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Out and About: Notes on David Wojnarowicz

Notes on David Wojnarowicz: History Keeps me Awake at Night at the Whitney Museum

by Lien Van Geel

Unless otherwise indicated, all photos have been taken from the Whitney Museum website and used here without any claim to copyright for educational purposes only.

David Wojnarowicz (1954–1992), Something from Sleep III (For Tom Rauffenbart), 1989.

Displacement struck me as an overarching theme of David Wojnarowicz: History Keeps me Awake at Night, the missing sense of belonging as a result of Wojnarowicz’s experiences with difference and vision. The exhibition displayed an eclectic collection of art works that ranged from the grey-toned Rimbaud series, to the more explicitly political pieces related to AIDS awareness and activism, and the more colorful yet equally bleak flower pieces. Despite their differences in style and material, the majority of the pieces dealt with the difficulty of finding one’s position in the world and the different ways to cope with this problem whilst being looked upon by this outer world.

Voyeurism, in this way, appears as another central theme: are we meant or allowed to watch the objects of his arts whilst suffering (Autoportrait, 1980 or Untitled (Peter Hujar, 1989)) or engaging in sexual activity? Are we meant to take pleasure in being given this spectator position? Going through the exhibition, one notices that Wojnarowicz synthesizes and recycles several of his images (e.g. Peter Hujar, the use of the red stitches of The Bread Sculpture, the dollar bill background). By reusing these dollar sign backgrounds that were often stitched with red yarn, money and capitalism were placed in the underlying background, ever-present both in the art and in politics, whether it be in a latent or explicit position. Class seemed an obvious concern to the artist as these recycled syntheses kept recurring. Might these recycled pieces, especially the ones related to AIDS and suffering, serve as an allusion to and statement about the way in which the AIDS epidemic, responsible for Wojnarowicz’s and 38,044 other New Yorkers’ deaths, functions as a recurrent, inescapable loop?

David Wojnarowicz, Untitled, 1988.

The Rimbaud series included “three of his friends roaming the streets of New York wearing life-size masks of Rimbaud, which instantly evoked a sense of displacement and alienation because of the grey-printed mask of a boyish looking Rimbaud with shaggy yet short hair and a grave facial expression. At first, one may be bewildered by the choice of extracting Rimbaud’s stylized face and inserting it into the New York landscape a century later, but this confusion is clarified by the curator’s note about the way in which Wojnarowicz identified with “Rimbaud [who] rejected established categories and wanted to create new and sensuous ways to participated in the world” and how Wojnarowicz felt that they shared the link of being both abandoned sons and feeling like “outsiders.” This sense of their both being an outsider in a different way added another layer to the Rimbaud series. In grey and black and white tones, a masked figure–a possible indication of taking on a different persona, unlike oneself, and a struggle with self-identity– at the focal point of the photo, concealing its gaze yet creating the illusion that the spectator is being gazed at, creates distance and feeling of alienation.

David Wojnarowicz, Rimbaud mask, c. 1978.

Feelings of displacement surround the mask of a poet of a different place and time, to suggest how, like Rimbaud, Wojnarowicz was also the abandoned son, “the Other.” In the various pieces ranging from a background at Times Square (Wojnarowicz himself was a former Times Square hustler), to the Meat Packing district and the Subway, this figure mostly stands alone in the world, and, in private spaces, is depicted as a sufferer, taking drugs or masturbating. For this reason, the photograph at the Subway where the masked figure is surrounded by a laughing woman and two disinterested ones seemed even more alienating, because the figure’s company does not alter anything about its situation: it does not seem less lonesome. In fact, the different reactions to the figure (laughter, seriousness, disinterest) make the scene even more strange and isolating.

David Wojnarowicz, Arthur Rimbaud in New York, 1978–79

Another series in Wojnarowicz’s work centered on AIDS awareness and activism. One type of the art pieces features a black and white colored photo background with turquoise or red text printed on top of it, meant to comment upon the AIDS problem in New York (Untitled (ACT-UP), 1990; Untitled (Sometimes I Come to Hate People), 1992). Along the same theme were the photographs with explicit one-liners such as “If I die of AIDS-forget burial-just drop my body on the steps of the F.D.A.” Most striking in this series was Untitled (One Day This Kid . . .), 1990–91) the photograph of the artist as an innocently smiling school boy with the text “one day this kid will get larger,” which is followed by the different treatments he will receive because of his homosexuality and his need to speak when society wants him to be silenced. The piece seemed to depict purity and innocence lost without any hope of protection of the child or recovering those losses on the one hand. On the other hand, it seemed to criticize the government and their cruelty for not attempting to prevent or help similar once hopeful children who would possibly fall victim to a similar illness.

David Wojnarowicz, Untitled (One Day This Kid . . .), 1990–91.

Wojnarowicz’s “collages” struck me with the contrast between the brightly colored flowers and the inserted negatives that had some relation to death, decay, and extinction. Flowers in the center of the I Feel A Vague Nausea, 1990 and He Kept Following Me, 1990 evoked the double meaning of flourishing fertility on the one hand and decaying death on the other, yet also functioned as symbol of AIDS (especially to Wojnarowicz). Sub-Species Helms Senatorius, 1990 did not function as a collage as much as the previously mentioned pieces, but in turn combines and recycles the themes of flowers and the political message by depicting senator Jesse Helms, who aggravated the problems around AIDS because of his hostile attitude towards its victims, as a spider.

Installation view of David Wojnarowicz: History Keeps Me Awake at Night (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, July 13–September 30, 2018). From left to right: He Kept Following Me, 1990; I Feel A Vague Nausea, 1990; Americans Can’t Deal with Death, 1990; We Are Born into a Preinvented Existence, 1990. Photograph by Ron Amstutz.

Through the Rimbaud-series, the Peter Hujar photographs, and his pornographic pieces, Wojnarowicz experimented with persona/masks, the gaze, and voyeurism. His work features a clear element of difference as well. When considering his class, queerness, and experiences as an AIDS-victim, and how they informed the works in this exhibition, left me at times uneasy with the sense of displacement and the feelings of isolation his work evokes.


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