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The life and times of David Wojnarowicz

Fire in the Belly: the Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz - review.

Fire in the Belly: the Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz
Cynthia Carr
Bloomsbury, 624pp, £25

You might not be able to pronounce his name but you’ve almost certainly seen at least one piece of work by the artist, performer and Aids activist David Wojnarowicz. In 1992, a few months before his death at the age of 37, U2 used his image of a herd of buffalo falling off a cliff for the cover of their single One.

In his notes on the piece, Wojnarowicz wrote of “a sense of impending collision contained in this acceleration of speed within the structures of civilisation”. He might not have been thinking directly of the disease that would kill him but all his life he’d been acutely aware of lethal forces at work in America’s so-called civilisation.

Tall, rangy and bespectacled, with prominent teeth and a ferocious temper, Wojnarowicz was a star of the East Village art scene of the 1980s – the same creative community that made Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat household names. His early works were rough-edged, political and deliberately provocative. He dumped shrink-wrapped cow bones on the stairways of prestigious galleries and released “cock-a-bunnies” (cockroaches in homemade rabbit drag) during group shows from which he’d been excluded.

Long before he’d joined a gallery, he made art in the abandoned Hudson River piers that he’d come across while cruising. Until they were torn down, he treated the piers as makeshift studio-cum-exhibition spaces, spray-painting poems and hybrid creatures in the derelict rooms where men came for sex.

His was the kind of life that people like to describe as colourful, which is to say indigent and chaotic, and he was often at risk of physical harm. As a small boy, he and his siblings were kidnapped by their father, a violent alcoholic. Escaping to his mother in Manhattan provided only temporary respite. By his mid-teens, Wojnarowicz was a semi-homeless hustler, turning tricks for food money in Times Square.

These formative experiences left him with a profound and understandable mistrust of mainstream society. He was fiercely private (most of his friends never knew of the existence, let alone identity, of his long-term boyfriend) and subject throughout his life to fits of rage. He was also almost magically creative, making films and installations, taking photographs, writing books and producing art right through to his final weeks.

Though she maintains a discreet presence in these pages, Cynthia Carr could hardly be better placed as a chronicler of Wojnarowicz’s times as well as his life. She was a close friend and from 1984 to 2003 reported on performance art for the newspaper Village Voice. As such, her depiction of the filthy, dangerous, explosively creative New York of the 1980s has all the force of personal revelation. She conjures a lost world of drag queens and Danceteria busboys, of pop-up galleries in abandoned buildings, with people queuing for heroin right down the street.

The scene was short-lived, burning out almost as soon as it had been ignited. The galleries drove the prices up, opening the way for the yuppification of downtown Manhattan. At the same time, people in the creative community began to die of a disease known first as the gay cancer, then Grid (gay-related immune deficiency), before assuming its current acronym, Aids, in 1982.

Carr’s account of this growing crisis is devastating. She reports on bureaucratic mismanagement and institutionalised homophobia; on a healthy, thriving community transformed in a matter of years into one of invalids, caregivers and professional elegists.

Wojnarowicz was diagnosed in 1988, shortly after the death of his closest friend, the photographer
Peter Hujar. As a person with Aids, he poured his articulacy and fury into public performances about the state-sponsored murder of a people whom America had always failed to embrace.

Shortly after his diagnosis, he found himself dragged on to the front line of the “culture wars”, the long-running battle between liberals and Republicans over the public funding of art. Like the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, he became a target because his work showed images of gay sex and what could, to the thin-skinned, be construed as anti-religious iconography. Even as he was dying, he continued to fight in the courts and on the streets for  the right to exist as a man who desired men.

This is a remarkable biography. Carr seems to have had access to every mysterious corner of Wojnarowicz’s life. She charts his dreams, the mythic register of his paintings, the contents of his rows. He doesn’t emerge so much as storm on to the page: a gigantic figure, courageous, complex and profoundly embattled, whose ashes, I am glad to say, were scattered on the White House lawn, where it is hoped they’ll nourish an altogether more equitable America.

Olivia Laing is the author of “To the River: a Journey Beneath the Surface” (Canongate, £8.99)

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The plot against the BBC

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis