fire in my belly (1987)

Fire in My Belly (1987): David Wojnarowicz
Music: Diamanda Galas
Made by David Wojnarowicz for Rosa von Praunheim’s Silence = Death (1990).

A positive diagnosis for HIV in 1987 didn’t leave you with many options. The pharmaceuticals that have extended life spans for many of those now infected were not then available. Hostility and fear were rampant. It was reasonable to assume not only that you had received a death sentence, but that there was no hope on the horizon for those who, inevitably, would follow in your footsteps: an anguished decision to be tested, an excruciating wait for the results, a terrifying trip to the testing centre, and a life-shattering conversation with a grim-faced nurse or social worker.

Some turned to holistic medicine and yoga. Others to activism. Many just returned to their apartments, curled up in the corner, and waited to die.

But some, like David Wojnarowicz, who died in 1992 at the age of 37, used art to keep a grip on the world. He was the quintessential East Village figure, a bit of a loner, a bit crazy, ferociously brilliant and anarchic. He was a self-educated dropout who made art on garbage can lids, who painted inside the West Side piers where men met for anonymous sex, who pressed friends into lookout duty while he covered the walls of New York with graffiti. In 1987, his former lover and best friend, Peter Hujar, died of complications from AIDS, and Wojnarowicz learned that he, too, was infected with HIV.

Wojnarowicz, whose video A Fire in My Belly was removed from an exhibition of gay portraiture at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery last week after protests from a right-wing Catholic group and members of Congress, was an artist well before AIDS shattered his existence. But AIDS sharpened his anger, condensed his imagery and fueled his writing, which became at least as important as his visual work in the years before he died. In the video that has now been censored from the prominent and critically lauded exhibition Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture, Wojnarowicz perfectly captured a raw Gothic, rage-filled sensibility that defined a style of outsider art that was moving into the mainstream in the late 1980s.

It may feel excessive now, but like other classic examples of excessive art – Allen Ginsberg’s 1955 poem, Howl, Krzyzstof Penderecki’s 1960 symphonic work, Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, or Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1975 film, Salo – it is an invaluable emotional snapshot. Not simply a cry of anguish or protest, Wojnarowicz’s work captures the contradiction, speed and phantasmagoria of a time when it was reasonable to assume that all the political and social progress gay people had achieved in the 1960s and ’70s was being revoked – against the surreal, Reagan-era backdrop of Morning in America, and a feel-good surge of American nostalgia and triumphalism.

Read more of this 2010 article by Philip Kennicott, from the Washington Post, HERE.

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