Modern Death Masks

Curator Frank Wagner and artist David Wojnarowicz were part of communities that we should not forget. Exhibitions at KW and Between Bridges in Berlin make sure we don’t.

Marion Scemama and David Wojnarowicz, When I Put My Hands on Your Body, 1989. Photo: Frank Sperling.

In one of the inner galleries at KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin, a screen is mounted to a metal structure much like the scaffolds one sees at construction sites around the city. Blue light streams from a projector and hits the screen as moving images. The images show a man tenderly kissing another man’s nipple, moving his mouth along his ribs and over his stomach, before he removes the man’s belt from his jeans, using his teeth. A soundtrack accompanies the movements. We hear David Wojnarowicz’s (1954-1992) voice: “It makes me weep to feel the history of your flesh beneath my hands in a time of so much loss.”

The work, When I Put My Hands on Your Body, is a collaboration between Wojnarowicz and Marion Scemama from 1989. At that time, Wojnarowicz had already been diagnosed with AIDS, a disease that would take his life three years later. Two years earlier, the same disease took the life of his close friend, the photographer Peter Hujar. Wojnarowicz was present at his deathbed, and just minutes after Hujar passed away, he photographed his face, his hands, and his feet – what Wojnarowicz himself described as a modern death mask. The three images are also part of the exhibition David Wojnarowicz. Photography & Film 1978–1992 at KW, showing the artist’s deeply personal and moving political work.

The consequence of closeness

In the era when Wojnarowicz came out as gay, coming out was something that often led to being ostracised, both from one’s own family and from the community one grew up in. When the AIDS epidemic spread, society turned its back not only on gays, but also drug-addicts, the poor, and other marginalised groups. Prominent politicians led the way.

In his work, Wojnarowicz quotes a statement made in 1985 by the governor of Texas: “‘If you want to stop Aids [sic], shoot the queers…’ says the governor of Texas on the radio, and his press secretary later claims that the governor was only joking and didn’t know the microphone was turned on, besides they didn’t think it would hurt his chances for re-election anyways.”

Andreas Sterzing, David Wojnarowicz (Silence = Death), 1989.

Attitudes like this were not uncommon, and the consequences of the way the AIDS epidemic was handled were fatal. Wojnarowicz’s work not only protests against how society addressed the disease, but also documents the care given by a community that for many had become a chosen family. The changes that took place over just a few years can be seen clearly in two portraits of Wojnarowicz, placed opposite one another at KW. In the first, David Wojnarowicz with a Snake, taken by Peter Hujar in 1981, we see a young Wojnarowicz holding a snake by the tail while he looks, almost flirtatiously, into the camera. The other picture, David Wojnarowicz (Silence = Death), shows Wojnarowicz’s lips being sewn together as blood runs down his chin from the holes left by the needle. This picture was taken by Andreas Sterzing, eight years after the first. Again, Wojnarowicz stares straight into the camera. The gazes meet in between the pictures, where a slideshow by Sterzing documenting an art collective Wojnarowicz helped found in 1983 at Pier 34 in New York is shown.

Frank Wagner’s influence

Wojnarowicz has exhibited at KW before. Right after the artist’s death, his work was brought to Berlin by the curator Frank Wagner for a commemorative exhibition, Close to Knives – A Memoir of Disintegration. Today, it is Wagner who is commemorated in TIES, TALES AND TRACES. Dedicated to Frank Wagner, Independent Curator (1958-2016), an exhibition in two parts. One part takes place across the courtyard from Wojnarowicz’s exhibition, in an apartment belonging to KW. The other part is exhibited at Between Bridges, a foundation for the advancement of democracy, international understanding, the arts, and LGBTQ rights, started by Wolfgang Tillmans. When entering the apartment at KW, we are met by the notes from the speech Wagner held at the opening of Wojnarowicz’s exhibition in 1992. The notes have corrections in blue ink. “A good friend of mine” is struck out and replaced with “colleague + friend of mine.” There is no doubt that Wojnarowicz was a good friend of Wagner. But to point out that he was also a colleague, part of an artistic and political community, was important in a time were the struggle for LGBTQ rights was a matter of life and death. It is hard to overrate Wagner’s role in this community.

Wagner brought many international artists, often before their breakthroughs, to a Berlin that had a notably more isolated scene than now. During his career, he curated more than nine hundred artists, frequently in exhibitions on topics like AIDS, gender, and LGBTQ rights. In the apartment at KW, pictures from a small selection of these exhibitions are shown. Many are from Neue Gesellschaft für Bildende Kunst (nGbK), an important Kunstverein in Berlin, where he was a member of the curatorial group RealismusStudio. This curatorial group, made up of Wagner’s own friends and colleagues, is responsible for bringing together the show at KW. Other pictures in the exhibition are from internationally known institutions like Hamburger Bahnhof. The exhibition also comprises ephemera: personal correspondence; cat pictures taken by Félix Gonzáles-Torres and sent with funny greetings, long before cat pictures became an internet meme; complaints about Alvar Aalto vases broken during transport; one of Wagner’s colourful blazers; photographs, taken by artist friends, of Wagner in his youth and in his later years. His possessions, including a large collection of books and numerous works of art, are in the process of being archived, and parts of this archive are shown at KW.

Personal collections

On the other side of the city, the Wagner exhibition continues at Between Bridges – here curated by Tillmans and Eugen Ivan Bergmann. This part of the exhibition focuses on work from Wagner’s collection, or more precisely, the works he had in his apartment; his everyday companions. There is an important distinction between a collection, often stowed away in storage, and the pictures in one’s living environment. Showing a personal selection of pieces accentuates Wagner’s close relationships to the artists he worked with. In this exhibition, as in the one at KW, one can see a photograph taken by Peter Hujar, David Wojnarowicz Reclining (1981). In the next room, a drawing by an unknown artist depicts a glove like the one Mickey Mouse is known for wearing, but black instead of white. One photo in the exhibition is taken by Tillmans himself. Distributed throughout the rooms are posters from Gonzáles-Torres’s well-known stacks of free prints that visitors could take home. There is also a poster with the aforementioned quote from the governor of Texas.

There is no better way to commemorate a man like Frank Wagner than by continuing his work. The exhibitions at KW and Between Bridges do just that. The close relationships that Wagner was known for having with artists and their works are commendably recreated. Not only the art, but also the often invisible processes leading to a piece appearing in a show have been made accessible for the public, friends, and colleagues alike, including Wagner’s contemporaries and younger generations. Following the lead of Wagner and Wojnarowicz, these exhibitions stand as convincing arguments for the radical potential of closeness.

Installation view of the exhibition TIES, TALES AND TRACES. Dedicated to Frank Wagner, Independent Curator (1958–2016) at KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin, 2019. Photo: Frank Sperling.