If David Wojnarowicz were alive to witness his video, Fire in the Belly, attacked by the Catholic League and removed from the National Portrait Gallery, he probably would not have been surprised. Wojnarowicz’s work received its share of controversy during the culture wars of 1989-90. His essay Postcards from America: X-rays From Hell caused National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) funding to be withdrawn from Artists’ Space, because of an essay by Wojnarowicz included in the catalogue to its show about AIDS, “WITNESS: Against Our Vanishing.”
Some 20 years before Bill Donahue of the Catholic League thought of using Wojnarowicz’s work to urge Republicans in Congress to review funding for the Smithsonian, the Rev. Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association used excerpted images from Wojnarowicz collages in a campaign to persuade Congress to hold back N.E.A. grants. (Wojnarowicz successfully sued Wildmon for misrepresenting his work.)
But what about the work itself? It is probably one of the worst effects of censorship that, in the throes of controversy, the complex work itself gets flattened to some one-dimensional image (of a crucified Christ eaten by ants or some such inanity). So, a few words about Wojnarowicz. David Wojnarowicz was a multimedia artist and writer, employing photography, collage, performance, painting and writing in his highly political and very angry work. One of his goals was to record an “alternative history” of lives made invisible in what he perceived as a mass mediated “Other World.”
Wojnarowicz’s started documenting his environment before he had any hope of communicating the results. From the age of 15 he captured the city streets in which he lived with a stolen camera on stolen film. The film, undeveloped, was lost, but the impulse to record a reality made invisible to a media culture produced the word portraits posthumously published in The Waterfront Journals, the autobiographical fragments in Close to the Knives and Memories that Smell Like Gasoline, as well as the compulsive layering of photographic images in the visual work. What Wojnarowicz recognizably documented was the trajectory of his life – a violent father, hustling in the streets of New York from the age of nine, extremes of destitution, and later, the AIDS pandemic, friends dying, his own diagnosis and “increased mortality.”
More than documenting facts Wojnarowicz was amplifying an emotional experience in the hope of offering recognition to those made to disappear by mass mediated reality. The photography and paint collages, for instance, share with the mass media the input of a large quantity of disparate information, and with the media savvy of someone who grew up with TV, Wojnarowicz makes the juxtaposition of industrial debris, porn images, money, dinosaurs and bandaged hands. Yet, contrary to the attenuation of affect brought about by the evening news, Wojnarowicz’s images resonate with each other communicating the emotional substance of a post-apocalyptic world. Wojnarowicz is a witness, giving testimony regarding something that is structurally invisible to media culture and unspeakable in its terms: an intense and painful emotional experience.
…and I wake up every morning in this killing machine called america and I’m carrying this rage like a blood filled egg and there is a thin line between the inside and the outside a thin line between thought and action and that line is simply made of blood and muscle and bone ….and as each T-cell disappears from my body it’s replaced by ten pounds of pressure ten pounds of rage and … the egg is starting to crack …the thin line between the inside and the outside is beginning to erode and I’m a thirty seven foot tall one thousand one hundred and seventy-two pound man inside this six foot frame and all I can feel is the pressure all I can feel is the pressure and the need for release. (David Wojnarowicz, from Brush Fires in the Social Landscape)