Wednesday, June 24, 2009

A Little Talk about Wojnarowicz

(For my regular readers: At the RSA Seminar this week, we have been asked to compose a blog post like one you would see on No Caption Needed. I'm altering that for selfish reasons. I want to get that damn Wojnarowicz article I've been talking about for years to a journal by the end of 2009, so I'm taking every opportunity I can to write for that article. So I'm doing a close reading of one of the images I plan to discuss there. That's what this is. Feel free to comment, since this is part of a project I intend to pursue in depth, as anyone who has known me for a while knows. I have none of my research with me, so this is a basic close reading, but any and all feedback is welcome. Because the journal may not be able to reproduce images, I am writing as though the image is not included in this entry.)

This is one representative example of the images contained within the Sex Series. Like every other image in the series, Wojnarowicz prints it so that the image looks not like a standard photograph but more like it is a negative, still in black-and-white but with the light patterns reversed. The dominant image is a photograph of the two main bridges connecting Manhattan and Brooklyn, Manhattan Bridge and Brooklyn Bridge. The top right of the photograph shows the southeastern edge of lower Manhattan, while the bottom shows the northern sections of Brooklyn. The photograph depicts a somewhat typical skyline shot clearly taken from a plane. The viewer is place well above this scene, barely able to distinguish any building but the tallest skyscrapers, let alone individual cars on the bridges. It is a vast and familiar public space, one where millions of people shift in and out of it each day.

At the top of the image's left corner, Wojnarowicz has place a circular inset depicting sexual activity between two people. One person on all fours straddles the face of another person lying on her or his back. This inset represents the private domain. Acts like this one could be occurring throughout the public space in the image's background (though, hopefully, not in any cars on the bridge). In many ways, it is a completely average sex act between completely average people. But even though the act is average and ordinary, it is often shrouded in secrecy and shame. Wojnarowicz, knowing that American society does not engage in larger, public discussions about diverse facets of sexuality, wants the placement of these two images together to remind us that sex is everywhere, that it is as ordinary as the bridges that connect Manhattan and Brooklyn.

Gender is impossible to determine in the inset because of both the technique of printing is as a negative that I mention above but also because it is cropped in a way that removes the head and upper torso of the top person and the lower body of the bottom person. The sex act dominates. In depositions related to the court case, it is clear that Wildmon assumes these people are two gay men engaging in fellatio, but Wojnarowicz makes it clear that these are women participating in cunnilingus. I clarify gender in this case because it reflects what I see as one of Wojnarowicz's goals for the entire Sex Series. As a gay man, Wojnarowicz knows that viewers will assume he is promoting the need to acknowledge gay male sexuality in a world where thousands have died from or continue to live with HIV. But Wojnarowicz wants to promote the acknowledgment of sexuality in general. Many images in the Sex Series depict gay male sexuality, but others contain heterosexual sex, and this one highlights lesbian sex. Using the image of the negative erases gender (except in those insets that show a penis protruding from a male body) and highlights the normalcy of sexuality across genders.

The use of a circle may initially appear to be an ordinary way of inserting this private scene into this public space, but there is much more going on here. The use of the circle highlights visualizing technologies. Both the microscope and the telescope, devices that look outward and inward, use circular lenses. And connecting the insets to those technologies supports my claim above about the need to acknowledge the things that define our existence even if they usually remain invisible to the naked eye. The blood cells that carry oxygen to our hearts (and, in some cases HIV) and the stars that provide us light at night are a part of human existence. At the same time, reflecting on these technologies--and the ordinary and extraordinary things they can reveal--brings to mind other technologies, specifically the technologies of surveillance. I have said above that these insets highlights the normalcy of sexuality, but they also make visible the acts of surveillance that push people to keep sexuality secret. To be clear, neither I nor Wojnarowicz is arguing that we should be having sex in public. But this surveillance demands that we not even talk about sex in public, which is a dangerous silence in a world where sex can lead to death. I raise all of these points, however, to show that this image does not encourage a singular, simplistic reading. It is complex, just as sexuality itself is complex especially when you consider all its forms.

Ultimately, the images in the Sex Series promote the belief that sex, while usually a private act, is an ordinary part of life for most people. At the same time, sex can be a complex act that embodies a range of pleasures and fears, purposes and motivations. Placed within the context of Wojnarowicz's work in general, I see this series as arguing for the need to acknowledge this complexity and engage with it in public discourse. Otherwise, people of all sexualities and genders will continue not just to die from HIV but to feel the range of negative effects that result from seeing sex through a shroud of shame, secrecy, and fear.

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