This Sunday, Northwestern University’s Block Museum of Art will present a free program of short films featuring artist David Wojnarowicz, who died in 1992 of complications from AIDS. At the same time, the Rogers Park gallery Iceberg Projects is presenting David Wojnarowicz: Flesh of My Flesh, an exhibit of his visual art, through August 4. These two events mark the first major memorials to Wojnarowicz in Chicago, coinciding with an exhibit of his work at the Whitney Museum of Art in New York City. Moreover, they remind us of the many artists lost to AIDS in the 1980s and ’90s. Wojnarowicz, one of the most prominent of them, tackled the AIDS epidemic in sculptures, paintings, writings, performance art, and video art, creating a formidable body of work that spectators are still catching up with.
According to Dr. Daniel Berger, who curated both Chicago exhibits and will take part in a postshow discussion at the Block with curator Barry Blinderman, the continuing discovery of Wojnarowicz’s art couldn’t be more timely. “All the things that Wojnarowicz was talking about back in the 80s with regards to disenfranchised people—especially people who were sick—and how the government was apathetic to them . . . all those things seem to be coming up again,” Berger said when I spoke with him on the phone. He also noted Wojnarowicz’s tremendous anger in addressing these subjects, which can still galvanize viewers today. “As you see in the films, he was a powerful orator. You get to see a sense of urgency and purpose when he was performing.” Some of the strongest moments in Rosa von Prauheim’s documentary Silence = Death (1990), part of Sunday’s program, are those that document Wojnarowicz’s performance art, in which he rails against presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush for their weak responses to the epidemic.
Some of the other video pieces screening on Sunday reveal that, despite Wojnarowicz’s anger, he could be a witty and even sensitive artist. In Marion Scemama’s 1989 short What Is This Little Guy’s Job, Wojnarowicz studies an insect crawling on his arm and ruminates on the creature’s perception of time. And in Scemama’s After Word (also 1989), he narrates a slow ride on a boat and attempts to find a sense of peace in the world.
The bittersweet tone of After Word points to the sorrow that Wojnarowicz often communicated in his art. “One of the images that he graffitied around lower Manhattan was the image of a falling man,” Berger explains. “Wojnarowicz felt that—given the predicament he found himself in, where the government provided no funding [for treatment of HIV/AIDS]—he was showing metaphorically that the system was falling and that gay men were being led to die. He felt that the system was perpetuating the conditions that he found himself in. Another famous image of Wojnarowicz’s—a photograph of the buffalo falling off a cliff—has become an iconic metaphor for the predicament of people with AIDS.”
Wojnarowicz employed visual metaphors in some of his other works. In his painting North/South: The New Legionnaires (1986), on display at Iceberg Projects, an abattoir with hanging beef carcasses coexists with images that represent society in decline, such as the Titanic heading for an iceberg or the Parthenon in ruins. In his video ITSOFOMO (in the shadow of forward motion) (1991), screening Sunday, an accelerating montage of trains, spinning globes, and found video footage communicate the artist’s rapidly deteriorating health. (Wojnarowicz completed the piece roughly a year before his death.) Wojnarowicz narrates over the images, condemning the U.S. as a “one-tribe nation,” which lends the occasionally obscure imagery a sense of anger and urgency. The most powerful short on the program, ITSOFOMO speaks to the creativity and raw emotion Wojnarowicz brought to his experience and the social situation.
Berger says that creating the Wojnarowicz exhibits prompted him to reflect on his own response to AIDS. “I’m an AIDS specialist,” he explains. “I went into practice during the epidemic, when there was no treatment available. . . . Being a queer man, I felt that this was where I needed to be, trying to help those who were infected and find a way to bring a halt to many, many people dying week by week, day by day. My field developed into seeing patients for clinical research, trying to find innovative ways of treatment.”
Like Wojnarowicz, Berger responded to the crisis creatively. “I worked with activists to try and bring in medications from outside the United States. . . . When medications were found to have promise, they’d normally have to undergo many years of testing. What the AIDS activists were able to accomplish was, they started what were called ‘parallel track programs,’ where a physician or investigator could sign up with the pharmaceutical company and get those medications to their patients, even though they weren’t approved. . . . I was an investigator for probably every [medication] that came out that was potentially useful. Of course, because those medications were investigational, we were not allowed to charge for them. So I could get them for free for my patients.”
Berger feels that his work as a physician and activist dovetail with his work as an art curator, particularly when he spotlights Wojnarowicz. “I never met him, but I feel that our work ran in parallel,” he says. “I published a book with John Neff [Militant Eroticism: The Art + Positive Archives] that presented a timeline of my work along with that of AIDS activists and artists like Wojnarowicz, and you can see how much they parallel each other during the same time period. So although I never met Wojnarowicz, somehow his spirit is with me.” v