David Wojnarowicz: Photography & Film 1978–1992 Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, Vancouver Jan 10–April 5, 2020
by April Thompson
“If light does come from within does that make us walking movie projectors? Are we casting form onto a dark screen?”
—David Wojnarowicz, Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration, 1991
A mechanical heartbeat in heard in the gallery space, the methodical click-pause-click of a timed slide projector. A Super 8 video projection casts a slice of electric-blue light that spills from wall to floor. The monotone voice of the artist, David Wojnarowicz, is punctuating a film soundtrack of clumsy keyboard chords and canned, synthetic drumbeats. These immediate audiovisual signals are not overwhelming. Instead they draw you in, as if to forewarn, through a multitude of frequencies, that you are about to enter a space indexed by a depth of interior worlds.
David Wojnarowicz: Photography & Film 1978–1992, at the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, displayed over 100 works and was the first exhibition to focus solely on the artist’s photographic and filmic practice. Wojnarowicz’s output increased in both scope and quantity toward his death from AIDS-related illness in 1992. While he is known for his paintings, photo graphs, collages, and video collaborations, he is above all a writer. His 1991 collection of creative essays, Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration, documents the rage, grace, and futility of life in America, with an honesty that is both heartbreaking and beautiful. And while Wojnarowicz deftly experimented across different media, his unique handle on language stitched all these explorations together.
In the artist’s collaboration with Marion Scemama, When I Put My Hands on Your Body (1989), a roaming Super 8 camera gives a cropped view of two bodies touching, licking, and rubbing. An insatiable tongue caresses the body, matching the intensity of words uttered by Wojnarowicz: “it makes me weep to feel the history of your flesh between my hands in a time of so much loss.” The flesh of a naked male torso fills the majority of the screen but in the margins there is the implicit presence of society—the rigid denim jeans and belt buckle that block the tongue’s advance, daily life layered upon the self, a barrier to skin-on-skin contact.
Wojnarowicz is known for working through themes of mortality in his work, and this probing is cast both inward and outward; there is self-portraiture alongside portraits of others. In Untitled (Deathbed Portrait of Peter Hujar) (1989/2012), there are snapshots of Hujar’s resting face, eyelids slightly open and mouth ajar, of his hands with distressed fingernails and of the undersides of his feet—that vulnerable bedrock of the body so often grounded and unseen. The compositions are slightly askew or unbalanced by negative space, making the surrounding hospital room seem stark and momentous despite its reality as a generic and unremarkable setting.
Other artists returned Wojnarowicz’s gaze: there are portraits of him by Andreas Sterzing, Peter Hujar, Ivan Dalla Tana and Scemama. In Krist Gruijthuijsen’s exhibition curation, this balance between the self and others, between seeing and being seen, skilfully conveyed a duality: closeness of community (street life, being gay in New York City during the HIV/AIDS crisis) as well as the loneliness of selfhood (the artist’s solitude, and that of illness, and death).
Numerous works featured objects, animals, and text, though the human body was keenly felt throughout the exhibition. Wojnarowicz is inscribed in each Super 8 video: the plastic, hand-held camera would have fit snugly in his large hand like a gun, his fist closed around the base and his finger poised on the trigger. With every step Wojnarowicz made there is a slight vibration on the image. Registering this exhibition also meant indelibly taking in the presence of other bodies around you. When walking underneath the scaffolding to view works, you heard footsteps on the overhead platform creaking as other viewers’ weights shifted. The exhibition put you in a relational zone with Wojnarowicz: an outsider looking in, observing the stories of other bodies, feeling the weight of your own body, and the sphere of your existence weaving through time and space with that of others.
The HIV/AIDS crisis placed the body in particular relation to others. For decades, transmission was a dirty word used to stigmatize those living with the virus, and their community. Throughout Wojnarowicz’s work the idea of transmission is powerfully present, and radical. Here, “transmission” is a signal, meaning communication—a concept that propelled the artist’s use of language. Transmission is also a midpoint, a passageway between signal and reception, and in this there is liberation. Wojnarowicz once wrote of a road trip: “I’m getting closer to the coast and realize how much I hate arriving at a destination. Transition is always a relief. Destination means death to me.”
Alongside his search to document, remember, and understand through the visual, Wojnarowicz was aware of the insurmountable gap between life and image. It is the gap between representation and reality, between the transmission of a non-verbal moment through to the language that denotes it. This seems a space of freedom—where language and image break down—and it is present in all of Wojnarowicz’s work, an invisible interval between the dust particles illuminated by a projector’s beam, or in the blank pause of the rotating slide carousel.