The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2011

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APR 2011 Issue


On View
P·P·O·W Gallery
March 3 – April 9, 2011
New York

Some artists make work out of a desire to become famous. For others, the act of making is a means of battling creative demons, a flushing of the system rooted in the equalization of the ego and its competing demands for fulfillment, formation, and release. For a select few, however, the artistic act is more selfless. It derives from a genuine passion for change, seeking to foster political and social awareness among disparate economic classes. The work of these artists challenges the status quo. It shakes things up. It provokes. It is groundbreaking in its execution and often only appreciated in hindsight. In short, it haunts us. Few artists ever achieve this type of prophetic influence and even fewer spoke (and continue to speak) with a voice more powerful than that of the late David Wojnarowicz.

Much has been written about Wojnarowicz’s life and work in the aftermath of the Smithsonian censures this past December. But while the removal of the artist’s now infamous video, “A Fire in My Belly,” (1986-87) from the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture, was a disgrace to the democratic spirit of the Smithsonian Institute, the theme of the exhibition and the rights ensured by the First Amendment, something beautiful happened in its wake. Wojnarowicz’s voice, little heard since the late ’90s, was summoned back to life.

I first saw “A Fire in My Belly” as a result of this conservative misstep and the “emergency screenings” that followed in protest throughout the museum and gallery circuit. The film, a searingly powerful portrayal of anger and loss, moved the audience in ways one rarely witnesses within the confines of the so-called “therapeutic institution.” For the second time in recent art history, Wojnarowicz’s work blew the cover off of a fearful-minded, right-wing political machine. As it often happens with these attempts at censorship (one need only recall the “Culture Wars” of the early ’90s), Wojnarowicz’s voice only grew louder. At PPOW, that voice has reached fever pitch in the form of videos, photographs, paintings, collages, and personal notebooks spanning two decades. Spirituality, meticulously researched and commendably curated from a wide array of sources, functions on the scale of a mini-retrospective, providing context and clues for Wojnarowicz’s often elusive, sometimes dangerous, and always brutally honest work.

The exhibition begins with two-dimensional drawings and photographs that point directly to the artist’s conflicted stance regarding religion, sexuality, and the afterlife. Wojnarowicz did not believe in the notion of life after death. “We are all destined to become fly food,” the artist says in the passionately self-narrated 60-minute video, “Silence=Death,” posthumously completed in 1998 with the assistance of directors Phil Zwickler and Rosa von Praunheim. Sentenced to die prematurely from AIDS, Wojnarowicz would unflinchingly grapple with the subject of death and its inherently spiritual ties throughout his tragically short-lived career.

Wojnarowicz’s paintings emphasize this struggle between faith and the logical mind, as envisioned through the various life cycles of death and birth. Images of the brain, floating skulls, ocular orbs and bandaged hands, as well as the illustrative fusion of man and machine, permeate the artist’s individualized vocabulary, one typified in such works as “Mexican Crucifix” (1987-88), “Excavating the Temple of the New Gods” (1986) and “Architecture of Desire” (1988-89). On the photographic flipside, “Rimbaud in New York (dogfight)” (1979) supplies one of the earliest expressions of Wojnarowicz’s troubled relationship with the Catholic Church and its rampant homophobia. Here in black and white, a collaged image of the French poet, superimposed in front of a metal garage door, holds a gun on a garishly spray-painted Jesus hovering over the New York skyline—a performative standoff grounded in a violence of beliefs. Similarly, the “Ant Series,” (1988-89), a sequence of gelatin silver prints comprised primarily of stills from “A Fire in My Belly,” feature variously loaded iconographic objects—a crucifix, a military action figure, a clock, coins, a nude male torso, a Christ head—nestled among ashes and gravel as ants swarm their inanimate corpses. But Wojnarowicz’s work, whose inflammatory symbolism is often easily misread, is here demystified through the artist’s personal voice in the form of contextual video footage and self-notated writings.

Having worked the streets since the age of 12, Wojnarowicz’s deep-seated rage against an ignorant and intolerant society grew exponentially with his diagnosis, and the burgeoning success that followed brought with it a conflicted relationship to money. In many of the artist’s writings on view, Wojnarowicz plainly states his opinion of currency: to paraphrase, “money makes one into a voyeur because it gives one the freedom of movement.” Following the revocation of Artists Space grant funds by the NEA in 1989 (a move precipitated by Wojnarowicz’s seemingly controversial writings on AIDS), Wojnarowicz was catapulted onto the collector scene; he, in turn, used this paradoxical “freedom” to create some of his most provocative work.

Both victim of and witness to the personal devastation wrought by the AIDS epidemic, Wojnarowicz channeled the unyielding aggression of his illness, its “unchartable progress,” into the raw urgency that came to define his filmic expression. “A Fire in My Belly,” screened here in its 13:06 min. entirety, combines the spiritual reverence Wojnarowicz found (and I believe made peace with) in Mexico with the excessive violence and extreme poverty of the region. As the film splices together clips of indigenous scenes—the Día de los Muertos, bullfights, wrestling, an injured dog, a dying roach, water, fire, hieroglyphs, Quetzalcoatl—the cadence of aggression and agony mounts. But it is here, in the artist’s most unforgiving and jarring accounts, that the visceral sadness underscoring Wojnarowicz’s collective oeuvre becomes palpable.

In a recently published article by the Huffington Post, I came across the following quote by the artist:

I am standing among all of you waving my invisible arms and hands. I am shouting my invisible words. I am getting so weary. I am growing so tired. I am waving to you from here. I am crawling around looking for the aperture of complete and final emptiness. I am vibrating in isolation among you. I am screaming but it comes out like pieces of clear ice. I am signaling that the volume of all this is too high. I am waving. I am waving my hands. I am disappearing. I am disappearing but not fast enough.

It was this compounded equation of silence, verbal + visual, that Wojnarowicz could not, would not tolerate.

The unfortunate reality of the human condition is that it is often through the pain of others that we find enlightenment. The work of David Wojnarowicz does that for us. At its core, his dialectical motivations of the literary and the iconographic, as revealed in Spirituality, synthesize into a legacy of truth. They give us back our spirituality. That is, if we are only not afraid to look.


Kara L. Rooney

Kara Rooney is a Brooklyn-based artist, writer, and critic working in performance, sculptures and new media installation. She is a Managing Art Editor for the Brooklyn Rail and faculty member at School of Visual Arts, where she teaches Art History and Aesthetics.


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2011

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