featured gallery for September 2018

He would still be living with AIDS

Summer in New York, 2018. The artist, writer, and activist David Wojnarowicz is the subject of exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of American Art, at PPOW Gallery in Chelsea (who represent his estate), and at New York University’s Elmer Holmes Bobst Library, where Wojnarowicz’s archive is held. Photographs of Wojnarowicz cruising the derelict waterfront in the late 1970s are included in a show at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art in SoHo. History, some of the posters tell us, keeps him awake at night. Others intimate the fall of a civilization, perhaps this one: soon all this will be picturesque ruins. The city is alive with words and images made by a dead artist.

While walking through rooms of Wojnarowicz’s paintings and papier-mâché sculptures at the Whitney, viewers can peek through grey blinds towards wooden pilings in the Hudson River, which mark the site of the piers where Wojnarowicz cruised for sex, sat and read poetry, made artwork, and wrote in the late 1970s and early 1980s. As the waterfront fell into ruin, its warehouses rotting and collapsing into the river, Wojnarowicz felt connected through this decay to old New York, "filled with coasting images of sights and sounds … like some secret earphone connecting me to the creakings of the living city."1 He imagined cruising men as characters in an erotic literary collage, as "Mishima’s private army" or "a cross between an aging boxer and Mayakovsky," as Jean Genet or William Burroughs.2 He wondered where the poet Arthur Rimbaud, as an archetypal queer outsider, might spend his time if he’d sailed from 1870s Paris to Wojnarowicz’s New York, "a vision of Rimbaud with what was known of his sensibilities, only here … at this time and place in history. What he’d get into, what areas he’d be drawn to."3 He imagined that a contemporary Christ "would take on the suffering of the vast amounts of addiction that I saw on the streets." Wojnarowicz did this as a queer survival tactic: "I felt the weight of my experiences and that there was very little chance I could transcend them or turn them into something useful with the social structure I was living in or outlive those experiences."4 In his paintings, literary icons, lovers, mythological creatures, and burning men share space in visions that refuse to adhere to chronological time. They are restless stories that slip from present to past to future and back again. They are queer strategies for living in what he called ‘the pre-invented world’5. Some of them are radical visions of queer sex and life. Some of them are "x-rays from hell."

Wojnarowicz’s work invites us to fantasize about a connection with the dead across - and in spite of - time past, just as he imagined Rimbaud riding the subway or Vladimir Mayakovsky cruising the piers. This approach became charged with a new affective and political power when he began dealing with his experiences of the AIDS crisis through paintings, screenprints, moving image works, and writing. Untitled (ACT UP) (1990) layers rising pharmaceutical share prices over a map of the United States—“this killing machine called America"— and a target. In the text, Wojnarowicz fantasized about "tipping amazonian blow-darts in ‘infected blood’ and spitting them at the exposed necklines of certain politicians or nazi-preachers or government health care officials… As each T-cell disappears from my body," he wrote, "it’s replaced by ten pounds of pressure ten pounds of rage."6 In other work from this period, Wojnarowicz started to deploy the imaginative trick of projecting the viewer and the reader into the future: "one day this kid will reach a point where he senses a division that isn’t mathematical. One day this kid will feel something stir in his heart and throat and mouth." Sometimes that futuristic leap involved ruminating on his own death, but often hypothetically: "If I die of AIDS, forget burial—just drop my body on the steps of the FDA."7

Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that a speculative query has appeared in numerous reviews of the Whitney’s retrospective: what would Wojnarowicz do if he were alive now? What would a man who protested the B-movie president think of the reality television president? Would he take aim at Sessions and Pence? Writing in The New York Times, Holland Cotter ventured that "[i]n 2018 America, [Wojnarowicz] would have felt more than ever like a criminal migrant, an alien combatant."8 David Wojnarowicz was an artist who used his body and his work in and as protest, who viewed the deaths of friends and lovers as personal tragedies and as declarations of war from a ruthlessly homophobic culture: "when I was told that I'd contracted this virus it didn't take me long to realize that I'd contracted a diseased society as well."9 His death was marked with a political funeral where mourners carried a banner with an unmistakable assignation of responsibility: "David Wojnarowicz, 1954 – 1992. Died of AIDS due to government neglect." Some of his ashes were scattered on the White House lawn by his partner Tom Rauffenbart as part of an ACT UP action which was inspired by his own words of rage and frustration:

"I imagine what it would be like if, each time a lover, friend or stranger died of the disease, their friends, lovers, or neighbors would take the dead body and drive with it in a car a hundred miles an hour to washington d.c. and blast through the gates of the white house and come to a screeching halt before the entrance and dump their lifeless form on the front steps."10

