Feeding the Flame
By Conor Williams
Wojnarowicz: F*ck You F*ggot F**ker
Dir. Chris McKim, U.S., Kino Lorber
David Wojnarowicz has been increasingly labeled as a vital figure for “these unprecedented times.” However, our culture too often exhumes the artist and activist for purely aesthetic purposes. After having to battle a neoconservative society when he was alive, he has now been absorbed into a neoliberal one. In 2018, the luxury fashion line Loewe released a series of t-shirts emblazoned with Wojnarowicz’s powerful One Day This Kid…. The shirts cost $99 a piece. Loewe may have worked alongside the gallery P.P.O.W., which oversees the artist’s archive, and the sales helped to benefit the organization Visual AIDS, but the idea of Wojnarowicz’s artwork being marketed as an exclusive, luxury fashion statement—particularly this piece—feels distasteful and antithetical to the values his work often espoused. Later that year, the Whitney Museum held a retrospective of his work, History Keeps Me Awake at Night, a surreal irony considering that this sleek, prestigious museum currently overlooks the piers where Wojnarowicz cruised and first started making art. And in 2020, just before everything shut down, I remember being shocked at the incorporation of Wojnarowicz’s stencil of a burning house into the advertisements for a then-upcoming Broadway production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? How would Wojnarowicz react if he knew his art was being used as an advertisement in Times Square?
Chris McKim’s new documentary, Wojnarowicz: F*ck You F*ggot F**ker, is a generously informative introduction to anyone unfamiliar with Wojnarowicz, yet it often gets distracted by its aesthetic approach. Wojnarowicz was a writer, visual artist, filmmaker, and activist who was born into what he often referred to as the “pre-invented world”—one ruled by heteronormativity, white supremacy, war, poverty. Those who had power in the pre-invented world saw David’s opposition to this code as a threat. As Reagan let an entire generation die from AIDS because, as David put it, “fags, dykes, and junkies are expendable in this country,” the Moral Majority did everything in their power to suppress David, censoring his artwork, which often referenced homosexuality, on the grounds of obscenity and pornography. Wojnarowicz so furiously laid bare the cruelty of our nation, and in particular the puritanical hypocrisy of the GOP, that in 2010, decades after his death, Republicans John Boehner and Eric Cantor managed to bully the National Portrait Gallery into removing his artwork from an exhibition—on World AIDS Day, no less. This day is also known as Day Without Art, a time meant to highlight the incalculable effect the plague had on the arts community.
Wojnarowicz: F*ck You F*ggot F**ker begins with a bit of expository text stating that Wojnarowicz’s “archive of journals, cassettes, photographs, and Super 8 films is the basis for this film.” We first meet David on videotape, in his apartment. He tells the unseen cameraman that he’s unsure about whether or not he’ll sit down for a news interview that night. “If I did, I might wear a ski mask, you know...carry a bucket of gasoline.” He gives a slight, buck-toothed smile and lights a cigarette. McKim then jumps ahead a few years to NPR’s Terry Gross interviewing David. “You came from a really rough family background—your father abused your mother, you ended up in an orphanage for a while, then your father kidnapped you from the orphanage, and you’ve written that you later threw yourself into sex and you became a hustler for a while. How did you start making art?” After this somewhat flippant compression of roughly the first two decades of David’s life, marked by a harrowing upbringing and precarious, premature coming-of-age, there’s a brief response from David before McKim abruptly collages other audio of David’s furious polemics and protests, fleeting images from his body of work, and some rather garish animations of his visual art. This media collides in a jumble, culminating with the title card. We hear a cacophony of people saying “Wojnarowicz,” and then David spits out the film’s subtitle, which has been censored in its trailer and on the promotional poster. When I mentioned the film on Instagram, my post was taken down and labeled hate speech. These apps may be doing their duty in shielding the public from loaded words, but this also neuters the rage that fueled so much of David’s work. I’d like to buy a vowel, please.
