by David Wojnarowicz
The subject pictured in this photo-text collage Untitled (One Day, This Kid) is David Wojnarowicz himself as child, his toothy grin and neat hair and dress evoking an all-American school snapshot from the 1950s. Surrounding this image of prepubescent innocence, however, are texts forecasting the artist’s future as a homosexual who is persecuted by his family, church, school, government, and the legal and medical systems.
Among other abuses, he will ‘be faced with electro-shock, drugs, and conditioning therapies’ as well as ‘be subject to loss of home, civil rights, jobs, and all conceivable freedoms’ — all because, the text concludes, ‘he discovers he desires to place his naked body on the naked body of another boy.’ With its imperative declarations and use of the future tense, Wojnarowicz’s text demands attention, transforming ‘this kid’ from a specific figure to anyone subject to homophobia. Like many of the artist’s projects, this work insists on a presence and visibility for the gay community of which he was a part, proposing art as not only an instrument of protest but a vehicle for enlightenment.
With this in mind, one can see Wojnarowicz’s work being vitally important even if it was shaped in different context of 1990s America. Despite the significant progress achieved over the past decades in the situation of LGBTQ+ community globally and locally, like here in the UK for instance, we are currently witnessing an intensifying backlash against them. The reason for this is not at all clear, but that’s clear it is happening; whether due to the greater visibility of LGBTQ+ people in societies that have begun to recognize their rights or because they can become convenient scapegoats for embattled leaders, who are trying to rally support from more conservative sectors of their society, like in Uganda, Poland, Russia, or indeed in the UK, where the power of the evangelical church have till now prevented efforts in banning the torture that is the so called conversion therapy. ‘”Praying the gay away”’ is just as unacceptable as any other pseudoscientific approach which tells LGBTQ+ people they are ‘sick’ and ‘broken’. Good art disturbs our set ways of seeing and stimulates formation of new meanings in as much as it can act as a form of protest. Protest in art is particularly powerful when it engages the poetic, just like in the case of the above work by David Wojnarowicz. ‘Less a call to arms than a challenge to feel. A whispered reminder of what may be lost. And what may yet be discovered.’ (John Gerrard, 2017, Frieze Catalogue)
Beginning in the late 1970s, David Wojnarowicz (1954–1992) created a body of work that spanned photography, painting, music, film, sculpture, writing, and activism. Largely self taught, he came to prominence in New York in the 1980s, a period marked by creative energy, financial precariousness, and profound cultural changes. Intersecting movements—graffiti, new and no wave music, conceptual photography, performance, and neo-expressionist painting—made New York a laboratory for innovation. Wojnarowicz refused a signature style, adopting a wide variety of techniques with an attitude of radical possibility. Distrustful of inherited structures—a feeling amplified by the resurgence of conservative politics—he varied his repertoire to better infiltrate the prevailing culture.
Wojnarowicz saw the outsider as his true subject. Queer and later diagnosed as HIV-positive, he became an impassioned advocate for people with AIDS when an inconceivable number of friends, lovers, and strangers were dying due to government inaction. Wojnarowicz’s work documents and illuminates a desperate period of American history: that of the AIDS crisis and culture wars of the late 1980s and early 1990s. But his rightful place is also among the raging and haunting iconoclastic voices, from Walt Whitman to William S. Burroughs, who explore American myths, their perpetuation, their repercussions, and their violence. Like theirs, his work deals directly with the timeless subjects of sex, spirituality, love, and loss. Wojnarowicz, who was thirty-seven when he died from AIDS-related complications, wrote: “To make the private into something public is an action that has terrific ramifications.”
(David Wojnarowicz: History Keeps Me Awake at Night, 2018, the Whitney Museum of American Art collection catalogue)