A Child Again
Life, Death and Rebirth in the Work of David Wojnarowicz
David Wojnarowicz had been staying with his sister Pat in Paris on the day that his niece was born. He recalls waking in the morning to Pat’s alarm clock, but she and her husband were gone. They had left for the hospital in the night and Pat had given birth to a baby girl. Wojnarowicz was devastated to discover he had been left behind, and as the day went on, his anxieties grew worse. He wrote, “I am unhappy with my thoughts. Angry. I want to cry and turn to someone bigger than me—emotionally or physically bigger. Am I a child again in this state?” Eventually his brother-in-law called with the good news, and Wojnarowicz visited the little family and took photos of his new niece.
Prior to her birth, the artist had been developing and ruminating on, imagery of fetuses: tiny bodies held in the palm of the hand, floating in air, an infant suspended in space, tethered by the umbilical cord. The present lot, an Untitled work from 1987, illustrates an elephant walking up to a floating elephant fetus, an image which Wojnarowicz would revisit in his later work. In Mortality, a painting completed in 1988, the central image of the elephant and floating fetus is surrounded by a border of veins that become vines, with sprouting leaves and a solitary yellow flower. Later that year, Wojnarowicz incorporates this image again in Something from Sleep II, a composition reminiscent of work by Frida Kahlo where a slumbering man dreams of the elephant, time and love.
After his time in Paris, Wojnarowicz returned to New York and learned that he was HIV-positive. Reflecting on his diagnosis, he said “I see the threads of the unconscious revealing to me that this virus was making its way through my body.” It was visceral, and the images from his past began to spell his fate. In her book Fire in the Belly, author Cynthia Carr describes Wojnarowicz coming to the realization that his niece was created to replace him. She writes, “On the day of her birth, he sensed the “historical thread” leading from earliest organisms to dinosaurs and then to all of human history.” Like the elephant who slowly approaches the edge of the water, Wojnarowicz is faced with a premonition, a harbinger of things to come and a reminder of things that have passed—life, death and rebirth.