Monday, December 27, 2010

Olek Tames the Charging Wall Street Bull

December 27, 2010.
On Christmas night, in the freezing cold before the blizzard hit New York City, crochet artist Olek and her band of enablers managed to fully clothe the famous bronze statue of a charging bull that stands in Bowling Green Park in downtown Manhattan. A potent symbol of Wall Street capitalism, the bull wore its crocheted "cozy" for two hours before the caretaker of the small triangular park arrived and confiscated the work, cutting it up and depositing it in the garbage. But first this photo was taken.

With her obsessive strategy of multicolored yarn - purple, fuschia and orange predominate - sewn up in camouflage-like patterns, Olek seems to combine the Sherwin Williams Paint "cover the earth" mandate with a desire to be the Christo of crochet. She has previously fully dressed a bicycle, an automobile and various performers in her trademark coverings, in choreographed conceptual pieces executed on the streets of New York and Miami.

In her one person show this past fall at Christopher Henry Gallery at 127 Elizabeth Street in the Chinatown/LES neighborhood, she created a room-sized installation in which every domestic object, from bathtubs to tables and chairs to telephones to X-rated samplers with texts derived from Internet chat rooms, was given the full Olek treatment. The show was called "Knitting is for Pus****" (as in "Pussies").

Paper Magazine did a photo shoot during the run of the installation, which included live performers inhabiting the room, as described in a review taken from Verbicide:

The first thing one sees in the gallery is a miniature studio apartment — nay, an average-sized studio by New York standards — covered in garishly colored crochet that looks more Beetlejuice than “home sweet home.” The entire structure is covered in crocheted yarn or plastic bags. Before entering, shoes must be removed or hospital booties donned to protect the crocheted floor. A crocheted pedestal tub is occupied by a model in a face-obscuring crocheted body stocking. The bathroom sink and toilet are crocheted. A television and phone are crocheted. There’s a clothing rack (crocheted, even as skinny as it is) hung with crocheted clothing that looks like something the Dr. Seuss characters Thing 1 and Thing 2 might wear.

Knitting may be for pussies, but crochet is all about the pussy. The apartment walls and doors are covered in framed photographs of models nude but for some crocheted clothing and crocheted timestamped text messages Olek has received: “Ur pussy is my soul mate,” “I just wanna turn u on as much as I can,” and the profound, if debatable, “Soul is the part of you that sees a lap dance every time you close your eyes.”

Here is Olek in action during the shoot, dressing a model:

The room installation reappeared in Miami during art fair week, as part of Christopher Henry's -Scope booth, with another car - a convertible - parked outside the tent on Midtown Boulevard and fully customized by crochet.

A feisty, bodacious blonde from Poland, Olek (nee Agata Oleksiak) is a self-styled "guerrilla" artist who is not at all shy in discussing her work and its intentions. From her recent press release entitled "Happy Bullish 2011":

Thank you for supporting me in the intense 2010!

I had a very successful solo show at Christopher Henry Gallery that introduced my work to an even bigger audience and brought me tons of press! I was lucky to start the year with a residency at AAI-LES and finish it with another one at Workspace, LMCC.

It was truly a year of guerrilla actions that opened a new path in my crocheted investigations. I started it with a bike and ended up with the Charging Bull as a Christmas gift to NYC and a tribute to the sculptor of the bull, Arturo di Modica, who in another guerrilla act, placed the bull on Wall Street in Christmas of 1987 as a symbol of the "strength and power of the American people" following the 1987 Stock Market crash.

This crocheted cover represents my best wishes to all of us. It will be a great, prosperous year with many wonderful surprises!!!

In another self-generated PR effort, she discusses her current internship at LMCC and her penchant for ingesting massive quantities of movies and vodka, while "aggressively re-weaving the world as she sees fit":

We have obviously not heard the last from her.


Indeed, it did not take long at all. Here is an action video posted by Olek on December 30:

Two comments:

The street art was apparently accomplished on Christmas Eve, not Christmas night. And the bronze bull seems to be anatomically correct, although there is no footage of Olek wrapping his cock and balls in crochet - an action that had been anticipated with a certain prurient interest.

