“Wojnarowicz” is a portrait of downtown New York City artist, writer, photographer and activist David Wojnarowicz. As New York City became the epicenter of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, Wojnarowicz used his work to wage war against the establishment’s indifference to the disease until his death from it in 1992 at the age of 37. The film has exclusive access to his breathtaking body of work – including paintings, journals, and films and these reveal how Wojnarowicz emptied his life into his art and activism. There are also rediscovered answering machine tape recordings and intimate recollections from Fran Lebowitz, Gracie Mansion, Peter Hujar and other friends and family.
The film examines the life David Wojnarowicz, using his own words, imagery, and music. Director Chris McKim brings us a rich and riveting work that captures Wojnarowicz’s unapologetically queer spirit as well as serving as a testimony to the enduring power of art. Wojnarowicz began keeping audio journals in 1976, which along with recordings of his phone conversations which McKim uses so that the late artist can narrate much of the documentary.
Although we hear some present day interviews on the soundtrack, with the exception of a brief and touching epilogue, and a few flashes of Donald Trump, McKim keeps the film visually within Wojnarowicz’s own lifetime, giving us an immersive time capsule. We’re taken back to the Manhattan of the late 70s, 80s and early 90s with the World Trade Center; the drugs and guns on the streets of the Lower East Side; f legendary downtown hangouts like the Pyramid Club; and the city’s gay sex venues like the Bijou on East 4th Street, where Wojnarowicz met the man who became his boyfriend, Tom Rauffenbart. It was Wojnarowicz’s knowledge of the gay cruising playgrounds of the abandoned West Side piers that led him to create a guerrilla communal art space there, along with Mike Bidlo, and here is some fascinating footage and audio recollections about the use of those colossal vacant spaces before the structure was torn down.
We see the artist’s childhood growing up in New Jersey with an abusive father and then later we see him channel some traumatic episodes from that time in a film he collaborated with writer-director Richard Kern. At 11 he moved in with his mother in Hell’s Kitchen, spending the rest of his youth running away often, living on the streets, and hustling in Times Square. We hear his recollections of his experiences with some of the men who picked him up. McKim shows how intrinsically linked Wojnarowicz’s personal life and his work were, and the film never feels purely biographical since it shows the artist’s experiences and what they later inspired. We see the link between the personal and the political with his art becoming more potent and urgent once he was diagnosed as HIV positive. “
Before his work began to be shown in galleries, for a period Wojnarowicz’s canvasses were the lampposts and doorways of the Downtown streets where he plastered surfaces with his distinctive militaristic imagery of a burning house, planes and figures. It was out a recognition of his work as street artist that led to his first inclusion in an exhibition. The film creates a sense of the alternative Downtown cultural environment that Wojnarowicz began working in and we sense that it seems to be like is a million miles away from the SoHo and Uptown commercial art world.
We also hear some of David’s music tracks recorded with his band 3 Teens Kill 4, formed with his fellow busboys from the city’s iconic Danceteria after it was raided and temporarily shut down in 1980, and fellow artist Julie Hair with whom Wojnarowicz collaborated with on what they called “uninvited installations”. The music is described as “a film for your ears…a cacophonic barrage”, which incorporated samples, such as we see in video footage of one performance. artist.
The film explores Wojnarowicz’s intimate long-standing friendship with photographer Peter Hujar, who at one point convinced him not to discard his work and to kick his heroin habit. Some of the best observations come from author and public speaker Fran Lebowitz, with her take on the endurance of art in contrast to the recurrence but impermanence of bigots holding the reins of power, and the era of sexual liberation in New York before an awareness of AIDS.
Wojnarowicz’s life was cut short by AIDS. He died in the East Village aged 37. The documentary opens in 1989 at the height of the epidemic with Wojnarowicz reacting to the news of his diagnosis with his work, before returning to that period later in the film. He says that “as each T cell disappears from my body it’s replaced by ten pounds of pressure, ten pounds of rage.” His rage at the US government’s indifference and inaction continued after his death. He was given the first political AIDS funeral marked with a protest march. His activism both on the streets and with his art had been hugely impactful, “IF I DIE OF AIDS – FORGET BURIAL – JUST DROP MY BODY ON THE STEPS OF THE F.D.A.”
This is a continually insightful, essential documentary that captures Wojnarowicz’s mastery an artist, as well as his uncompromising spirit, while offering a touching sense his relationship with his brother and sister. By taking a substantial amount of time to cover Wojnarowicz’s life at the height of the crisis, conveying his fury and artistic responses, the film gives us a powerfully moving perspective of the personal and political joined together tracingthe emerging conflict of political consciousness between Wojnarowicz’s success and his rejection of the elite capitalist gallery system.
The film ends with touching footage of Rauffenbart and other intimates previewing the Whitney show, titled “History Keeps Me Awake at Night.” Wojnarowicz is very much still present.