‘Untitled (Face in Dirt) 1990-1993’ | David Wojnarowicz
The Song of Solomon, the bible’s surprisingly erotic master poem, begins with a kiss.
‘Let him kiss me with the kisses of his lips …’
This astounding poem is filled with the sensory world of the lover: the smell of him, the caught sight of his nakedness, the taste of him; but it is here with the kiss that it begins. With the lips.
When our lips part, what is that space between?
What do our lips remember? What do they long for? What do they wet?
David Wojnarowicz had beautiful lips. Full, fleshy, seductive.
In a reverie that might be a dream, a memory, a fiction, Wojnarowicz writes of wandering through a labyrinthine structure following the hint of a boy: first it is the wind at his heels that blows past as a door opens and shuts, then the hum of his red jacket in the distance. Then the lure of his lips:
‘I could feel his lips against mine from across the room, tasting reefer or milk on them as he disappears through the square hole in the ceiling …’
Then he falls right into the taste of him.
‘Like water falls from the sky I leaned in close and slid down and unsnapped his jeans button by button using only my teeth. He was wearing no underwear and I peeled back the flag of his trousers, his dick falling neatly out to rest on my lips …’
What do our lips anticipate? What do they follow? What do they consume?
I can’t remember when I first heard of David Wojnarowicz. I probably first saw his artwork in the 1994 National Gallery of Australia exhibition on art and AIDS, Don’t Leave Me This Way.
I would have read pieces of his writing a few years earlier in anthologies that were profiling new transgressive queer writing dealing with sex, bodies and marginal lives. Kevin Killiam an emerging queer poet at that time, said they were aiming for ‘a new kind of storytelling’ where ‘poetry, theory, gossip, and porn intermixed in order to accommodate [and] treat the big issues of the day and our own tenuous hold on that’.
Wojnarowicz started out in the 70s with the ambition of being a poet, but he also drew obsessively. He had sketched and collaged since he was a kid. But his urge to assemble and make visible whole imaginative worlds could not be confined to the page. Over a number of years he become a visual artist working across sculpture, painting, film and installations: an artist who also wrote rather than a poet who sketched.
Wojnarowicz’s Self Portrait in Twenty Three Rounds, which begins his ‘memoire of disintegration’, Close to the Knives, also made it into the Penguin Book of Gay Short Stories, which was published the same year as the NGA show. The story begins with an image of his conception and meanders through images of sex, violence and survival culminating in a haunting image fusing innocence and death. Wojnarowicz, as a kid hustler, putting his clothes on after sex, and the guy ‘says he loves the way my skeleton moves underneath my skin when I bend over to retrieve one of my socks’.
It is in these kinds of compelling images that Wojnarowicz displayed his unique poetic melancholy, a sensibility that bumped right up against death with a longing that tipped back into life.
After no contact for many years, Wojnarowicz met up with his brother Steven, who had chanced upon a magazine feature about David and suddenly realised his little brother had become a somewhat famous artist. The first thing David said, with virtually no preliminaries, was: ‘You know I was a child prostitute’.
No preliminaries. That’s how Wojnarowicz’s art functions. An unmediated witness to what is happening. He wanted to show life beyond what he called ‘the preinvented world’—the world that was structured by corporations, overbearing governments, churches and years of unquestioning culture.
‘I wake up every morning in this killing machine called America,’ Wojnarowicz says on one of his tapes, ‘and I’m carrying this rage inside like a blood-filled egg.’
They are also words that are repeated on a print Untitled (ACT-UP), 1990, that was featured in the 1994 NGA show.
‘I’m carrying this rage inside like a blood-filled egg and there is a very thin line between the inside and the outside, a thin line between thought and action … and as each T-cell disappears from my body it’s replaced by ten pounds of pressure ten pounds of rage and I focus that rage into non-violent resistance but that focus is starting to slip …’
Redemption, where do we find it? Shame how do we let it go? Rage what do we do with it? What is that skin thin membrane between life and death?
Wojnarowicz died of complications from AIDS in 1992, the year I decided to go to art school. But his work has continued to both cause scandal and to grow in importance. This year his career has been celebrated with a major retrospective at New York’s Whitney Museum: History Keeps Me Awake At Night.