We hear more about David’s nightmarish origin story from an audio recording of an interview with his brother Stephen, as well as from David himself. Disembodied anecdotes from the likes of Richard Kern and Fran Lebowitz float alongside archival recordings of David’s journals or messages from friends left on his answering machine, so that McKim achieves a sort of time-travel, placing the artist in conversation with his peers. But the filmmaker’s decision to rely so heavily on audio material to organize the narrative also gives way to a flattening, detached sensation. (If there is any video interview footage, it’s quite scant.) As a member of David’s short-lived rock band 3 Teens Kill 4 says of their project, “I don’t think any of us were very proficient, but it wasn’t really the point. It was an effort to not really necessarily make music, but to have a film, almost, for your ears.” One could describe F*ck You F*ggot F**ker in the same way.
The most valuable material on display here is undoubtedly the photographs, footage, and audio that David created himself. However, the incessant visual and aural montage, and the awkward animations used throughout, where images from his stencil work are “spray painted” onto the screen or fly toward the viewer, create an occasional hyperactivity that makes it difficult to meaningfully register any information. The film seems to believe that a fiery, confrontational aesthetic is necessary to portray Wojnarowicz’s fiery, confrontational art. It’s reminiscent of the documentary about the choreographer Merce Cunningham that came out a few years ago, Cunningham, which was in 3D—a nice touch when it came to staging his dances, but an otherwise pointless gimmick.
F*ck You F*ggot F**ker succeeds in mapping out David’s rise to prominence in the art world, offering commentary from people like Sur Rodney (Sur), who helped to champion much of the East Village art scene at the time. Sur, Gracie Mansion, and art critic Carlo McCormick make it clear that David was happy to have his work recognized, but that he was ultimately indifferent or opposed to the opinions of the rich people who make up so much of that milieu. David remarks in an audio recording that he and a friend “wanted to do a series of action installations, which were basically uninvited installations. We wanted to open up what culture was to us as opposed to what was handled by rich white people.” To them, this entailed dumping bloody cow bones onto the staircases of galleries. In 1985, David was asked by the art dealer father of Hollywood fascist Steven Mnuchin to create an installation in his family’s mansion. He depicted a city under attack, children in flames, animal skulls hanging from trees. He dumped real trash and insects at the base of the installation.
Following more stories that illustrate Wojnarowicz’s lack of concern with the niceties of the art world, we hear a recording of him talking with his mentor and soulmate, the photographer Peter Hujar. Particularly poignant are the messages Hujar would leave for him on his answering machine, chock-full of affectionate nicknames like Peter Cottontail. “The gallery system is one of the big obstacles to art,” says Hujar. “Art today is a commercial product. People are doing art that looks like art. They’re turning out a product. I think that when an artist perceives what he does as a product, he’s in trouble.”
From here, the film shifts from talking about David Wojnarowicz, the artist, to describing more of his interior life, or rather, what remained interior before he would bring everything to the forefront of public attention, in ACT UP protests and feuds with conservatives like Jesse Helms or Cardinal O’Connor. The film’s final few sections focus on David’s relationship with his partner Tom Rauffenbart, and his diagnosis with and ultimate demise from HIV/AIDS. Yet there’s no mention of the political marches in his honor throughout the city streets after Wojnarowicz passed away, nor of the ACT UP protest that took place in D.C., where David’s ashes, along with those of so many others who died from AIDS, were thrown on the White House lawn. In its last moments, the film instead focuses on recent celebrations of David’s art-world legacy such as the Whitney retrospective. F*ck You F*ggot F**ker abandons the opportunity to go out on a more provocative note, instead highlighting achievements that Wojnarowicz likely would have shrugged off.
Focused primarily on David Wojnarowicz, the artist, McKim’s film somewhat overlooks the fact that David the human being spent much of his short life under the weight of suffering. The film observes this in passing, but as long as our culture only sees David Wojnarowicz, the artist, as long as an urgent rage pointed at a society that has still failed to give people the health care and housing they need in order to survive a plague is elided in favor of an aesthetic exploration, we won’t truly know David Wojnarowicz as he deserves to be known.
Image: David Wojnarowicz, Untitled (Face in Dirt), 1991. From Kino Lorber Press Site: © Estate of David Wojnarowicz. Courtesy of the Estate and P.P.O.W.