Opinion

David Wojnarowicz’s Journals Make His Private World Very Public

David Wojnarowicz journal (via canopycanopycanopy.com)

Just in time for National Coming Out Day last Tuesday and the November opening of the controversial Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture at the Brooklyn Museum, Triple Canopy has published a selection of visual artist and writer David Wojnarowicz‘s journals online. Giving readers a brief and fascinating look into Wojnarowicz’s life and thoughts, the publication of the journals follow  Wojnarowicz’s imploring to turn the private into something public as a political tactic.

An East Village artist during the late 1970s until his death in 1992 from complications from AIDS, Wojnarowicz used his own experiences whether it was being a hustler in Times Square when he was a teenager to cruising the abandoned piers on the West Side Highway to his failing health after his AIDS diagnosis as source material for his art. Beside the controversy surrounding the National Portrait Gallery’s removal of his film “A Fire In My Belly” (1987), Wojnarowicz is probably now best known for his “One Day This Kid…” (1990), which was used for the It Gets Better Project directed at LGBT youth.

Only recently returning to the art historical mainstream memory because of controversy, Wojnarowicz’s work provides a powerful voice against homophobia, right-wing politics and other silences. Another art figure connected to protest (Occupy Wall Street take note), Wojnarowicz was a part of ACT-UP and at one point suggested that the bodies of loved ones who died from AIDS-related illnesses be thrown on the Reagan White House steps. For many, Wojnarowicz remains an important touchstone to art that turns private experiences into public rage and action.

Fortunately, the journals being posted online gives Wojnarowicz a voice again. Even though his journals were published previously, the published text is extremely hard to come by unless you are like me and skulked around the Strand for years before you found a copy. Archived in Fales Library and Special Collections at New York University, Wojnarowicz journals have suffered from what most archival materials do: inaccessibility. In order to actually look at the journals, you have to be a student or at least a really good liar.

Wojnarowicz's journals also show plans for installations

The journals on Triple Canopy are centered in between an autobiography Wojnarowicz wrote for a retrospective exhibition detailing his traumatic childhood and early life in New York City. The journal entries selected are, like most of Wojnarowicz’s work, difficult and graphically sexual, describing anonymous sex in the West Side piers before they were well-manicured parks. By putting these experiences out there, his queer sexuality, which at that point was deemed even more taboo than now, gained a voice where it had been silent previously.

As a lover of Wojnarowicz’s work, I found I could learn more about certain art pieces through just scavenging through bits of his journal entries. Besides the obvious references to his Rimbaud in New York series, a series of photographs of his friends around seedy New York in 1979 with a Rimbaud mask on, there were other entries that I could connect to Wojnarowicz’s work.

One shocking connection to his artwork was an entry from 1979 on a dream he had. Wojnarowicz wrote:

They’ve buried me in the course brown dirt, all the way up to my teeth; somehow the mouth must be opened wide so that the fillings of dirt within the jaw, over the porcelain white teeth, leaving one tooth exposed to the gum.

David Wojnarowicz, "Untitled" (1991), gelatin silver print (via mondo-video.com)

Eerily, Wojnarowicz would photograph himself in a pose similar to this dream well over 10 years later right before he died. Without reading the journals, no one would ever know the connection that this photograph had with a dream from 1979.

Like Wojnarowicz’s work, which I believe gets passed over in art history courses because of its difficult political and sexual statements, Wojnarowicz’s journals should not be overlooked and now that they are online, it makes them less easy to ignore.  With the possibility of more controversy surrounding Wojnarowicz’s work when it hits the Brooklyn Museum in November and his importance to artistic political protest, these journals are a must read.

Read David Wojnarowicz’s journals on Triple Canopy

Also, 3 Teens Kill 4, an East Village No Wave band, which David Wojnarowicz was a founding member, will be playing a special three night performance from  October 27-29 at Theater 80 St. Marks (80 St. Marks Place, East Village, Manhattan).

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