The title of the Whitney show —– taken from one of the artist’s paintings—immediately tells you what kind of artist Wojnarowicz is. As curators David Breslin and David Kiehl insist in the introduction to the exhibition’s beautiful catalogue: ‘Wojnarowicz’s work is ultimately an ethical practice. That is the work participates in the philosophical tradition of inquiring about, systematizing, and defending concepts of right and wrong conduct. As such, the practice is one that asks that most naïve and yet pressing question: How should we live?’
As a number of reviewers have noted, the location of this tribute is ironic as the new Whitney represents the ultimate gentrification of a corner of New York that was once the dishevelled cruising ground of gay men, street hustlers and drug users. The location of very differently lived lives than those who occupy it today. Wojnarowicz not only played there, but began his art-making there: graffitiing the walls of the long-gone cruise warehouses at the New York piers.
Born in 1954, Wojnarowicz was the product of a family that his biographer Cynthia Carr calls ‘beyond dysfunctional’. His father was an abusive alcoholic and his mother seemed unable to care for either herself or her children. David ended up living on the streets for a number of years as a teenager and the danger and abuse that he experienced there became a crucial lens through which he viewed the world.
He told Carr that he used to long for acceptance from others but then he realised he didn’t fit.
‘Then he began to value the way he didn’t fit in. He realised that his uneasiness with the world was where his work came from.’
How do our lips fit together? How do we prize them apart?
Two boys lip-locked and reaching into one another stand waist deep in a swirling, spurting pool of dark water. They float as stencilled outlines at the center of Fuck You Faggot Fucker (1984) a key work Wojnarowicz created for an early show.
Their bodies tattooed with a collage of maps.
Where will we go with each other, they seem to ask. How will we find each other across space and time? Where is that one point where we get lost: the latitude and longitude of love?
Surrounding them four photographs. In three corners the repeated image of David and a friend, naked in an abandoned building. In the other corner another friend, in a different abandoned scene, posing as Saint Sebastian. Below the boys, a graffiti scrawl: Fuck you faggot fucker.
The stencil of the lip-locked boys recurs several times in Wojnarowicz’s work. He copied it onto the letter that Peter Hujar, his mentor and one time lover, had received diagnosing him with AIDS. Wojnarowicz again used the image in a quilt panel he did for another friend who had died around the same time as Hujar.
The simple lines of the stencil capture the way a kiss is both the touch of lips and the twist of bodies, the tilt of my head jigsawing against yours, the reach of my arm around you, the turn of your torso.
Why did Wojnarowicz use this image of two boys kissing to memorialise Hujar’s diagnosis and death from AIDS? Was it the intensity of their love he was memorialising? Was it a celebration of desire against the threat of death? Was it the kiss, the pull, of death itself?
Wojnarowicz was no stranger to the pull of death. As a young boy he used to hang over the roof’s edge, eight stories high, just to see what it was like.
He told the art critic Lucy Lippard that when he was first diagnosed with HIV he felt ‘this abstract sensation’.
‘Something like pulling off your skin and turning it inside out and then rearranging it so that when you pull it back on it feels like what it felt like before, only it isn’t and only you know it … the first minute after being diagnosed you are forever separated from what you had come to view as your life or living, the world outside the eyes. The calendar tracings of biographical continuity get kind of screwed up … the entire landscape and horizon is pulling away from you in reverse order to spell out a psychic separation.’
The kiss pulls us back, we put on the skin of another, we twist, we turn into one another. In annotating Hujar’s diagnosis letter, Wojnarowicz, date stamps this moment—this calendar tracing of biographical continuity—with love.
If you google David Wojnarowicz, one of the first images you will find is of his lips. Lips sewn shut in protest.
It is a defiant image, taken by his friend Andreas Sterzing, for the poster of a film about the AIDS epidemic, Silence = Death, by Rosa von Praunheim.
Wojnarowicz was the subject of censorship on a number of occasions, but the slogan Silence = Death, used by AIDS activists, protested, not explicit moments of censorship, but the silencing of lives through the government’s, and in the context of 1980s America, specifically President Regan’s refusal to speak about or act on AIDS. In this graphic image Wojnarowicz makes visible the silencing, not just of dissenting speech, but of queer loving, queer sexuality and queer dying.
Wojnarowicz’s work arises out of the silence of his childhood, when his sense of his own strangeness, had sewn his young lips shut.