Friday, December 24, 2010

James Romberger on David Wojnarowicz

You Killed Me First, installation view, 1985.

James Romberger - artist, gallerist, writer and collaborator with David Wojnarowicz during the salad days of the East Village - was prompted by the current censorship of "A Fire In My Belly" to pen an eloquent analysis and remembrance of his friend. Wojnarowicz’s Apostasy is an essential read.

Romberger's central thesis:

David’s oeuvre was never only about his reactions to organized religion, nor was it ever only about the AIDS crisis. Certainly the disease that would kill him in 1992 gave his work a powerful impetus, but David always took a greater global view. He examined the way that the natural world works and how our relationships with each other and the planet fit within the continually shifting narrative of history. He also expressed a complex interiority as he engaged with different media to make his sometimes lyrical, sometimes enraged or explicit, but always thoughtful and heartfelt art.

David took on heroic proportions because of his outspoken response to the AIDS epidemic. He watched his friends falling around him. After his own diagnosis in 1988, he made a concerted effort to understand the disease and to combat the people and institutions that he was able to identify as enablers of the virus through their homophobia and suppression of information...

But even earlier, in 1986 and 1987 as he watched his mentor, the photographer Peter Hujar, waste away and die, David believed the Roman Catholic Church had abandoned everyone he loved...

The imagery of Catholicism suffused his work from the beginning. David’s friend and my partner, the interdisciplinary artist Marguerite Van Cook says he had “a crisis of faith,” certainly his beliefs were sorely tested...

A Fire in My Belly has been defended as being about AIDS and not about his anger towards the Church, but David’s later motivations should not be retrospectively applied to a film that he made earlier. The Smithsonian has posted a “Q&A” on their website which claims, “This imagery was part of a surrealistic video collage filmed in Mexico expressing the suffering, marginalization and physical decay of those who were afflicted with AIDS.” However, what is being shown on Youtube and elsewhere online is not the original film, its intent has been changed because elements have been added that are misplaced in time. The versions in circulation now both have imposed soundtracks and their meaning is altered with added imagery that was made years later. David made A Fire in My Belly in 1986, before he was diagnosed with AIDS.

Street Kid, acrylic and collage, 1986.

Romberger goes on to describe a jarring private screening of an early edit of the Mexican footage that would become "A Fire In My Belly"

What followed was an assault on my senses, a view of a world completely out of control. The strobed, often violent scenes of wrestlers, cock and bull fights, lurid icons, impoverished dwellings, clanking engines, an enslaved monkey, cripples begging for coins, for bread, a burning, spinning globe—it was a picture of indifference to the value of life, Mexico as a grinding machine of poverty and cruel spectacle.

and also several installations produced with Wojnarowicz at the infamous Ground Zero project space on East Fourth Street. All fascinating reading, revelatory of the artistic process, and a window back to another era of the East Village. But most of all, a necessary corrective to much of the recent misconstrued gloss on Wojnarowicz produced in the wake of the censorship crisis.

Portrait of Bishop Landa. Mixed media, 1986.

I posted the following to Romberger after reading his text, which I again urge you to read in its entirety:

James, this is the most truthful, informed and sincere text I have read on David and on "A Fire In My Belly" since the whole censorship mess began. Congratulations. I myself have covered the controversy several times on my blog, but never from the "inside". You and Marguerite were privileged to collaborate with David while he was still alive, and your insights benefit from this working relationship.

Many of the pieces I have read recently suffer rather than benefit from hindsight. However well intentioned, they tend to limit David to his AIDS activism, to make him an ACT UP poster boy. Thanks for presenting the total picture. While there is no denying the effect of the epidemic in galvanizing David's attention, sharpening his acerbity and crystallizing his imagery, his "complex interiority" was already well formed before AIDS became an unavoidable presence in his life. The Mexican imagery which forms the basis of "Fire In My Belly" is informed by a love/hate relationship with his native Catholicism, with the Church's betrayal and hypocrisy, with the "crisis of faith" you perceptively examine above.

