Pasolini recalled from his student days an occasion when he was contemplating with friends a fireflies’ dance a night without moonlight. That experience was recorded in his conscience as a premonition of a nearby decline. Two decades later, he would confirm the “disappearance of the fireflies” in an Italy drowned in the fascism of the media, that in his opinion was more terrifying than the one established by Mussolini.
Speaking metaphorically, the fireflies were for Pasolini bodies ignited by desire in their nocturnal wanderings, the suburban slang, the incorruptible potential of the street boys and minorities, the underworld whose luminescence supplied itself and was not easily dazzled by the spotlights of political speeches and television shows.
But the pollution polluted the air and the fireflies died; the media clouded the minds and the inner glow faded.
Without the philosophical and intellectual wealth of Pasolini but with a comparable poetic force, David Wojnarowicz also wrote about the extermination of fireflies, although he did not call them that. The pages of Close to the knives (published a year before his death) exude lyricism and rage. The advantage of the outlaw is not to be fooled by the “false moral curtain” that the government deploys as a cinema screen, he writes. Next to the ” tribes that suckle at the breast of telecommunications ” are the “tribes” that understand the official language, filled with “false hopes”, and that learn to use these “leash” as ropes to escape from prison or as a noose to hang the jailer.
Wojnarowicz and Peter Hujar met at a pub on the Lower East Side, when this district of Manhattan was a hotbed of “fireflies”, although in a few years they would go off. Artists strangers to the world of galleries, street photographers, homeless, drag queens, activists, queer figures before being coined this term … Abandoned factories, piers where ships no longer docked, empty lots … welcomed furtive sexual encounters, they offered large flaking walls in which to tattoo graffiti or love confessions.
Peter Hujar’s loft was used by personalities and all sorts of people, from Fran Lebowitz, Susan Sontag or William Burroughs to the mythical Divine, his lovers and male prostitutes, in an environment where the Intellectuality and the marginalization fed each other. His friend the writer Stephen Koch, to whom the photographer left all his photographic production, tells that Hujar invested long hours in each portrait, walking up and down in his studio, to the point that the model almost forgot that he was going to be portrayed, and it was then, in his relaxation, when intimacy showed itself plainly. Then, the camera shot.
But not all were studio portraits. With his pupil and lover, Wojnarowicz, twenty years younger, ventured into abandoned quays and neighborhoods whose concrete ruins were a reflection of the agony of a free and alternative way of life. Both would die of AIDS, one in silence and the other, a few years later, making as much noise as possible to denounce without fear the hypocritical brutality inflicted by the fascist coalition between the American government and the Catholic League.
At the beginning of the eighties, it seemed that the empowerment of homosexuals after the Stonewall riots, that the struggles won little by little… came to nothing. Conservatives and media manipulated public opinion by blaming gays and their licentious behavior for transmitting the disease, after having deliberately hidden for years the existence of the virus and the methods to prevent infection.
The photograph of a herd of buffalo falling off a cliff to their deaths, that Wojnarowicz took from a museum of natural history’s diorama in which Native American hunting techniques were explained, has remained as a witness of the corralling forces that precipitated the downfall and death of the outlaws.
The sewn lips, bandaged hands, a crucifix invaded by armies of ants or a Christ with a hypodermic syringe injected into his arm are indelible images that Wojnarowicz left us in all kind of medium (Super 8-film, photography, collage…), with which he crossed all the barriers of silence, including those that are erected nowadays.
Peter Hujar, as we said, left without making any noise, because his art had always been an infrasound art, as a whisper tickling our ears. But each of his works suggests that his time and that of his surroundings was light. We can touch the “tempus fugit” in them, either because they treat the subject itself (the mummies of Palermo, Candy Darling on her deathbed…) or, just because the good photographers are all of them “recording angels of death”, as defined by Susan Sontag.
The New York essayist wrote the preface to her friend’s photo book, “Portraits in life and death”. In it, based on the concept of Romanticism as understood by Novalis (the estrangement of the real, the marvelous in the everyday), Sontag concludes that every photograph, even without wanting to, establishes a romantic relationship with reality. Photography trivializes as much as reveals the magic of the trivial, and that double layer of reality manages to disturb the work of Hujar.
The exhibition Peter Hujar y David Wojnarowicz
Fundación Loewe, PhotoEspaña 2018
can be visited in Loewe store, gran vía 8, Madrid
until 26 th August