Wearing a paper mask made from a picture of someone else’s face, the subject in David Wojnarowicz’ photo series ‘Arthur Rimbaud in New York’ (1978–9) poses in the rooms of an abandoned pier, outside a cinema and on street corners. The locations are related to what the artist described as ‘urban activities, mostly illegal’. The mask is made from a cut-out photocopy of Rimbaud’s famous portrait photograph. We assume that the posing subject is Wojnarowicz himself, but we cannot, ultimately, know this. Available alongside the photographs on show at Cabinet are copies of texts by Wojnarowicz in which his own authorial voice is disguised as monologues based on different characters he encountered in the city.
In these photographs the subject’s stance has a melancholy quality that recalls the Pierrot figure in Antoine Watteau’s paintings. Like the commedia dell’arte character, he is positioned centre-stage and yet appears impassive and dislocated. Tilted towards the camera, the white of the mask haunts each black and white image like a pale moon. But the work is tough in its refusal to reveal identity. Finished the year before the publication of Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida (1980), this series anticipates and rebuffs Barthes’ assertion that the photograph ‘is’ the sitter: ‘in the photograph, being coincides with self […] a true being, not resemblance.’ Wojnarowicz’ use of a photographic portrait as a mask simultaneously doubles (intimating soulful identification with the poet) and cancels out our access to the subject, embedding a camouflaged blind spot in the picture plane. The photographs generate an impulse to peel the mask’s image skin back from the subject’s face in order to see: impossible because the photograph is, of course, a single surface. ‘Arthur Rimbaud in New York’ pre-dates the AIDS crisis and thus the narrative of loss that informed Wojnarowicz’ later work. However, in using Rimbaud’s image – that of someone already dead – it manifests an understanding of Barthes’s sense of the mortality at stake in the very act of posing for a photograph. This does not prevent the surreal shock at the last image in the Cabinet show, in which the paper mask lies abandoned on the broken pavement, as though severed.
Originally published in the Soho Weekly News, this stubborn, compelling sequence of photographs was the first work by Wojnarowicz to be shown. Comprising painting and sculpture as well as writing and photography, the artist’s oeuvre as a whole offers a complex investigation of identity. It probes an idea of the self as a transparent composite of experiences, questioning an individual’s visibility in the world if they live outside what Wojnarowicz called the ‘pre-invented existence’ of the mainstream. In A Season in Hell (1873) Rimbaud wrote, ‘I had so vacant a look and so dead an expression that those I met perhaps did not see me’. Wojnarowicz described this feeling as being like ‘a Xerox version of myself […] a blank […] a copy of my features’. He describes how, when he first had sex at eight years old, and again when he began hustling, he was both surprised and relieved to find that the experience was not ‘written on [his] face’, permitting him to continue.
The inaugural exhibition at Between Bridges, run by Wolfgang Tillmans in the foyer of his studio, brought together an odd selection of individual pieces. These included the fantastically daubed, taxidermied Untitled (Crocodile) (1984), a tinned food advertisement on which was painted a blue leopard (Libby’s Corned Beef, 1983), a number of photographs and the film ITSOFOMO (In the Shadow of Forward Motion) (1991), made in collaboration with Ben Neill, in which a voice-over speaks of the death from AIDS of Wojnarowicz’ friend the artist Peter Hujar, and crescendoes with powerful anger.
Strangely, the exhibits around it did little to illuminate the artist’s wider body of work, instead creating what appeared to be a shrine-like collection of relics from his life (cut short by AIDS in 1992). What made this show interesting, however, was the way in which the contextual frame of Tillmans’ space highlighted political cross-currents between Wojnarowicz’ work and his own. In ITSOFOMO Wojnarowicz flashes television advertising images before us as the narrator decries the ‘slices of meat sold as hope’ in capitalism’s ‘chain of submission’. Wojnarowicz describes his ‘schizophrenic existence in the family and social structure, with every ad in every newspaper, TV and magazine a promotion for heterosexual coupling’. This resonates with Tillmans’ own frank and tender photographic project, which over the years he has deliberately allowed to enter and challenge the heterosexual bias of fashion magazines. The question of visibility and invisibility that Wojnarowicz eloquently explored in perhaps more universal terms in ‘Rimbaud in New York’ was here seen from a more aggressively political perspective. Together, these two small exhibitions formed a portrait of Wojnarowicz that afforded some of the visibility his work deserves, but our view remained obscure, entangled in the legacy of the artist’s outsider status.
Catherine Wood is Curator of Contemporary Art and Performance, Tate Modern and Tate Britain. She is co-curating, with Beatrix Ruf, ‘Theatre Pieces’ for the 3rd Tate Triennial and co-editing a book on spectator participation with Jessica Morgan and Anna Dezeuze for MIT Press.
First published in Issue 100