Untitled – When I put my hands on your body, Wojnarowicz, 1990
“There are so many strangers crying in England these days…” Filmmaker Derek Jarman says in his classic memoir, Modern Nature.
The work of Derek Jarman and David Wojnarowicz looms large over the contemporary moment in the way that illness of all kinds is being linked to our contemporary moment. In a recent piece for Poz, scholar and critic Theodore Kerr said: “I realized the need for comparison of HIV to the coronavirus is not simply a comparison of two viruses or our country’s response to them. By comparing COVID-19 to AIDS, people are finding a way to work out their emerging fears regarding the present health scare as well as to deal with ongoing HIV-related trauma… Trauma is not a line.”
The cyclical cultural thinking around pandemics and illness always brings forth questions around access, race, joy, rage, religion, the medical industrial complex, rest, disability, and the effects of capitalism on our ability to care for one another. People are not affected by illness equally. Jarman was a white, well-off gay man with a partner who was able to devote time and care. Wojnarowicz was not quite as well-off although he was also a white gay man with an art career that allowed him to show work in museums and he also had a partner who was also able to devote time and care for him. There are a myriad of other artists being written about and claimed, such as: Marlon Riggs, Essex Hemphill, Félix González-Torres, Lou Sullivan, Feliciano Centurión, and Arthur Russell.
“Nothing is more punitive than to give disease a meaning,” Susan Sontag famously wrote in Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors. Sontag’s work drawing on the way morality and religious discourse affected writing and reporting around illness is deeply illuminating. We are once again moralizing around ideas of pandemics. The idea that pandemics are foreign, the military metaphors that are being used and the blaming of certain cultural or ethnic groups. Sontag’s work argues that morality clouds pandemics, that we obscure not only sense, but science, when we begin apocalyptic-thinking.
This work around time, illness, and apocalypse is a continued tradition carried on by many artists that allow us viewpoints beyond merely the present moment.
In fact, Sontag, in the 1970s, believed we were already in an ongoing apocalypse. This work around apocalypse is now carried out and thought through by transformational justice facilitator, theologian, and sci-fi writer Adrienne Maree Brown. Brown has been blogging and singing through the current quarantine. Her thoughts around rest, reciprocity, apocalypse, disability, access, and healing are some of the uses of social media in times of pandemic that feel restorative rather than an echo chamber. That is not to say her writing is simple or easy or not full of complicated and difficult feelings. Brown often looks at the work of Octavia Butler as a theological strategy for grounding the ongoingness of apocalypse. “God is change” Butler famously wrote in her seminal book, Parable of the Sower. Additionally, Visual AIDS is currently rotating work on display on their Instagram that interacts with ideas of AIDS, pandemics, ongoingness, love, survival, and illness. Recently, Visual AIDS featured the work of Demian DinéYazhi’, who continues the cultural production around the ongoingness of HIV and AIDS through numerous lenses including the intersection of HIV and AIDS with settler colonialism. There is no one story around HIV and AIDS cultural production and there are many important reframings. These different cultural producers work with the clay of time, slicing it, showing its splinters, showing its dis-realities and weldability that should always be visible. .
What are the differences between artmaking under the ongoing pandemic of AIDS and under the ongoing pandemic of COVID-19? Certainly, there are many. Conflating the two is not the right framework, but learning from different artistic, cultural, and political strategies that artists have used and are using can be actionable, soothing, enraging, and pulsing.
What new things are there left to say about making art in crisis? About making art in isolation? How did artists like Jarman and Wojnarowicz carry time as both an artistic medium and as something to bend?
I stare at a painting by the British queer filmmaker Derek Jarman. A series of prayers. Wanting to be queer in the reincarnation, wanting more out of life in some grand sense. I feel the same. “if you insist on reincarnation, please make sure that I am queer tho, I’ve heard you don’t approve, I’ll go down on my knees”. Jarman’s work illuminates a communal way of bumbling through time with a devotion to art. A devotion to creation as a sacred form of survival. There is no denial, but all time is for meandering whether toast or sex or painting or bringing together people to mount a deeply personal film.
I feel I’ve been on my knees. I drink tea and eat toast. Two slices, like Jarman describes in Modern Nature. Food is difficult right now, for a lot of us. It comes up. Scarcity, growth, love, all of it. I think of Mary Oliver’s treasured poem “Wild Geese”: “You do not have to walk on your knees/ for a hundred miles through the desert repenting” Is this not the image of queer people so many of us have? Of conversion therapy? Is this not what the government, the church, the state want gay people to do? To repent in the desert?
Often, Jarman refers to the nuclear plant in Dungeness. It’s always there. Jarman spent most of 1989 after the release of War Requiem and during the filming of his seminal The Garden in his cottage in Dungeness. It’s near the sea in a wild, desert like space. Modern nature, someone says to him. He recounts over and over small pleasures amid the isolation and the fear.
