A FIRE IN MY BELLY: THE FILMS OF DAVID WOJNAROWICZ

This entry was posted on April 16th, 2019

Peter Hujar, Untitled (David Wojnarowicz with cow mural), 1983, Courtesy of the Estate of David Wojnarowicz und and P·P·O·W Gallery, New York.

By Vladimir Seput

-“So here I am, alone on this earth, with no brother, neighbour, or friend, and no company but my own. The most sociable and loving of human beings has by common consent been banished by the rest of society” laments Jean-Jacques Rousseau at the beginning of the first walk in his unfinished book Reveries of the Solitary Walker (here in Russell Goulbourne’s translation). Written during 1776 and 1778, Rousseau’s last major work is also one of the first ones known to me that deals with the individual’s anxiety of alienation and the threatening and tormenting aspect of loneliness. In recent years, however, works on the subject have proliferated and Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City, Adventures in the art of being alone is one of the most inspiring ones written on the topic. In different circumstances than Rousseau, and wandering through New York’s streets instead on the Parisian pavements, Laing finds herself increasingly drawn to images as a remedy for her solitude. Behind them, she discovers people who made them and out of all of those ‘documenters of the lonely city’ she focuses on four in particular: Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, Henry Darger and David Wojnarowicz. When her book was published in 2016, the work and life of David Wojnarowicz were known only to a small amount of readers outside the New York environment.

Image courtesy of KW Institute for Contemporary Art

Wojnarowicz’s Fassbinder-like dynamism was abruptly halted when he passed away in 1992 from AIDS, aged only 37 (same age as Fassbinder). In that relatively short life, he managed to create an extremely productive body of work, including numerous paintings, films and six books. Since 2016, interest in his art went through a certain renaissance which is slowly gaining the space that it’s worthy of. During the second half of the last year the Whitney Museum organized a three-month retrospective of his work under the title History Keeps Me Awake at Night and his The Waterfront Journals, a series of short fictional monologues that narrates life during the AIDS crisis in the United States, originally published in 1997, and were printed for the first time in the United Kingdom in 2018. Olivia Laing also wrote an introduction to his 2016 (first published in 1991) book of the autobiographical essays Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration. No matter how you first encountered his work, through books, films or paintings, Wojnarowicz’s energy and political activism are contagious and the times and circumstances in which he (and many other New York artists of the period, victims of AIDS) worked can seem to us exasperating. His creative work, from recorded tapes and diaries to writings and chronicles emit rage and a sense of danger throughout, while intensely testifying the struggles and torments from the end of the 1980’s in the United States.

Image courtesy of KW Institute for Contemporary Art

As part of the previously mentioned rekindled interest in his work, this February KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin organized an exhibition, David Wojnarowicz Photography & Film 1978-1992 (on till 5 May), curated by Krist Gruijthuijsen. Even though medium-sized, (the exhibition opened simultaneously with those of experimental theater director Reza Abdoh and curator Frank Wagner, who was one of Wojnarowicz’s pioneering supporters, and both of those shows deserve a separate text), it presents more than 150 works, mainly photography and 16mm and super-8 film. In a very straightforward manner, the exhibition opens with Wojnarowicz’s well-known relationship with a portrait-photographer Peter Hujar (former lover and a friend), recognized immediately upon the entrance in the first room of the show where the space is dedicated to the nature of their reciprocal inspiration, first through the 15-minutes long Super-8 fractured work that Wojnarowicz made with Steve Doughton in 1987 and 1988, Fragments for a Film About Peter Hujar, and then through the two stunning black and white portraits of Wojnarowicz smoking and lying in bed, nonchalantly hugging the pillow behind his head. When observed in the darkness of the gallery, with only one direct light source, both of the portraits contain some striking, ancient-sculpture-like distinctions of the young men’s face and upper body contours.

The central space of the KW is taken over by the main screen showing Wojnarowicz’s (yet again) unfinished film A Fire in My Belly, a 21 minutes long, Super-8 film shot in Mexico City, consisting of dozens of brief shots depicting the violence and aggression on the streets. While side walls revealed his photos (including the canonical work Arthur Rimbaud in New York from the late 1970’s), back monitors display collaborative video art, mainly the one done with French journalist and filmmaker Marion Scemama, who Wojnarowicz met in 1984 and with whom he created some of his most iconic shorts, including Last Night I Took a Man (1989) and When I Put My Hands on Your Body (1989). Like his portraits done by Hujar, the latter is a pure symphony of corporal lust and desire covered in blue nuances of a slow motion that gives it a monumental heaviness.

Image courtesy of KW Institute for Contemporary Art

A year after A Fire in My Belly, Jesse Hultberg and Wojnarowicz filmed Beautiful People, originally a Super-8 silent 30-minute ode to the beauty of transformation in which the camera follows Jesse’s character as he becomes a woman, travels through the city and ends in the colorful nature of upstate New York, just to find a tragic ending. Displayed in one of the side rooms of the Institute, the film’s youthful energy and humor make it a beautiful and rather contemporary work (Jesse Hultberg uploaded a 7-minute version on his YouTube channel, with the soundtrack made from Special Reserve by 3 Teens Kill 4, band in which Wojnarowicz was one of the founding members). It seems that those were nonetheless different times for Manhattan, one without Hudson Yards type of private real estate developments, with a different vigor on the streets that those silent shorts vividly depict.

On the first day of the exhibition’s opening, Berlinale festival premiered a complementary film made by Marion Scemama named Self-Portrait in 23 Rounds: A Chapter in David Wojnarowicz’s Life, 1989-1991, an 80-minutes edit from a long interview that Sylvère Lotringer did with Wojnarowicz during 1989, one of those films that work well as an introduction to the work if you didn’t know about the artists or, on the other hand, represent a sympathetic and charming homage to it if you are an admirer. It also serves well as a direct expression of his frustration and anger towards the way United States government dealt with the burning problems of the AIDS crisis, poverty and inequality of the times (of course, strangely and gloomily resonating, even today).

Image courtesy of KW Institute for Contemporary Art

To look at Wojnarowicz’s art is to necessarily think about the 1970’s and 1980’s in their wider context, about AIDS and its horrible consequences, about Reagan and the often catastrophic interior (and foreign) policies of the United States but it’s also an account of the art movements and aspirations of the last quarter of the 20th century and the beneficial things that they have brought, as well as positive changes that they have inflicted. David Wojnarowicz was one of those on the front line in that era, a poet, painter, activist, wanderer and a filmmaker and an embodiment of struggle. Even though his own body, often used as a constitutive part of his recorded performances, was exhausted by illness and eventually succumbed to it, the struggle, of various shapes and sizes and clearly depicted in this wonderful expose, is still alive and necessary.