The forces of repression and reaction might think they have won a round in the culture wars. But ironically, the unintentional effect of the censorship has been to focus a belated and long overdue reassessment of Wojnarowicz's life and work. Your article is an essential part of this effort.

Mexican Crucifix, acrylic and collage on panel, 1986.

Some Thoughts on Wojnarowicz and the Never Ending Culture Wars

David Wojnarowicz "A Fire in My Belly" Original from ppow_gallery on Vimeo.

December 16, 2010. The above is taken from the Vimeo page of PPOW Gallery and from the archives of NYU's Fales Library. It represents two segments, of approximately 13 and 7 minutes, that David Wojnarowicz shot and edited on Super 8 in 1986-87, which he entitled "A Fire In My Belly". It is NOT the four minute piece that was yanked from the National Portrait Gallery show on December 1. It is also NOT the video I posted earlier on this blog, with its Diamanda Galas banshee wail/dirge of "Unclean". Nor the segment I have seen with an overlaid soundtrack of a 1980s ACT UP demonstration. Wojnarowicz shot and presented his original footage without sound, a suggestion of the urgency and severity of the political climate that led to the mantra of "Silence = Death".

It is two weeks since the "silencing" of "A Fire In My Belly", and as we near Sunday's rally on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum, it's clear that the culture wars are by no means over. This is hardly news to anyone following the hurtful antics of the Tea Party. Ever more empowered by their victories in the midterm election, the same purveyors of fear and purposeful obfuscation who demonized Obama for the past two years are trying to legislate and coerce the cultural landscape, to make art conform to their hypocritical and faux Christian yardstick. The fact that their cynical misunderstanding and bad intentions AGAIN fall directly on Wojnarowicz's shoulders is testimony to the enduring raw, elemental, and confrontational power of his art. Although the forces of reaction and censorship will always find something to belittle and attempt to repress, we almost have to thank them for forcing the issue and focusing attention on work that especially needs to be discussed and re-evaluated right now, as an antidote to right wing resurgence.

First, a excerpt from the perceptive and empathetic analysis of Holland Cotter published in last Friday's New York Times:

Wojnarowicz made “A Fire in My Belly,” dated 1986-87, at a turning point. In 1987 his longtime mentor and lover, the photographer Peter Hujar, died of AIDS, and Wojnarowicz himself learned that he was H.I.V.-positive. Although his career was by then well established, he was backing off from involvement in the art world and on his way to becoming immersed in AIDS politics.

Both parts of “A Fire in My Belly” are made from video shot in Mexico, a country that Wojnarowicz found mesmerizing for its combination of vital popular culture and daily life lived shockingly close to the bone. The 13-minute video opens with a panning shot, taken from a moving car, of the streets of a Mexican town, interrupted by quick shots of newspaper headlines reporting violent crimes. These sequences are punctuated, very briefly, with a few other images: a suspended world globe; a cartoonish dancing puppet wearing a sombrero; a disembodied hand dropping coins.

Then three scenes of combat alternate repeatedly: a bullfight and a cockfight — each gruesome — and a masked and acrobatic wrestling match. Travelogue-ish sequences that follow — of a circus with performing animals and a visit to a Mesoamerican archaeological site with demonic-looking sculptures — go on too long (as does the wrestling), and the video ends abruptly when the dancing puppet is shot at with what looks like a pistol full of paint. If there is any overriding idea delivered in the video, it has to do with how violence-addicted people, and specifically men, are.

The seven-minute “excerpt” feels more packed and purposeful, and quite complete. The opening image, which will recur again and again, is of metal wheels turning, like some machine of fate. Then, interwoven and rapidly repeated, we see pairs, not necessarily juxtaposed, of related images: street beggars and armed police; Day of the Dead candy skulls and a painting of an Aztec human sacrifice; mummified bodies displaced from graves in a cemetery and an undisturbed tombstone being gently washed.

