In examining the life of artist, photographer, writer, actor, musician, filmmaker, and AIDS activist David Wojnarowicz, using his own words, imagery, and music, director Chris McKim (Freedia Got a Gun, Out of Iraq) has created a rich and riveting work that captures Wojnarowicz’s unapologetically queer spirit, and serves as a testimony to the enduring power of art. Wojnarowicz began keeping audio journals in 1976, which along with recordings of his phone conversations, McKim uses to brilliant effect to allow the late artist to narrate much of the new feature documentary, Wojnarowicz: F**k You F*ggot F**ker, for himself, while incorporating his photography, Super 8 films, and artwork, and archived answerphone messages and interviews from those closest to him. Fittingly at DOC NYC earlier this month McKim earned Special Jury Recognition for Best Use of Archival Material. The film takes its provocative title from Wojnarowicz’s 1984 collage work (below), its name having been inspired by the phrase on a fragment of paper he found on the street, reclaiming the words for his own queer work of art.
Although we hear some present day interviews on the soundtrack, with the exception of a brief and touching epilogue, and a few flashes of the outgoing 45th President, McKim keeps the film visually within Wojnarowicz’s own lifetime, resulting in an immersive time capsule. We’re taken back to the Manhattan of the late 70s, 80s and early 90s, its skyline dominated by the towers of the World Trade Center; the drugs and guns on the streets of the Lower East Side; mentions of legendary downtown hangouts like the Pyramid Club; and the city’s gay sex venues like the Bijou on East 4th Street, where Wojnarowicz detailed meeting the man who became his boyfriend, Tom Rauffenbart, in his column for the East Village Eye. As the film recounts, it was Wojnarowicz’s knowledge of the gay cruising playgrounds of the abandoned West Side piers that led him to create a guerrilla communal art space there, along with Mike Bidlo, and there’s some fascinating footage and audio recollections about the use of those colossal vacant spaces before the structure was torn down.
F**ck You F*ggot F**cker traces the artist’s childhood growing up in New Jersey with an abusive father in “a tiny version of hell called the suburbs”, as we hear Wojnarowicz refer to it, while later we see him channel some traumatic episodes from that time in a film he collaborated with writer-director Richard Kern on, playing a version of his own father, You Killed Me First. At 11 he moved in with his mother in Hell’s Kitchen, spending the rest of his youth frequently running away, living on the streets, and hustling in Times Square. We hear the artist’s unvarnished recollections of his experiences with some of the men who picked him up. McKim’s approach recognises how intrinsically linked Wojnarowicz’s personal life and his work were, and the film never feels purely biographical, frequently relating the artist’s experiences to what they later inspired, with that link between the personal and the political and his art becoming more potent and urgent once he was diagnosed as HIV positive. “All the paintings are diaries that I always thought of as proof of my own existence,” we hear him say at one point, and, “whatever I’ve done it’s always been informed by what I experience as a homosexual in this country, as a person who’s legislated into silence in this country.”
Before his work began to be shown in galleries, for a period Wojnarowicz’s canvasses were the lampposts and doorways of the Downtown streets, plastering surfaces with his distinctive militaristic stencilled imagery of a burning house, planes and figures. “It was an aggressive thing” we hear him explain. It was out a recognition of his work as street artist that led to his first inclusion in an exhibition, showing alongside Schabel and Hockney at at the Alexander Milliken Gallery. McKim succeeds in creating a tangible sense of the alternative Downtown cultural environment Wojnarowicz began working in, that felt a million miles away from the SoHo and Uptown commercial art world that ignored the East Village scene until a significant, but relatively short-lived, boom in the 80s when it became the epicentre of contemporary experimental work, its artists were celebrated and new galleries sprung up.