‘When I was a kid I discovered that making an object, whether it was a drawing or a story, meant making something that spoke even if I was silent. As an adult, I realize if I make something and leave it in public for any period of time, I can create an environment where that object or writing acts as a magnet and draws others with a similar frame of reference out of silence or invisibility.’
How do we conjure each other out of silence? How do we coax each other to see?
About a year before he died, Wojnarowicz took a final road trip with friend and fellow artist Marion Scemana, with whom he’d had a close but tempestuous relationship. At the Chaco Canyon, in northwest New Mexico, he asked Marion to help him create one of his final and one of his most arresting pieces.
They dug a hole in the harsh dry earth and buried David so that just his eyes, nose, lips and chin were visible, his dusty features emerging from the rough earth. Here his lips are parched and dry.
Marion stood over him and took a photograph.
Wojnarowicz, was self-consciously creating his own death mask. Kissing his own lips goodbye.
‘We walked back to the car, and we sat without saying a word,’ Scemana told Cynthia Carr. ‘He didn’t turn the car on. We stayed like this for a few minutes, and then we held hands.’
Sharing a stage with him, at one of his final public appearances, Kathy Aker called David Wojnarowicz ‘a saint’; and in an interview around that time Nan Goldin called him ‘kind of the moral conscience of our time’. His friends who had often been subject to his rages and tantrums might have felt differently. His boyfriend, Tom, said that he just laughed.
But if the posture of the saint is to give their life for others, Wojnarowicz was a kind of saint: a gritty, sexy, imperfect one. As Cynthia Carr says in the introduction to her biography: ‘He had decided to let everything in his emotional history become part of his palette.’
He was part of a radical new way of being queer in public, having sex in public, and during the most harrowing years of the AIDS epidemic, struggling to live and often dying in public. He exposed himself and he refused to let others turn away.
In a work he made for his final show, Untitled (When I Put My Hands On Your Body), 1990, he selected a photograph he had taken of an Indian burial mound, skeletons emerging out of the earth, in the same way that his face had emerged out of the earth in the Chaco Canyon, and he printed over it a startling poetic text about the body, about death, about love.
It begins with touch and tenderness.
‘When I put my hands on your body on your flesh I feel the history of that body. Not just the beginning of its forming in that distant lake but all the way beyond its ending.’
The warm felt body begins to slip away, the mortal lover begins to dissolve as flesh falls from bone. The poet asks himself what he might do, what he might give, how me might save another.
‘If I could attach our blood vessels so we could become each other I would. If I could attach our blood vessels in order to anchor you to the earth to this present time I would. If I could open up your body and slip inside your skin and look out your eyes and forever have my lips fused with yours I would.’
What might we see out of the eyes of another? What might we taste with their lips? How might we become their kiss?
The exhibition History Keeps me Awake At Night, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, July 13-September 30 2018, is richly documented in an archive at https://whitney.org/Exhibitions/DavidWojnarowicz and includes extensive recordings of seminars and interviews about Wojnarowicz and the era.
Note on Sources
The photo, ‘Untitled (Face in Dirt) 1990-1993’ by David Wojnarowicz is reproduced courtesy of the Estate of David Wojnarowicz and P.P.O.W, New York—www.ppowgallery.com.
All biographical details and quotes from Cynthia Carr are from her 2012 biography: Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz. Bloomsbury Publishing USA.
All quotes from Wojnarowicz, unless otherwise indicated are from Close to the knives: A memoir of disintegration, originally published in 1991 and reissued by Canongate Books 2017.
Kevin Killiam quoted in Crandall Maxe, 2017. Congratulations, You’re a New Narrative Subject. https://openspace.sfmoma.org/2017/12/congratulations-youre-a-new-narrative-subject/
David Breslin and David Kiehl (eds), History Keeps me Awake At Night, 2018, Whitney Museum of American Art, Yale University Press.
Lippard, L.R., 1994. Passenger on the Shadows. In Brush Fires in the Social Landscape, Aperture, (137), pp.6-25.
Goldin Nan, 1994. Love Sex Art and Death. In Brush Fires in the Social Landscape, Aperture, (137) https://aperture.org/blog/david-wojnarowicz-and-nan-goldin/
Marcus O’Donnell currently leads digital innovation and support at Deakin University. Marcus has worked as a journalist and editor (he was editor of Sydney Star Observer 1999-2006). His PhD investigated apocalyptic narratives and the war on terror.