IMAGE FROM THE "SEX STORIES," BLACK-AND-WHITE PHOTOGRAPH. 18 BY 21 1/2 INCHES. COLLECTION PAUL ANDERSON.
On the other (negative) had, there are his memories of a sadistic Catholic school where he was beaten and forced to kneel on a bag of marbles. These memories have since been exacerbated by his fury at the Catholics Church's indifference to the fate of the gay community. He rages against what he perceives as Cardinal O'Connor's preference for the Vatican's obsolete positions on homosexuality, which Wojnarowicz compares to human sacrifice: The government has prosecuted Christian Scientists who don't allow medical treatment for their families. If you look at information as preventative medicine, why is the Church allowed to have lobbyists on the Hill, block safe-sex information, be on AIDS advisory boards?
Wojnarowicz's refusal to deny his own sexuality and his insistence on publicly representing it is a potent form of resistance to the "preinvented world." "When I concentrate on concrete issues of sexuality in my work," he says, " a lot of people say that's better left to the bedroom. I say bullshit, because I'm completely surrounded by one form of sexuality' it's represented in every ad--whether it's cigarettes or beer or whatever, there's always one prescribed sexuality that makes me feel invisible." (He retaliates by making heterosexual love temporarily invisible in his own work.) Now AIDS, and the Catholic Church's rabid homophobia and rejection of contraception, abortion and safe sex, threatens to altogether deny nonreproductive sexuality and the comfort it offers. It is as though a puritan society has finally found a way to implement its primal fears.
Eros and Thanatos have long been the batteries charging Wojnarowicz's art as well as life. Animals—seen by the culture as sexual symbols because of their "freedom"--seen by the culture as sexual symbols because of their "freedom"—often appear in Wojnarowicz's work, but he seems to identify equally with their vulnerability. Denied familial affection as a child, homosexuality initiated before puberty, he sought human contact in the dangerous arena of hustling... and of art. Wojnarowicz's spirituality is inseparable from his politics. He points out that
Spirituality has become a dirty word in this society because of the destructive nature of organized religion and the controls exerted by its human structure. Myths get played out only in pop culture, in the forms of toys and cartoons, animals, monsters, and fantastic creation.
His ideas about death come from various cultures—the Mayans, the Egyptians: "One of the strongest feelings I have about death is that it's a time when the energy we carry is dispersed and becomes a part of everything." His very sense of time has been affected by AIDS: "Things have much more meaning... [Homosexuals making art] do have a greater sense of mortality, and it's affected what images they've selected. I know for myself it's been profound. Every few months I feel like I'm taking out a new lease on my life. It's a sense of pressure." This building pressure acquired explosive potential when Wojnarowicz found he was HHIV positive. He has learned to use, as he puts it, his "sexual energy as a tool against the state." In one of his brilliant diatribes against governmental neglect (it appears in the painting Untitled, 1988), he says:
I'm carrying this rage like a bloodfilled egg...and the egg is starting to crack.... I'm a thirty-seven foot tall on thousand one hundred and seventy-two pound man inside this six-foot frame and all I can feel is the pressure all I can fee is the pressure and the need for release.
For Wojnarowicz, art has been a direct tool of survival and transformation. Through a ghastly early childhood marked by parental kidnapping, alcoholism, abuse and constant moves through New Jersey Michigan and new York, he found it emotionally important to "make things." As early as 1970–71, when he was 16 and 17, Wojnarowicz was writing and photographing with the some seriousness, although the products of his creativity were often abandoned in bus-station lockers. Risk, lethal danger, physical hardship, suffering and more abuse marked his later childhood and adolescence as a prostitute on the streets, and he makes no bones about the fact that "making things" stemmed the self-destructive times. In his late teens, in disastrous physical and mental health, he finally pulled back from his life by finding refuge (for the second time) in a halfway house for "potential jail risks"--the beginning of rehabilitation. Working as a janitor, he found himself totally isolate, almost mute in his unfamiliarity with "normal" life and daily intercourse. He visualized his life in a dream, then in a painting, of himself as a dinosaur—"something ancient and alien."
At 18, he left New York to hitchhike around the country and into Mexico, worked as a farmer on the Canadian border and "went to live for the rest of my life in Parisian Normandy," which lasted for a year. At 21 he was living openly gay in San Francisco, and had begun to understand that "my queerness was a wedge that was slowly separating me from a sick society." In 1974 he saw Jean Gent's Un Chant d'amour. In the late ‘70s he started "Developing ideas of making and preserving and authentic version of history in the form of images/writings/objects that would contest state-supported forms of ‘history.'" Back in New York in 1978-1981, he did a photo series called "Arthur Rimbaud in New York," in which acquaintances wearing a Rimbaud mask rode the subway, masturbated and hustled in Times Square. These works belong to the history of unannounced public performance art, from Vito Acconci and Adrian Piper in the early ‘70s to ACT UP today.
The years 1978–81 were an extraordinary moment in the art world when a new generation of artists appeared on SoHo's streets and didn't like what they saw. Manny of them fled to the South Bronx and Loisaida (The Lower East Side) and there collaborated on unexpected things with unexpected people. This move, in reaction to the art world's political apathy and the new Reagan administration's heartlessness opened up a stagnant scene to intense new energies often sparked by the graffiti writers and the birth of hip-hop.
From 1978 to 1982, Wojnarowicz was hanging out at the empty warehouses along the Hudson River, for sex, solitude and eventually art. Someone gave him a broken Super-8 movie camera, and he made a still unfinished and now partially destroyed epic symbolic film about the horrors of heroin hoping to dissuade two friends from their burgeoning "experimentation" with hard drugs. As he describes it:
A person with a wrapped head, like an invisible man, would move into a room and through these endless doorframes another guy the same size same clothing, is moving in another direction through the warehouse; eventually they collide on the rooftop where you see the Empire State building, symbolic of the hypodermic. One shoots the other in the head all this ketchup flies about, and when he bends down and starts unwrapping the head, it is his own face that's revealed. Then the film cuts into a hundred people dead in different places.
He was also making huge murals and environments on one pier, exploring the beginnings of his iconographic vocabulary, (In 1983, he told other artists to spread the word, and work in a warehouse near Canal Street, which became the Wardline Pier Project.) In those days, when AIDS was still called GRIDS (Gay Related Immune Deficiency Syndrome), and its plague proportions were as yet unrecognized, Wojnarowicz's anger was focused on the world itself and then on the way art is treated within a deeply disturbed society. He first became anonymously visible when he stenciled SoHo gallery doors with threatening little burning buildings. With Julie Hair--artist and fellow member of the punk-rock band 3 Teens Kill 4 No Motive (after a New York Post headline) in which Wojnarowicz "played" tapes of street sounds and conversations as percussion-- he deposited 100 pounds of bloody animal bones in the hallway of the Leo Castelli Gallery on West Broadway. He also stenciled the walls with burning houses, bomber planes, an empty plate with knife and fork, a target-faced man and a recoiling figure for which he had become known in the Eat Village. The piece was called Hunger. " It was a reaction to wealth being presented as culture, to what we were horrified by on a daily basis (through I wasn't much of a gallery-goer), he recalls, " a reaction to what it means to get into Castelli or attempt to, or to have to devote your time to thinking about it. We were also going to set up firing squads inside of Macy's as a reminder of the dictatorship exported by the U.S. government. We liked the idea of spontaneity and unexpected gestures, the idea of people coming from different places by different means of transportation, creating something, and then disappearing."