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David Wojnarowicz Photography & Films 1978–1992
“David Wojnarowicz (Silence = Death)”, 1989Andreas Sterzing, courtesy the artist, the Estate of David Wojnarowicz and P·P·O·W Gallery, New York

The beautifully radical David Wojnarowicz films that rattled America

Through extreme, avant-garde filmmaking the artist grappled with the Aids crisis, queer rights, heroin, and more

In 1985, New-York based radical filmmaker Nicholas Zedd coined the term Cinema of Transgression: a label for a small cadre of filmmakers whose artistic mission was to tear down the traditional film industry which so strongly bolstered the conservatism of 1980s America.

Ignited by the sombre state of their social and political realities, transgression artists radicalised film by probing America’s turbulent politics with visual extremism. No social issue was left uncaptured: queer rights, sexuality, feminism, the Aids crisis, and President Ronald Regean’s wildly oppressive state. While cinema romanticised America, Zedd’s troupe imbued it with punkish tones of sex, humour, violence, fetish – anything that would allow them to scream loud enough over the politics that silenced them.

”Since there is no afterlife, the only hell is the hell of praying, obeying laws, and debasing yourself before authority figures”, reads the closing paragraph of the movement’s manifesto which spells out their artistic revolution. “The only heaven is the heaven of sin, being rebellious, having fun, fucking, learning new things, and breaking as many rules as you can. This act of courage is known as transgression. We propose transformation through transgression – to convert, transfigure, and transmute into a higher plane of existence in order to approach freedom in a world full of unknowing slaves.”

“This act of courage is known as transgression” – Nicholas Zedd, Cinema of Transgression Manifesto

Alongside Zedd was critical Aids activist and artist David Wojnarowicz. Lesser known to his artistic oeuvre are a set of avant-garde short films which visually translate all that Wojnarowicz stood for in his battle to liberate the queer body and mind from their 1980s political policing.

Already a minority as a queer man, in 1987, Wojnarowicz was diagnosed with Aids – the same year he lost his long term mentor and lover Peter Hujar to the same illness. Comparing this deep sorrow with the fact that the Reagan Administration was recorded in transcripts joking about Aids and its victims shows how crucial Wojnarowicz’s use of visual extremity in addressing the crisis truly was. Wojnarowicz’s radical films intersected all aspects of life to visually render this plea, bringing together avant-garde visions of the Aids crisis, heroin usage, queer activism, and the reality of living with HIV.

“David’s rage and disbelieve in regards to government negligence back in the 1980s resonates today in politics which similar strategies are implemented,” reflects Krist Gruijthuijsen, curator of KW Institute’s current show David Wojnarowicz, Photography & Film 1978-1992. “Through creative means, he used his voice as an artist to fight for a cause and underlined that the personal is indeed political.” Running until 15 May, the exhibition will present over 150 works including photographs, silkscreens, 16mm and super-8 films, and collaborative video works.

In light of the show’s run, below we delve into four Wojnarowicz films which pushed the aesthetic and conceptual boundaries of filmmaking.

HEROIN, 1979

Heroin is a three-minute short film Wojnarowicz made before he started to work with Cinema of Transgression. Filmed on a broken Super 8mm camera, the film addresses Wojnarowicz’s worry about his friend’s increasing heroin use. “(Heroin) has beautiful sections of these very weird symbols,” reflected Wojnarowicz in Aperture no.137. The film shows a person with a wrapped head moving through the endless door frames of an abandoned warehouse at a rapid pace, while another man dressed identically moves in another direction until they collide on the rooftop where you can see the Empire State Building, something Wojnarowicz states is symbolic of hypodermic needles. “One holds out a gun and shoots the other in the head and all this ketchup flies out,” he reflected. “He bends down and starts unwrapping the head and it turns out to be his own face that is revealed. Then it cuts into a hundred images of different people dead in their kitchens, on their rooftops, in their hallways, in the street.”

FIRE IN MY BELLY, 1987

Ants crawling frantically over a crucifix, blood dripping into a bowl from an unseeable source, and Wojnarowicz having his lips sewn shut with a needle are a few of the scenes from his 1987 film Fire in My Belly. Shot in Mexico, the montage short film diverts back and forth between the same scenes as they grow in intensity. This extremity is crucial to the film because it forces viewers to question their comfortability and complacency with the themes it tackles: religion, crime, freedom, and the Aids crisis.  

Because of its religious references, Fire in My Belly has sparked controversy since its creation. Over 20 years after it was made, in 2010 the film was censored from a show at the Smithsonian for containing “graphic images” in reference to Wojnarowicz’s portrayal of the crucifix. It was soon discovered that the complaints, coming from the Catholic church, were deeply homophobic. In response to the Smithsonian’s caving, writer  Frank Rich wrote in the New York Times that “even in a time of huge progress in gay civil rights, homophobia remains among the last permissible bigotries in America”.

It is said that this film has several versions and that it was never entirely completed by Wojnarowicz. However, the open-ended conclusion of the film stands a metaphor for how its themes have pervaded time and remained critically relevant to this day.

BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE, 1987

Wojnarowicz’s 34-minute silent film Beautiful People was one of the last films the artist made before he died. It follows actor Jesse Hultberg on a journey of awakening as he dresses in drag and travels to a lake in upstate New York. The clip begins in black and white but takes a sharp sinister turn when the film jumps to colour as Hultberg submerges himself into the lake – an act meant to portray attempted suicide. Through drag culture, Wojnarowicz explored the complexities of choosing to identify with otherness through a lens of humour and great tragedy. To Wojnarowicz, drag queens are true revolutionaries who disrupt the visual codes of gender. “Wojnarowicz meant this piece to represent a tragic metaphor for the Aids crisis, for the solitude of those who were dying at the time with no social of family support,” reveals curator Vincent Honoré, who showed this film at the Hayward Gallery’s 2018 show Drag: Self Portraits and Body Politics. “This work was created while its author was himself dying from the consequences of Aids.”

Filmed a year after Fire in my Belly, Beautiful People was originally shown at La Mama theatre in East Village in 1987, where Hultberg performed a live soundtrack during the screening. This soundtrack was added to the film by Hultberg in 2011 (see below)

FEAR OF DISCLOSURE: PSYCHOSOCIAL IMPLICATION OF HIV REVELATION, 1989

Made in collaboration with artist Phil Zwicker, Fear of Disclosure: Psychosocial Implication of HIV Revelation was one of the first films to explore the complexities in relationships between HIV-positive and HIV-negative men. “People had been talking about the problems of maintaining a strong and vibrant sexuality during the Aids crisis and the difficulties of relations between HIV-negative and HIV-positive men, but Fear of Disclosure was the first film to deal with those issues,” explains filmmaker Jim Hubbard to the Phil Zwickler archives. The film features two go-go dancers assessing each other’s forms as a metaphor for assessing one another’s mortality. The dancing scenes are supplemented by the sound of someone reading the Dada movement’s manifesto. The sound ties the complexity of HIV relationships with the abstraction of Dada’s language to demonstrate how the world was grappling with never before endured territory with the Aids crisis, while also showing how queer activists emulated the revolutionary spirit of Dada. “The soul can only reveal itself through direct action”, states the manifesto in the film.

KW Institute’s David Wojnarowicz Photography & Film 1978-1992 runs until 15 May. You can find out more here