The material fact of Wojnarowicz’s death, the impossibility of his return in spite of his creative experimentation with temporality, is crucial to engaging with the politics of his work about AIDS. There is a progressive narcissism to the suggestion that his rage should find meaning and relevance now "more than ever." He is not alive today because of homophobic politicians, public ignorance and misinformation, the deadly underfunding of AIDS research, the lack of an accessible healthcare system. The temptation to imagine Wojnarowicz in our time comes from the playful achronological temporality of his own work, but it muddies our perception of "the plague years" and what has come after, of what Sarah Schulman calls the "two distinctly different forms of AIDS that are not over"—"AIDS of the past" and "ongoing AIDS."11 It facilitates "the gentrification of the mind" that Schulman has chronicled. Existing somewhere in between these two AIDS, but rarely addressing either, this form of projection also risks obscuring the fact that, though there have been major advancements in treatment and legislation since Wojnarowicz’s death in 1992, if he were alive today, he would still be living with AIDS.

The works in this web gallery also tread the queer terrain of achronology and non-linear relationships to the past. They imagine states of transformation and inbetweenness. They consider visibility and invisibility in institutional contexts. They reflect on the weight of history, the responsibility of mourning and carrying on a legacy. In an epilogue to a reprinted version of her article "Video, AIDS, and Activism," Ann Cvetkovich wrote that the challenge of representing political work from the past, whether as historians, educators or curators, "is to ensure that activist history never becomes dead history; it must be actively integrated into the lives of its audience. The history of activism offers testimony that because activism has happened before, it can happen again."12 This necessary dualism is where the political power of Wojnarowicz’s play with past, present, and future in his art and writing really lies. Additionally, as Jennifer Doyle wrote about her desire to connect Wojnarowicz’s work with living artists like AA Bronson, "to link Wojnarowicz and other queer artists to oppositional figures who are still here … is a way to critically imagine futures for work that is usually framed in relation to stories of disappearance."13 These works explore the pleasure of projection into the future, the impossibility of return to the past, and the question of how we should remember those we have lost in the context of a crisis that has changed but is ongoing. We still live in the unrelenting grip of the pre-invented world. Some of these artists are living, others are dead.

To acknowledge Wojnarowicz’s continued relevance in the present isn’t to wonder what he might have thought about Jeff Sessions or Brett Kavanaugh; rather, it is to ask how we can tell the history of the AIDS crisis in his lifetime in a rigorous and expansive way, and what lessons, tools, and techniques we can draw from his work and the work of those with whom he collaborated in the fight against HIV criminalization, for access to testing, for better HIV and safe sex education, for supporting those communities who continue to be disproportionately impacted by HIV and AIDS, for asking why HIV and AIDS, poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, discriminatory drug laws, and anti-sex worker legislation continue to intersect and what we can do about it. Wondering what Wojnarowicz would do in 2018 America should be a political practice, rather than a thought experiment, and it should attend to the two ongoing AIDS crises that Schulman identified. "Don’t give me a memorial if I die," he wrote towards the end of his life: "give me a demonstration."14

[1] Amy Scholder, ed., In The Shadow of the American Dream: The Diaries of David Wojnarowicz, (New York: Grove Press, 1999), 145.

[2] David Wojnarowicz, "Losing the Form in Darkness" in Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration (New York: Vintage, 1991), 14.

[3] The David Wojnarowicz Papers: Series I, Box 1, Folder 4; Fales Library and Special Collections, New York University Libraries.

[4] Sylvere Lotringer, ed., David Wojnarowicz: A Definitive History of Five or Six Years on the Lower East Side (New York: Semiotext(e), 2006), 219.

[5] Wojnarowicz, "Postcards from America: X-Rays from Hell" in Close to the Knives, 120.

[6] Wojnarowicz, ‘Living Close to the Knives’ in Close to the Knives, 108.

[7] Slogan on a jacket worn by Wojnarowicz at an ACT UP action at the FDA in Washington, D.C. on October 11, 1988, and photographed by Bill Dobbs.

[8] Holland Cotter, "He Spoke Out During the AIDS Crisis. See Why His Art Still Matters," New York Times, July 12, 2018.

[9] Wojnarowicz, Close to the Knives, 114.

[10] David Wojnarowicz, "Postcards from America: X-Rays from Hell" in Close to the Knives, 122.

[11] Sarah Schulman, The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 42.

[12] Ann Cvetkovich, "Video, AIDS, and Activism," in Art, Activism, and Oppositionality: Essays from Afterimage, edited by Grant H. Kester (Durham: Duke University Press, 1998), 195

[13] Jennifer Doyle, Hold It Against Me: Difficulty and Emotion in Contemporary Art (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013), 130.

[14] Scholder, ed., In The Shadow of the American Dream, 206.