Art

David Wojnarowicz’s Native American Inspiration and the “Killing Machine Called America”

Though Wojnarowicz, like most Americans, viewed Indians through a romanticized lens, his interest in the shared death space of those marked as expendable reveals the possibility for collaboration beyond life.

Installation view, Soon All This will Be Picturesque Ruins: The Installations of David Wojnarowicz (courtesy of the Estate of David Wojnarowicz and PPOW, New York)

Considering his use of language like artillery in his visual art, it is unsurprising that David Wojnarowicz was first a poet. Walking through P.P.O.W.’s current exhibition, Soon All This will Be Picturesque Ruins: The Installations of David Wojnarowicz, I couldn’t stop thinking in poems. One poem in particular looped through me and around the works, the one-sentence poem that is simply the title of the collection, This Wound is a World by Billy-Ray Belcourt (2017) from the Driftpile Cree Nation.

David Wojnarowicz, Burning Boy (detail) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Billy-Ray’s words have nothing to do with Wojnarowicz and everything to do with the space from which he worked. Through the spectrum of Wojnarowicz’s installations, where objects such as skulls and wasps and snakes are wrapped in schoolhouse world maps, this title was recast to me. This world, I thought, is a wound.

I was thinking in poems because I was thinking in the language of Indians, Natives, my people and the peoples who have survived and suffered the originary genocide of, as Wojnarowicz says, the killing machine called America. Wojnarowicz knew the death space created on these lands through his experiences as a gay man who lost his lover, his friends, his people to AIDS.

Though he, like most Americans, viewed Indians through a romanticized lens, at a distance, his interest in the shared death space of those marked as expendable, as well as his repeated invocation of tribes as a form of social organization, reveals the possibility for collaboration beyond life, here together in the wound we’ve made into our world.

Installation view, Soon All This will Be Picturesque Ruins: The Installations of David Wojnarowicz (courtesy of the Estate of David Wojnarowicz and PPOW, New York)

The influence of Indigenous art and Mexican iconography on Wojnarowicz’s practice is immediately apparent upon entering the exhibition. The first gallery is dominated by the Untitled (Burning Boy Installation) (1985), whose central image of a boy aflame wrapped in an atlas resembles icons from the Mexican loteria game. On the adjacent wall are arranged four “totems,” all from 1983 — not carvings but salvaged wood pieces painted over in bright acrylic colors evoking cartoon strips. Unwittingly (though the allusions to mass culture could be generously read as commentary on the loss of the sacred), these “totems” are located in the degradation of a community-based art form of the Tlingit, Haida, Kwakwaka’wakw and Coast Salish peoples into mass produced tourist tchotchkes. Likewise, the intertwining of shelter, historical record, kinship marker, and ornamentation that actual, situated totems signify is alien to most modern and contemporary western art practices — and it remains alien here.

David Wojnarowicz, “Science Totem” (1983), acrylic on found wood, 67 x 8 1/2 5 in. (170.18 x 21.59 x 12.7 cm), Private Collection (courtesy of the Estate of David Wojnarowicz and P.P.O.W.)
Installation view, Soon All This will Be Picturesque Ruins: The Installations of David Wojnarowicz (courtesy of the Estate of David Wojnarowicz and PPOW, New York)

The unspoken and unattributed relation to Indigenous peoples that comes across in the Totem installation has its corollary in Wojnarowicz’s sometimes uncomfortable use of “tribe” as a structuring idea in his vision of America as a forcefully created “one tribe nation.” Wojnarowicz desires the proliferation of alternate social organizations, a proliferation he sees with his pastiche punk perspective as stymied by the white American hegemony. In this, he has intuited the history of America’s so-called conquest, but emptied the contemporary of Indigenous life. On the land mass now called the United States there is a multitude of multitudes, actively existing tribal societies, that have been buried and distorted into a generic concept of tribe. I have my own desirous (not reparative) reading of Wojnarowicz’s relation to Indigenous practices as a potential moment, not of solidarity but of scattered and shared experience. Similar to author and activist Leslie Feinberg’s references in Stone Butch Blues (1993) and the anthology Transgender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to Dennis Rodman (1996) to the alternative gender systems of the Navajo and other Indigenous tribes, Wojnarowicz provides a flash of what a world without the killing machine of America and its ideological byproducts would look like if white gays could reach out to others in the death space with reciprocity.

David Wojnarowicz, “Anatomy and Architecture of Desire” (1988-89), black and white photocopy, acrylic, paper, 73 1/2 x 35 in. (186.69 x 88.9 cm) (courtesy of the Estate of David Wojnarowicz and P.P.O.W.)

A reciprocity in acknowledgement is visible in Wojnarowicz’s collaborative work with Paul Marcus and Susan Pyzow in Lazaretto: an installation about the current state of the AIDS crisis (1990/2019), the current and past state being especially devastating in minority communities. Lazaretto is the most controlled setting on view at P.P.O.W., directing viewers with an arrow through claustrophobic, trash-bag lined walls displaying the hand written messages of HIV-positive people and the casually cruel comments of politicians who would rather they die quietly. At the end of the passageway, in front of the entrance to the installation’s centerpieces, hangs a photograph of a skeleton staged in a trash and pill-ridden room; on the wall is a screed, scrawled in dripping black paint, against those with power to deploy warheads and decide whether, “[…] I should have to die of lack of access to healthcare because I’m Black, Hispanic or Poor & White or Native American.” It is an unintentional trick of light that the glow from a bedside lamp obscures the word Native American.

In “We Lost an Entire Generation,” Lindsay Nixon provides a crucial and loving history of mostly obscure artworks created by Native peoples addressing the AIDS crisis in Indian Country. Their article is one of the few mentions online of Native Survival: Response to HIV/AIDS, an exhibition curated by Joanna Osbourne Bigfeather in the mid-1990s and first shown at the American Indian Community House Gallery in New York City — the city that was, of course, home to Wojnarowicz. The documentation for this show, Nixon writes, was destroyed in a fire. These are losses on top of losses.

Installation view, Soon All This will Be Picturesque Ruins: The Installations of David Wojnarowicz (courtesy of the Estate of David Wojnarowicz and PPOW, New York)

What do we, gays and Natives and gay Natives and gay people of color, make of our losses? In a piece conversant with Zoe Leonard’s 1992 poem “I Want a President,” Fred Moten and Stefano Harney describe Leonard’s desire for a (poor, poz, dyke) president who has lost their lover to AIDS as speaking “about what we want in relation to what we have when what we have is all this experience of not having.” This is the richness of loss, the work of the caress, our “generative nothingness.” To echo Wojnarowicz’s 1985 film, You Killed Me First, on view in the exhibition: they killed us first, with religion and the nuclear family among other monstrous relics, but our afterlife is more gruesome and true than anything straight white American society could deal with. These are the images of America: Head of Family/Heads of State (1990): men in glittery booty shorts putting their bodies on another cut between vessels spilling over in blood, ants crawling over a clock with no hands and the globe, what Wojnarowicz calls the “pre-invented world,” spinning away. Sitting on the gallery floor, my ear next to the low rumbling voice coming from this installation that fills a room, politicians’ pictures surrounding me, David says of touching a lover’s skin, “It makes me weep.” And like a half-successful incantation, it almost does.

Soon All This Will Be Picturesque Ruins: The Installations of David Wojnarowicz continues at P.P.O.W. (535 W. 22nd Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through August 24.

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