In Brush Fires in the Social Landscape, the book of David Wojnarowicz’s photo-based work that was published posthumously in 1994, cameras are passed from artist to artist, artist to critic, critic to librarian. They move between people like AIDS, the disease which claimed Wojnarowicz in 1992 (the year he began work on the project) and his close friend, the photographer Peter Hujar, before him in 1987. When Wojnarowicz, on his deathbed, handed one of Hujar’s cameras to Cynthia Carr, it was wrapped in two plastic bags, almost like a relic covered in a shroud. “I’m supposed to be the one who finds words for such moments,” Carr writes in one of the book’s most moving essays. She never really did find those words.
In Aperture’s new and expanded 20th-anniversary rerelease, Brush Fires in the Social Landscape retains every bit of the high-intensity rage, sadness, and fear that Wojnarowicz’s work always had. With its focus on prejudice against gays during the time of the AIDS crisis, Wojnarowicz’s work could easily feel like a time capsule, but it doesn’t. It was only nine years ago that the Westboro Baptist Church picketed with banners that read, “God Hates Fags,” and 13 states have yet to legalize gay marriage.
Wojnarowicz’s work featured an anger that went unequaled by many artists of the time. “To have his life be meaningful,” critic Lynne Tillman writes in one of the new essays, “he would have to keep living by doing his work. He would rage on.” This led to installations like You Killed Me First (1987), a faux crime scene staged at Ground Zero Gallery in 1987. Three decaying corpses appear seated around a dinner table, their heads caved in by gunshots. A blood spatter covers a cross on the wall to the left of one figure, who is meant to be Wojnarowicz’s father, as James Romberger, the owner of Ground Zero Gallery, confirms in one essay. (Performance artist Karen Finley, who played the mother in a film version of this tableau, expanded her 1993 poem for Wojnarowicz in this edition.)
As a child, Wojnarowicz was abused, not just by his own father, but also by the police. In a 1990 interview with fellow East Village photographer Nan Goldin, Wojnarowicz said that his first memory was police sirens. He also recounted being clubbed by a police officer on the subway. This happened when Wojnarowicz around when he was six or seven, the same age he figured out that he was gay after he got picked up by teenage hustlers. (Wojnarowicz began hustling in Times Square when he was eleven.) As Fran Lebowitz once told Melissa Harris in a 1993 interview, “he had a very poor childhood, which was reflected in his health, having nothing to do with AIDS. He never looked like a glowing, healthy young guy.” (Carlo McCormick blames Wojnarowicz’s sickly look on his hyper-metabolism, which left him skinny as a twig, despite how much he ate.)
As Wojnarowicz put it in that interview with Goldin, “Living in America, it’s like we’re all getting fucked, but I prefer to feel the weight of someone on me when I’m getting fucked as opposed to what we experience from the government.” Sex and politics were inseparable in his work. In Untitled (One Day This Kid…) (1990), a black-and-white photograph of a boy wearing suspenders, a button-down shirt, and a toothy half-smile is accompanied by a long text predicting life-long oppression. “All this will begin to happen in one or two years when he discovers he desires to place his naked body on the naked body of another boy,” the text ends.
Wojnarowicz lived just long enough to witness the culture wars happen firsthand. In 1990, he sued Donald Wildmon, a Christian preacher, for using one of his “Arthur Rimbaud in New York” photographs without the artist’s permission in an anti-gay brochure. The image used—a black-and-white photograph of man donning a mask of the 19th-century French writer and masturbating—was placed alongside pornographic images that had nothing to do with Wojnarowicz’s work. Wojnarowicz won the lawsuit and walked away with $1 in damages, and, according to his lawyer David Cole in a 1993 essay, he was overjoyed.
Despite Wojnarowicz’s clear-eyed politics, there was also a spiritual side of him that wanted to believe in something beyond life. (He hated Christianity, though—several black-and-white photographs feature a small plastic crucifix in close-up, usually with one of Jesus’ eyes gouged out.) As artist Gary Schneider explains in a new essay, Hujar’s death pushed Wojnarowicz to begin thinking of photography as an art form, which isn’t surprising if you look at how the medium allowed Wojnarowicz to capture Hujar’s final moments with a piercing sense of honesty. The paintings dedicated to Hujar over the next two years find Wojnarowicz developing his own private iconography. In the 1993 introduction to the book, writer Lucy R. Lippard explains the symbolism of his pumping hearts, running dinosaurs, and crawling insects. Ultimately, she’s left to rely on Wojnarowicz’s own words to her—“I don’t know what you’re seeing but if there’s light move towards it.”
In a new section produced for this edition titled “After Wojnarowicz,” Wendy Osloff, the co-owner of P.P.O.W., the Chelsea gallery that represents Wojnarowicz’s estate, writes, “David Wojnarowicz’s work, more than two decades after his death, still has the power to expose oppression, and to incite people to do something about it.” Work by Zoe Strauss, Emily Roysdon, Adam Putnam, Henrik Olesen, Wolfgang Tillmans, and Shannon Ebner proves that Wojnarowicz’s spirit is very much alive.
Next year, the Whitney will hold first major Wojnarowicz survey in over a decade. Judging by Brush Fires in the Social Landscape, the only way that show would be more welcome is if it opened tomorrow. Until then, this book will have to hold us over. As Wonjarowicz told Goldin, “If I could write a book that would kill America, I would have done it.” If only he were alive to see this rerelease.