The soundscape features some of David’s music tracks recorded with his band 3 Teens Kill 4, formed with his fellow busboys from the city’s iconic Danceteria after it was raided and temporarily shut down in 1980, and fellow artist Julie Hair, whom Wojnarowicz collaborated with on what they called “uninvited installations”. The music the band made is described at one point as being like “a film for your ears…a cacophonic barrage”, which incorporated samples, such as we see in video footage of one performance, using audio of television coverage of the assassination attempt on Reagan. According to Hair, Frank Zappa left impressed after witnessing one of their performances, and its inclusion here adds to the film’s layered portrait of the multimedia artist.
As the film explores Wojnarowicz”s intimate long-standing friendship with photographer Peter Hujar, who at one point convinced him not to discard his work and later to kick his heroin habit, we hear author Stephen Koch say that he finds their relationship to be one of the most compelling between artists, “more interesting than van Gogh and Gauguin.” As ever, some of the best observations come from author and public speaker Fran Lebowitz, with her take on the endurance of art in contrast to the recurrence but impermanence of bigots holding the reigns of power, and the era of sexual liberation in New York before an awareness of AIDS. Other insights about Wojnarowicz and the East Village scene come from writer, artist, and activist Sur Rodney (Sur) who was co-director of the Gracie Mansion Gallery; biographer Cynthia Carr who wrote the 2012 book about Wojnarowicz, Fire in the Belly; and David Kiehl, co-curator of the 2018 major retrospective at the Whitney, David Wojnarowicz: History Keeps Me Awake at Night.
Like so many of his contemporaries, Wojnarowicz’s life was cut tragically short by AIDS. He died in the East Village aged 37. The documentary opens in 1989 at the height of the epidemic with Wojnarowicz reacting to the news of his diagnosis with his work, before returning to that period later in the film. “I’m not going to be polite, and fuck those people that want me to be courageous,” we hear him say, “as each T cell disappears from my body it’s replaced by ten pounds of pressure, ten pounds of rage.” His rage at the US government’s indifference and inaction continued to reverberate beyond his death, as the artist was given the first political AIDS funeral marked with a protest march. His activism both on the streets and with his art had been hugely impactful, often coexisting, for instance the jacket he wore at ACT UP’s demonstration outside the FDA in October 1988 bore the arresting slogan on the back that became a rallying cry: “IF I DIE OF AIDS – FORGET BURIAL – JUST DROP MY BODY ON THE STPES OF THE F.D.A.” While the iconic image of the artist with his mouth stitched closed from his short film A Fire in My Belly, strikingly and confrontingly embodied the notion of Silence = Death. Wojnarowicz incorporated photographs of Hujar’s dead body lying in his hospital bed into his work, and we hear him talk passionately about the “slow, vicious, unnecessary deaths” from AIDS “because fags and dykes and junkies are expendable in this country,” as he reads from his 1990 work for ACT UP.
Throughout much of the film there are clear, often explicit echoes in the conservatism of the era with a celebrity in the White House who’d run on a promise to ‘Make America Great Again’ in 1980, his mishandling of the devastating health crisis of those years, and the past four years we’ve endured under Trump. With Wojnarowicz’s reaction to Reagan’s inauguration relatable to how many of us felt in January 2017; saying that he was “going through a time in my life that feels desperate, surreal, awful…”. While acknowledging the culture wars of the 1980s and early 90s that Wojnarowicz became a conservative target of, alongside other queer artists and filmmakers such as Robert Mapplethorpe and Marlon Riggs for the showing of their work being connected to public funds, McKim doesn’t become sidetracked and keeps the focus on Wojnarowicz’s work itself, and his views on the censorship of queer art, both imposed, and self-administered by the country’s major art institutions.
Wojnarowicz: F**ck You F*ggot F**cker is a continually insightful, essential documentary that captures Wojnarowicz’s mastery an artist, as well as his fiery and uncompromising spirit, while offering a touching sense his relationship with his brother and sister. By taking a substantial amount of time to cover Wojnarowicz’s life at the height of the crisis, conveying his fury and artistic responses, McKim provides a powerfully moving perspective, the personal and political intertwined.
By James Kleinmann
Wojnarowicz: F**ck You F*ggot F**cker played the virtual 2020 DOC NYC festival.