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What I Have in Common with David Wojnarowicz

29 Dec Posted by in • Guest Writers | Comments Off on What I Have in Common with David Wojnarowicz
What I Have in Common with David Wojnarowicz

Last November, the edited ACT UP version of David Wojnarowicz’s artwork video, A Fire in My Belly, was removed from the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery Show, Hide/Seek Difference and Desire in American Portraiture, because it offended conservative Rep. John Boehner and The Catholic League.  Its removal offended almost everyone else who cares about art and freedom of speech.  In the original uncut artist’s video, Wojnarowicz spliced together clips of Mexican masculine performance, a boy spitting fire on the street, a bullfighter with the piccatas in, cockfighting, wrestlers and their voluptuous Madonna like femmes, an Anglo man in a devil mask, black leather jacket, white t-shirt, references to death.  It is sex in Mexican popular culture, seen through the eyes of a geeky American artist.  In the edited, cut version removed from the Smithsonian, the association between the artist’s silencing and the ACT UP protest movement is made explicit.  The short version is a brutal protest piece that leads you back to the early days of the epidemic.  The images of ants crawling over a crucifix seem tame today.  Perhaps what really offends conservatives is that David Wojnarowicz told his version of the truth.  He was an angry, working class gay man without health insurance who understood that poor people were condemned to an early grave, because back in the day, there either was no cure or the cure was too expensive.  For many people on our planet, that is still true.

For gay and lesbian culture, the late 70’s and the 80’s in New York City were an accelerated time, penetrating mainstream society but also swirling about liminal, luminal spaces like the East Village Clubs and the West Side piers where sex was celebrated with an outlaw defiance.

When I was young I liked to watch men have sex with one another on the west side piers.  If you never saw the piers, they were huge post industrial spaces, poorly supported by rotting timber that smelled like tar and creosote. Broken concrete and an iron fixture or tie off that the salvager had forgotten to remove provided odd decoration.  You could easily lose a dog or child in the gaping holes above the river just west of Christopher Street. I would see other lesbians walking alone or with one another, but I would not approach them.  Like young wolves from different packs we would scent each others presence and circle around, watch at a distance for a thief of hearts.  Men were more direct.  They were not afraid to bare their bodies to one another.  One of the most beautiful sex scenes in my memory involved two slender young blond men pumping naked at midday with a blanket pulled loosely around them on the Christopher Street pier.  They faced the sun shining over the skyline of Manhattan to the south east of their wooden planked seat, like a divine particle beam blessing their illegal copulation.  The piers were dusk and evening trysting places, like plazas guarded over by animals, spirits and the moon.  The only buildings were covered in graffiti and mad art made by men howling in desire and desolation.  There were many people walking around the edges of these spaces, for light exercise or to walk the dog.

Dykes were heroes in the AIDS crisis.  ACT UP meetings smelled like cold medicine, sweat and illness.  I remember being afraid, trapped in a suffocating vapor lock with other people.  There was fear inside the people in the group. A cold and a little fear never stopped the gay community from acting on their plans.  There was no cure that year or the next.  Death was among us.

Today the old piers are gone, paved over, reinforced, replaced, renovated and covered in controlled recreational opportunities frequented by rich people.  The old fights against artists and their versions of the truth are not history.  The same organizations want to silence freedom of speech, make radical lovers celibate, and shield the insurance industries criminal indifference to health.  The class stratification of the planned parks and market driven gentrification destroyed any remaining sense that you are outside of society in a realm of danger and freedom.  The East Village bars are all up to code.   Safe for democracy, the West Side pier clad park is mainstream society.   El Sol, the sun rising over Brooklyn and the East Village still smiles upon us.  A full moon over the Hudson River, mysterious and beautiful witness, remains the same.

See the censored video below, but beware, this is not for the faint of heart—Ed.

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