The exceptionally talented queer artist David Wojanarowicz’s name may not easily trip off one’s tongue but at least now thanks to Chris McKim’s incisive documentary his place in the echelons of queer culture will finally be totally undisputed.
Wojanarowicz died of AIDS in 1992 just 37 years old, but this new film makes us all totally aware that the impact of his work is still so powerfully relevant today.
Thanks to the wealth of Wojanarowicz’s audio and visual recordings, he appears as a major presence in the telling of the story. Born in Red Bank, New Jersey, where he and his siblings survived physical abuse by their father, Ed Wojnarowicz. Teenage David ran away traveling as a hobo on the railways and turning tricks to survive. When his parents divorced and his mother moved to NY with her new husband Wojnarowicz worked as a street hustler around Times Square.
When his sister Pat moved to Paris Wojnarowicz went with her, but after a few months, he missed the buzz of NY so he came back. Whilst the center of contemporary art was in Soho in the 1970s, Wojnarowicz preferred the grime and reality of the East Village. Now back home he experimented with so many different art forms from painting to graffiti to experimental super 8 filmmaking, all of it incorporating his take of politics which he was equally passionate about.
There he mixed with equally prolific artists like the photographer Peter Hujar, who for a short time was his lover, but more importantly become his lifelong best friend. Others he sometimes collaborated with included Nan Goldin, Peter Hujar, Luis Frangella, Karen Finley, Kiki Smith, Richard Kern, James Romberger, and Marguerite Van Cook .
When Wojnarowicz started to enjoy commercial success and recognition he was immediately conflicted and resented the fact his enormous collage-like paintings would all end up in the hands of very wealthy collectors.
McKim recounts an incident where Wojnarowicz was commissioned to create an installation in the home of wealthy banker Robert Mnuchin. He horrified him and his wife by showing his dismay at having to do the project by creating a basement installation out of bug-infested trash.
But to us, and Wojnarowicz himself, one of his greatest achievements was when he persuaded fellow artists to populate a vast abandoned warehouse on the Hudson River. The work they all created there on the vast walls was so imaginative and stunning and on a scale, none of them would ever have imagined. Its popularity soon caught the attention of the authorities, who soon had it razed to the ground. Wojnarowicz pointed out the irony of this all as the Warehouse was in among the piers that he had known intimately as a gay cruising ground.
The other side we see of Wojnarowicz is as an angry and impassioned activist when NY started to lose swathes of people in the AIDS pandemic. His own diagnosis never slowed him down, but when Hujar died, we see Wojnarowicz on film energized as a fearless leader agitating for better meds and treatment from an unsympathetic and largely homophobic administration.
This charismatic artistic genius now divided his passion between his art and fighting for a community that was being devastated. Learning so much more about him in this way, makes us appreciate the art even more.
We should also mention that another of Wojnarowicz’s key collaborations in the ’80s was with the band 3 Teens Kill 4, whose grungy, low-tech art-rock, often using found samples of recorded material, provides the soundtrack for this film.
Any documentary that details any part of the history of queer culture is such a real treat for us, and a vital reference for future generations. Kim’s film makes such an excellent contribution to the ongoing dialogue about who our community owes so much too.
'Wojnarowicz: F**k You F*ggot F**ker' is produced by Fenton Bailey & Randy Barbato' s World of Wonder and distributed by Kino Lorber and will be screening at Miami's OUTshine Film Fest