Jarman did not live in full quarantine after his diagnosis with HIV. He cruises, flirts, puts on art shows in galleries, travels to Poland, and even makes a film. But most of Modern Nature recounts his time in Prospect Cottage. He sits, he stares at clocks, he begins research on Edward II and begins writing what will a few years later become his masterpiece Blue. Jarman creates and paints and gardens and recounts the political struggles going on at the time- not just of other white gay men, but also of his neighbor struggling to pay for public transit, or his meetings with Isaac Julien, who at the time had just released his own master-work, Looking For Langston. Jarman recounts the difficulty of hospitals obtaining resources as he stays in one. He recounts his conversations with protegee Tilda Swinton. Swinton says she felt The Garden was Jarman’s most personal work and to this Jarman says he can’t speak of the film- it’s too personal. The Garden is indeed a visionary work, and Jarman’s disappointment that it did not get a wider release is a crushing blow during a difficult hospital stay towards the end of 1990. The festivals, he says, have begun to go commercial and are taking money from family values. The film features an idolatrous Mary and gay a couple being flogged, a gay couple that is taking care of a child. The film displays Jarman stuck in a bed in the ocean, all filmed in and around his own cottage. This sense of work and play and art strike me as Jarman’s own strategy of moving within isolation and love. It creates something lyrical, rich, and moving. Moving in the sense that it is not static. The Garden is not an elegy, it ripples with rage and difficult images of homophobia. It is also created by a community: with wardrobe taking place in Jarman’s bedroom, kids painting sets, and neighbors building the set.
Hanya Yanagihara says America is best when it is angry in her catalogue essay for David Wojnarowicz’ now-infamous History Keeps Me Awake Night retrospective at the Whitney in 2018. What brings about breakage for somewhere like America?
ACT UP protested the retrospective at the Whitney with signs about PrEP, U=U, and information about the ongoingness of HIV and its continued stigmatization. The Whitney erected a plaque, as if honoring or eulogizing or sanitizing the ACT UP protest. “AIDS is not history” The ACT UP fliers say.
David Wojnarowicz is someone whose work is full of rage and pathos. Not pathos in the whiny or even Shakespearean sense, but in the way that challenges morality and challenges time as the only medium through which a body can move. Can a body transcend? And what bodies are allowed to transcend? For Wojnarowicz a body does not only store the data of pain and anger and sex and love and lust, it is also a vehicle. It moves. It paints. It films. His written work so often talks about traveling or the physical or the body, revoking it, referencing it, trembling in it.
I didn’t used to feel close to screaming at everyone I passed on the street. I think about David Wojnarowicz, my love, thinking about these things in a very different way. Wanting to yell at everyone in a suit. “We’re expcted to quietly and politely make house in this windstorm of murder… all I can feel is the pressure and need for release.” David says. And later: “Meat. Blood. Memory. War. We rise to greet the State, to confront the State. Smell the flowers while you can.” How does the state sanction such violence? How can it not if it wants to remain a state? Conversion therapy is still going on. The opioid crisis is still going on. The murder of black and brown bodies is still going on. Violence against trans women of color is still going on. Colonialism and violence against Indigenous people and land is ongoing. There is a litany of state-sanctioned violence and there is another litany of violence the state inflicts by not doing things. The state’s violence is a project and it does not end. David’s work, like Jarman’s, was deeply communal. His work attempted to bridge different oppressive state tactics to one another. His writing does reference other forms of oppression such as racism, police brutality, rape, and domestic violence. David’s work was deeply in conversation with the state and with what other artists were creating.
In Close to the Knives, David writes about being in New Mexico, alone: “For all I knew I was the only person for miles and all alone and I didn’t trust that fucking mountain’s serenity. I mean it was just bullshit. I couldn’t buy the con of nature’s beauty; all I could see was death…” David talks about the ways people reacted to AIDS, the landlord’s discrimination, the hospital’s. Where was one to turn? And still others said AIDS was a psychic disease, the acceptance of “self-hatred”. For David, after Peter Hujar’s death, the events have no metaphorical meaning, they just are. David refused to capitalize the “american church.”
My own gender is complicated, but I identify very distinctly with Wojnarowicz. I identify with his expressing anger and love and saying queer love and queer heartbreak are important and worth putting on screens and canvasses. When I first saw Wojnarowicz’ work in person, I cried in front of his piece “When I put my hands on your body…” It seemed to reflect something deeply unsayable about queerness and trauma. The body’s response to touch. To love. To the hope of flesh.
Cultural critic Olivia Laing seemed surprised that Wojnarowicz still liked having sex after he was raped. But why not? Where else to establish the flesh again? The idea that touch can reestablish intimacy is of course a gross oversimplification of physical trauma. It is not this simple, I know. But for me, it was part of my own healing process. To touch again. To feel again after being assaulted. I imagine David in the desert when he went to see the crater he describes in Close to the Knives. His loving and difficult clandestine encounters in his car looking out for cops.
Wojnarowicz’ photographs of Peter Hujar, his lover and mentor, on his death bed are deeply haunting in their longing. They depict a victim in a heavenly manner where suffering seems angelic. Wojnarowicz described trying to catch the light in Hujar’s eyes. Wojnarowicz attempted to create the kind of photographs Hujar made- but of Hujar. It echoes the torrid portraits Hujar took of Wojnarowicz. “All I want is some sort of grace” Wojnarowicz famously said after Hujar passed.
I finish Jarman’s Modern Nature, wanting to watch his films but BFI player is only available with a UK credit card. Of course. Borders, boundaries, lines. The end of Spring by Ali Smith recounts a British filmmaker working on a film about a network of people who help refugees move through borders. The filmmaker had met a refugee who escaped detention and vanished. Afterlives, the book wonders, of the refugee and of the filmmaker who is grieving the loss of his lover. After time, what are they?
That’s what I’m tracing now with Derek and David. What afterlives do they have for us? What grace?
Joshua Byron is a nonbinary storyteller based in New York. They have produced over twenty film works including, most recently, Trans Monogamist. Their writing has appeared in Bushwick Daily, Glo Worm Press, and the Body Is Not An Apology. Their films have screened at the Indianapolis LGBT Film Festival, Forge Mag Presents, Clouds and Other Louds Poetry Festival, and at various colleges. Find their work at joshuabyron.com or @lordjoshuabyron on Instagram and Twitter.