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Welcome back, David Wojnarowicz

Nice to see David Wojnarowicz (wana-row-vitch) back in the news, making the monkeys dance.
It’s no surprise that the usual people want to use their deliberate misunderstanding of his work to rally their frightened base. It’s also no surprise that the Smithsonian once again proves to be cowardly.

Remember its Enola Gay exhibit from 1995? The examination of this country’s use of the Atom Bomb  started as scholarly and turned into a my-country-right-or-wrong cheering section, after suitable pressures were applied. (A protest letter about the final product at the Smithsonian signed by more than 50 distinguished historians, here.)

And who could forget Subhankar Banerjee, whose photos of the Arctic Refuge were demoted  in 2003 to the basement of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of
History (where they languished without wall text to identify where the photos were taken) instead of being featured, as promised, in the main rotunda?  Banerjee’s exhibit revealed a region teeming with life just as the Bush administration and its fellow travelers sought to depict it as what Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton called “a frozen wasteland of snow and ice.”

They wanted to drill, baby, drill. Alaska’s senior senator Ted Stevens called Banerjee and former president Jimmy Carter, who endorsed a
book of the photos, liars. (Story here.)

Now it’s David Wojnarowicz’s turn, 18 years after his death at age 37 from AIDS complications. A New York writer, painter, photographer, filmmaker, musician and performance artist, he remains one of the most singular voices not only from from the AIDS epidemic at its peak but from the inside of any marginalized and afflicted community of young people.

davidwojnaraboy.jpgHis four-minute video, A Fire In My Belly, was part of Hide/Seek, Difference and Desire in American Portraiture at the National Portrait Gallery until someone, anyone, complained. Naturally the Smithsonian caved. That’s what it does as soon as there’s a hint of political pressure. (Good summary of this most recent evidence of the institution’s spinelessness here.)

Museums around the country plan to screen A Fire In My Belly, including, these in Seattle.

How is the Smithsonian reacting to pro-Wojnarowicz protests? Remarkably, its website has a big-lie announcement titled, Smithsonian Stands Firmly Behind Hide/Seek. As McGovern said about his running mate the day before dumping him, “I’m behind him a thousand percent.”

For me, Wojnarowicz’s best work is his writing, especially, Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration, from 1991. He knew his way around a sentence and knew how to compile them to overwhelming effect.

A few samples, from Close to the Knives:

On his home town:

It was an architecture of a population anticipating impermanence or death. It was a vacuum turning inside out, prefab materials of housing resembling the dry husks of insects halfway through their molt.

On the life force:

I remembered a friend of mine dying from AIDS, and while he was visiting his family on the coast for the last time, he was seated in the grass during a picnic to which dozens of family members were invited. He looked up from his fried chicken and said, “I just want to die with a big dick in my mouth.”

On infatuation:

He was the kind of guy I’d rob banks for.

On death:

There were so many days of waiting for him to die the third and final time and we’d been talking to him daily because they say hearing is the last sense to go. Sometimes alone with him, the nurse outside the room, I’d take his hands and bend over whispering in his ears: hey, I don’t know what you’re seeing but if there’s light moved toward it; if there’s warmth move toward it; if you see nothing then try to imagine that one period of calm in the midst of that sky just where it reaches the ocean.

On distrust:

He reminded me of a guy who’d sell you dead chameleons at a circus sideshow.

On Cardinal O’Connor:

This fat cannibal from that house of walking swastikas up on fifth avenue should lose his church tax-exempt status and pay taxes retroactively for the last couple of centuries.

On Jesse Helms:

I scratch my head at the hysteria surrounding the actions of the repulsive senator from zombieland who has been trying to dismantle the NEA for supporting the work of Andres Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe.

On too much death:

There is a tendency for people affected by this epidemic to police each other or prescribe what the most important gestures would be for dealing with this experience of loss. I resent that. At the same time, I worry that friends will slowly become professional pallbearers, waiting for each death, of their lovers, friends and neighbors, and polishing their funeral speeches; perfecting their rituals of death rather than a relatively simple ritual of life such as screaming in the streets.

Wouldn’t it be nice if people go into the National Portrait Gallery and scream in the lobby in Wojnarowicz’s honor?


  1. Thanks for the quotes, Regina. Reading Close to the Knives as a young man changed my world view, made me angry and got me involved with queer politics. It also affected my art in a significant way.
    It feels like very little has changed in the art world since 1987 – queer-themed work is still marginalized on a national level and is represented only by the good graces of those in power. What is implicitly understood is that we should know not to rock the boat with overtly political or sexual work and stick to our roles as vapid entertainers (see the entire Bravo network).
    Part of what made Wojnarowicz’ work so strong for me was his inability to pull punches. Where Felix Gonzalez-Torres turned his despair into beautiful elegies, Wojnarowicz turned that despair into righteous anger. Me, I use humor and metaphor in my art to transform my anger and despair at how the world at large views me. But thank god for Wojnaworicz, his anger still burning bright, his truths still scaring the shit out of half-assed politicians and curators.

  2. “….if there’s light move toward it; if there’s warmth move toward it; if you see nothing then try to imagine that one period of calm in the midst of that sky just where it reaches the ocean.” Enlightened compassion.

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