The life and times of David Wojnarowicz

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

David Wojnarowicz "Fire in My Belly" on show at the New Museum in New York. Photograph: Getty Images

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)