilian Warfare Gallery), and Gracie Mansion Gallery, where DW would show. Leibowitz notes of the time, “the New York art world could fit into one restaurant. That’s how small it was!” He played in a band that few seemed to know about but came to adore, 3 Teens Kill 4, and was fascinated by street posters. He was primarily making work for the streets, repurposing existing signage by staging or creating work that mimicked the legibility of a street poster or an announcement (he had something to say!). That's how he got offered to participate in the show, “The Fast Exhibition,” at the Alexander Milliken Gallery, in June of 1982, featuring Julian Schnabel and David Hockney, among others.

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All David knew was hustling, he started when he first moved to the city from New Jersey when he first came to live with his mother. It was more than just a pastime, it was a way to familiarize himself with the city, make some money, and get by. He gravitated towards places and people who felt like secrets or treasures to be had and kept. In the fall of 1983, he and Mike Bidlo stumbled across and explored Pier 34, which was an abandoned building for a freight shipping company, Ward Line, that sat empty for years that they repurposed. The piers were first abandoned in the 1960s with the decline of New York City waterfronts compounded by the city’s bankruptcy in the ’70s. The piers were found to be adventurous and home to illegal activity, seen as being a place for sexual exploration, a little cruising jaunt. It was an opening into a subculture that was ready and eager to exist, artists of all kinds came to repurpose the building to house artworks. The pier then disappeared entirely—it was demolished by the New York Police Department by a bulldozer after it became a breeding ground for culture. It couldn’t become a commodified good because of its dilapidated state, so the city decided to do away with the structure, displacing unrealized desires. Which reminds me of the general fluidity of the piers as a scene to be cruised. Queers and the gays of the city ventured to the shores of the island to call the industrialized hotbed space a home of sorts. It brings to mind Gordon Matta-Clark’s Day’s End (Pier 52) (Exterior with Ice) which was also a gay cruising ground Matta-Clark obfuscated—quite literally exposed—after puncturing the side of the shed at Pier 52. If it were still erected, it would now sit catty-corner from the Whitney Museum. Lastly, Peter Hujar’s photos taken on Christopher Pier (Pier 45) make piers seem like places that incited behavior both fluid and free.

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Later in the documentary, we’re met with the façade of the Gracie Mansion Gallery, with the voiceover of Sur Rodney (Sur) who recalls the late ’80s art scene: “The gallery system is one of the big obstacles to art. Art today is so much of a commercial product so that people are only making art that looks like art. They’re turning out a product and I think when an artist perceives what he does as a product he’s in trouble… that’s when it turns into a factory. There’s nothing human about it.” It’s hard to write about someone who didn’t get to live past his circumstances. David was an activist in the sense that his body was a vessel, a resource to be used and sometimes had. In Wojnarowicz, we get an intimate view of David and Peter Hujar’s relationship, where we’re met with a forty-six-year-old Peter and a twenty-six-year-old David, which became one of the more lasting relationships in David’s life. Peter wasn’t so much a lover as he was a friend, mentor as he was an emotional concubine. They had a complicated relationship. Though Peter didn’t explicitly state that he needed David, they found each other as a necessary part of the framework of being alive. Peter was a depressive person who cared about his craft more than he cared about the reception of the work. For him, photography was a religious experience, something to give oneself over to, operating within and on faith. Peter and David were inseparable though, and their relationship is highlighted through the documentary playing phone tag, where they leave playful voicemails for each other as they traverse the world alone, checking in on one another from time-to-time, with nicknames like Peter the Rabbit.

Though Peter lived his life dedicated first and foremost to his work, after he was diagnosed with AIDS he didn’t take any photographs again. He was said to have been difficult in terms of “having” and maintaining a career—he wasn’t very good at it. Slowly his health declined and he was seen less around art world happenings and eventually passed, in 1987 from an AIDS related pneumonia in his loft on second avenue and twelfth street, above the Eden Theatre.

David moved into Hujar’s apartment after he died because he couldn’t afford the rent of his place anymore, as he became less viable in the art world after having his four elements show in the fall of 1987 and didn’t sell any work. After David found out that he was diagnosed with ARC AIDS-related complex in late 1988 and he told Mansion, she immediately phoned Berry Blinderman, former curator and director of the University Galleries in Normal, Illinois, to persuade him to curate a retrospective of David’s show before people found out that David had been diagnosed, with the fear of collectors buying up his work the same way they had devoured Keith Haring’s once it became known that he was going to die. Blinderman and Wojnarowicz worked furiously on what would be David’s only retrospective he would attend, Tongues of Flame, set to open more than a year after his diagnosis.