Certain images were evidently filmed in a studio: coins falling into a bandaged hand, and a hand held under splashing water; halves of a loaf of bread being sewn together, and a man’s lips being sewn shut. A short sequence of a man masturbating alternates with images of sides of beef in a slaughterhouse. The image of the crucifix with ants comes almost in the middle of all of this, between shots of bread being sewn and blood dripping into a bowl. At the end, images from the first video reappear — the puppet and the globe — both burning.

That “A Fire in My Belly” is about spirituality, and about AIDS, is beyond doubt. To those caught up in the crisis, the worst years of the epidemic were like an extended Day of the Dead, a time of skulls and candles, corruption with promise of resurrection. Wojnarowicz was profoundly angry at a government that barely acknowledged the epidemic and at political forces that he believed used AIDS, and the art created in response, to demonize homosexuals.

He felt, with reason, mortally embattled, and the video is filled with symbols of vulnerability under attack: beggars, slaughtered animals, displaced bodies and the crucified Jesus. In Wojnarowicz’s nature symbolism — and this is confirmed in other works — ants were symbols of a human life mechanically driven by its own needs, heedless of anything else. Here they blindly swarm over an emblem of suffering and self-sacrifice.

Cotter's listing of Wojnarowicz’s imagery is fairly complete, although I would add a recurring motif which functions in the 13 minute segment like a title card or periodic marker: face cards from the deck of a fortune teller (depicting characters like "The Siren", "The Drunk" or "The Scorpion") juxtaposed with the photo of an onrushing locomotive (a reference to heedless history?) carrying ever successive numbers. It seems to be an attempt at ordering the piece, the suggestion of a Stations of the Cross treatment that W. has augmented with representative elements of street culture.

Like Pasolini, Wojnarowicz was a gay activist, a revolutionary who rejected the restrictions, bigotry and repressive power of the Catholic Church YET whose cultural antecedents were fully rooted in his upbringing, in the rich symbolism of the Catholic soil. Both P. and W. undoubtedly saw the trap of using conventional Christian imagery to make art that would challenge the status quo, which is why both reinvigorated the original story of Jesus administering to the poor and downtrodden of his age by fully representing the contemporary lumpen milieu. Both were also prolific and unrepentant propagators of their own personal mythologies, conscious of their status as gay martyrs and avid to assume the mantle. (Although Jean Genet is often cited by W. and remains his most redolent antecedent in this regard.) These tendencies led P. and W. to imbue their art with the litany of a Christian experience, but willfully "tainted" with lay references to the street, to an earlier and enduring paganism onto which Christianity is but a graft. It is precisely this "taint" that angers the religious right and causes them to view the work as blasphemous. Their special anger seems reserved for the apostate, the lapsed Catholic who was offered the keys to salvation yet repudiated it, betrayed his birthright, willfully disobeyed the Church and rebelled against the full embrace of its "benevolent" conformity.

It is no accident that W. chose Mexico - not just as a travelogue of picturesque primitivisms, not just as a living demonstration of a "close to the bone" culture where the dialectics of suffering and cruelty are graphically obvious, but as the backdrop for his almost biblical meditation on the Age of AIDS. "A Fire In My Belly" is drenched in the symbolism of the body and the blood, lifted right from the Gospels: the loaf of bread being sewn together with thick red string, the lips of the artist being similarly joined, the blood dripping and overflowing the bowl, the luckless and legless begging on the road under the gaze of the police, the animals being led to the abbatoir, the sides of beef on hooks in the slaughterhouse. There is a pervasive, barely submerged violence on the street, ritualized by the masked Luchadors, fully realized in the cockfight, conflagrated by the flame eaters, domesticated in the performing circus animals, mocked by the dancing marionette under its sombrero. The action is surveyed by the panopticon of a rotating, all seeing eye (an indifferent God?). Those who choose to ignore it betray the suffering of their fellow men, and are seemingly being bribed by the infamous 30 pieces of silver, dropped from/into a bandaged hand.

