A stitch in time

David Wojnarowicz, image from A Fire in My Belly, 1989

David Wojnarowicz is one of those artists. I find his work really interesting and immensely powerful but I haven’t seen very much of it in real life. One day I hope to get the chance to rectify that but in the meanwhile I’ll carry on looking at his work in reproduction. I like his approach to putting images – and often text – together in collages, prints and paintings but it’s his film work that interests me most, in part because it’s here that everything comes together.

And in terms of this blog and the way I let my attention move from one artist to the next by following the most literal of connections – I’m all about the unashamedly clunky segue after all – the use of read thread in his film A Fire in My Belly is more than a little convenient.

Much of Wojnarowicz’s work was made in response to the discrimination he experienced as an openly gay man, especially as AIDS cast its shadow over his life and the lives of those around him.

Fire in my belly (full version), 1986-87

The imagery in A Fire in My Belly is extraordinary – and gives a good indication of some of the artist’s other works – and the film seems to talk about many things from censorship and discrimination to the confusion that came with the AIDS crisis (Wojnarowicz’s partner, photographer Peter Hujar was diagnosed HIV positive in 1984 and died in 1987; Wojnarowicz himself died of an AIDS-related illness in 1992). It was a brief moment in the film – when ants crawl over a small crucifix – that made the film so controversial though.

In 2010, the film was removed from Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC (part of the Smithsonian) after pressure from the religious right. In response, other art museums screened the work and the Andy Warhol Foundation, which had sponsored Hide/Seek announced it wouldn’t fund any future Smithsonian projects.

Untitled (bread sculpture), 1988-89

Though Wojnarowicz’s imagery was often very direct, it is nonetheless incredibly powerful. Bread is a building block of life with great cultural significance; the red thread is used here in an apparent attempt to hold things together. There is an absolute simplicity to this work yet it is loaded with suggestion. Like several other works, this sculpture represents an image from A Fire in My Belly made real. It would be possible to argue somewhat cynically that objects such as this are effectively there to provide the income stream so often closed off for artists working with video; small scale works can be sold, after all. But while there are plenty of artists I might level that criticism at, Wojnarowicz isn’t one of them.

Untitled (face in dirt), 1990

This photograph seems to me to show someone resigned to being overcome by the awfulness of circumstance and the shit hand they’ve ultimately been dealt; that it is very moving is unsurprising, that it is also very beautiful is astonishing.

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