By 1989, David had a strong body of work but his career had flattened out. Ironically, it wasn’t an artwork but an essay, “Postcards from America: X-Rays from Hell” for Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing, a show which debuted at Artist’s Space, that brought him to the national stage. David was asked to write the essay by Nan Goldin, who had curated the show, and she says of David, “I asked him to write for the catalog, there aren’t such intense people in the world anymore, and he was a genius, which [is a word] I wouldn’t use for anyone else I can think of.” His essay addressed how the imagination was the last frontier for creative freedom, in that he was able to use his creative expression to contextualize the disdain and frustration that ultimately led to his own demise. The Chairman of the National Endowment for The Arts, John Frohnmayer, was primarily interested in disbanding funding for the Artists Space show because of the “political matter” in the exhibition about AIDS, stating that they [congress] found, “that a large portion of the content is political rather than artistic in nature.” At the time, Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina was hellbent on convincing congress on defunding arts programming that engaged queer culture and publicized and posed the question of queer rights.

Ironically enough, Jesse Helms was actually the least of David’s worries—he was more unnerved by the art world folk and museum curators who turned a blind eye and buried artworks that dealt with queer subject matter at the time. Anything was censored that was out of the white cube diatribe, which shows that we can’t really be complacent or wait for institutional recognition and brings to mind the necessity of questioning why and when a museum or institution supports an artist or project. What’s the institutional agenda? How are we to grapple with these circumstances to prescribe a specific set of politics that denies people their humanity only to then restage and commodify it for its own use?

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In the months following his final homecoming show at PPOW Gallery, In the Garden, in November of 1990, David and his longtime collaborator Marion Scemama had their final dance, taking a road trip to Death Valley, where through his failing health David requested Scemama’s assistance on staging a photograph of him in the dirt as if he was buried. We then see photos documenting the process of the two of them submerging David’s shoulders, neck, and face in “sand and earth,” which amounts to his final piece of work, Untitled (Face in Dirt), 1990.

In the concluding months of his life, in 1992, the Museum of Modern Art vigorously collected Hujar’s work and Fire, (1987) a piece from David’s Four Elements series for its permanent collection. In the last moment of the documentary, we find David’s boyfriend, Tom Rauffenbart, and his sister, Anita, with Wendy Olsoff and Penny Pilkington of PPOW Gallery navigating the Whitney retrospective, where we land on Something from Sleep IV (Dream), 1988-89, a collage of black-and-white clips of newspaper with an orange dinosaur that reads “Wojnarowicz” traveling down the spine. Tom notes that David wasn’t feeling well at the time that he made the piece, and how it reminded him of the inevitability of extinction of the dinosaur and Wojnarowicz.

I hate writing these kinds of texts about a person who lived with such an arresting interiority, who was lost to chance and negligence. David wasn’t a superhero who possessed any special abilities, but he was someone who threw himself headlong into whatever he was doing, all the while remaining empathetic yet critical. It’s hard to watch the world turn as people are cast aside without healthcare, without home, without hope, who are subjected to perform and bend to the will of the market to have a chance for basic survival. It’s dizzying to spend time with someone who gave so much of themselves, who faced the same issues that we’re calling on action for today—healthcare and housing. We’ve all toiled and convinced ourselves that the work we’re doing is essential, but it has all started to feel performative. People are dying who are uninsured, we’re subjected and positioned to be individuals in a body of people, and we don’t prioritize the collective good. To be plagued with the same anxieties as David isn’t something that should be romanticized because it's repulsive; we’re all spun out on our efforts to make change, but the only thing that we’ve perfected is how to perform the narrative of how things haven’t changed, but desperately need to.

In the last moments of the documentary we are met with the final words of David, where he says, “The work that anybody does as an artist, if it doesn’t reflect resistance, then they’re helping a system of control become more perfect.” He contends, “We rise to greet the state, to confront the state,”—to make changes, instead of performing a desire for change.