Considering the heavy overlay of Christian narrative, it's a bit ironic that the so-called Catholic League (a right wing lobbyist group that actually has no institutional connection to the Church) finds the film blasphemous. W. seems to embrace the traditional Biblical progression of redemption through suffering that he learned in Sunday school. And the ten to fifteen seconds of ants crawling over a crucifix that has particularly angered the right and been seized upon as transgressive, while a mere snippet of the total imagery, seems an extension of the accepted iconography of Jesus' mortification and transcendence. In fact, what seems most dangerous, threatening and anarchistic in the film was never mentioned by its critics: the retributive, apocalyptic imagery of a world globe on fire, a map of Mexico ablaze, a puppet consumed in flames.

W.'s method of associative montage, of cross cutting action to create meaning, provides a "city symphony" that is reminiscent of early silent film practitioners like Walter Ruttmann and Dziga Vertov. Crashing images against each other to create a thesis is a brutal but efficient method of film making. By refusing any ameliorative or distracting soundtrack that might diffuse the power of the imagery, W. is forcing us to confront things directly, a strategy that is well suited to the urgency of the moment.

"A Fire In My Belly" is not a subtle work. By no means. It is a brazen cry, a strident bit of agitprop, the only honest reaction that W. could bring to a moment when multitudes (himself included) were HIV positive, when thousands were dying, and when the reaction of the state was to look the other way - when they were not using the very existence of the epidemic to demonize gay culture. As a new generation of the rabid right comes into its own, with its dumb-like-a-fox cunning and hypocrisy, it is hardly surprising that the work of Wojnarowicz is again at the fulcrum of the culture wars, a cause célèbre and a rallying point for the art world.

Some background on the Wojnarowicz censorship

Penny Starr's November 29 review of Hide/Seek on the Catholic News Service that precipitated the removal of "A Fire In My Belly":


A perceptive piece by Patricia Silva on Open Salon, excerpted below:


A significant act of censorship has snowballed because of one video on YouTube: a user-generated, super low-quality illegitimate copy of Fire In My Belly edited not by Wojnarowicz nor his estate; an illegal copy including an unauthorized soundtrack by Diamanda Galas. The origin of the video is unknown or unclear. At the time of Penny Starr's review, there wasn't an official video of Fire In My Belly on YouTube.

The user-generated video collage featured Diamanda Galas' This is the Law of the Plague, from Galas' controversial Plague Mass, a requiem for those dead and dying of AIDS, performed live at Saint John the Divine cathedral in New York City in 1991. Plague Mass was also attacked by the Catholic Church in the 1990s, because Galas used biblical texts to criticize and condemn the Roman Catholic Church's indifference to AIDS. So, what Donohue termed "hate speech" is actually Galas' text on Catholic indifference paired with Biblical passages showing the hypocritical context of such indifference. Galas had her own battle with censorship over this work, and won. Despite what some articles are reporting, Galas and Wojnarowicz never met, never collaborated. A friend of Wojnarowicz, Amy Scholder, confirms the two artists spoke a few times by telephone and admired each other's work, but that's it. Galas' music was never a part of any edit of Fire In My Belly by Wojnarowicz, a fact easily proved by Wojnarowicz's extensive notes and sketches for the work. Fire In My Belly is an unfinished work. A work in progress, edited for display...

By including this piece in Hide/Seek, the co-curators presented the complexities of living and dying during a time in art history when conservatism and censorship threatened creative expression; a time in history when homophobia and disregard for AIDS patients was a rampant display of political power. Removing this work from the show presents layers of irony, but real disappointment begins with the history-altering implications of censuring this piece. Not only does the removal of Fire In My Belly from Hide/Seek disrupt a proper narrative of the personal and social work and experience of LGBTQ artists in America, it is a censorship of American Art history in general, and an alarming step back for the progress of civil rights.

Ironically enough, for a show about visibility of queerness in American Art, Penny Starr's review has guaranteed that this piece be viewed and discussed far more than if it had remained in the show, waiting for someone to press play on a kiosk. To denounce an unfinished work as "Hate Speech" (an assumption based on a user-generated, unauthorized collage on YouTube) raises questions about posthumous showings of works of art in progress.