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In ‘Wojnarowicz’ and ‘Max Richter’s Sleep,’ two artists take on the world -- doing so in very different ways

"Untitled (Face in Dirt)," a 1991 self-portrait by David Wojnarowicz.
"Untitled (Face in Dirt)," a 1991 self-portrait by David Wojnarowicz.David Wojnarowicz

It takes temerity to become an artist, and tenacity to try to change the world. Here are two who had both.

Abused as a child, a gay street hustler in New York as a youth, David Wojnarowicz transformed the many traumas of his short life (he died of AIDS, in 1992, at 37) into a prolific, shocking, and poetic output of photographs, films, writings, paintings, collages, and installations. Many of these works appear in Chris McKim’s “Wojnarowicz,” a dazzling montage of photos, film clips, phone messages, interviews, journal entries, and other writings that tell the story of the doomed and indomitable artist.


Skipping about chronologically, the film opens in 1989 as images of the fall of the Berlin Wall play on a TV and Wojnarowicz argues on the phone with a reporter about losing a National Endowment for the Arts grant for a show on the AIDS crisis. The NEA claimed that it was “more political than artistic.”

“The fact that I may be dying of AIDS in 1989 — isn’t that political?” he asks. “The fact that I don’t have health insurance and I don’t have access to adequate health care — isn’t that political?”

Wojnarowicz made the political personal in 1987, when the photographer Peter Hujar, his mentor and closest companion, died of AIDS. It sparked his campaign to heighten awareness of the disease and of the woeful inadequacy of the Reagan administration’s response to it. His transgressive art on behalf of this cause aroused the wrath of US Senator Jesse Helms and Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association, the same moral watchdogs who bedeviled NEA recipients Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano. But he was a formidable adversary — he won his fight to restore funding to the 1989 show and in 1990 he successfully sued Wildmon for using portions of his work without permission in anti-NEA pamphlets.


For Wojnarowicz, art by its very nature was political. It exists in a system in which an artist’s output becomes a commodity sold to the wealthy as an investment or status symbol. When he finally achieved success at the Whitney Biennial, he was ambivalent about it. Nonetheless, because he needed the money he accepted a commission from art dealer and banker Robert Mnuchin, father of Steven Mnuchin, later secretary of the treasury in the Trump administration, to create an installation in Mnuchin’s basement. But to show his disdain for the buyer and the commodification of art in general he layered the densely allusive, apocalyptic composition with cockroach-infested garbage scoured from the streets of New York.

“Wojnarowicz” can be streamed via the Coolidge Corner Theatre’s Virtual Screening Room.

Go to coolidge.org/films/wojnarowicz.

Max Richter and the American Contemporary Music Ensemble performed "Sleep" in New York City on May 6, 2018.
Max Richter and the American Contemporary Music Ensemble performed "Sleep" in New York City on May 6, 2018.PHOTO CREDIT: Mike Terry

While Wojnarowicz tried to change the world by waking people up, Max Richter and his partner Yulia Mahr attempt the same by putting people to sleep.

Natalie Johns’s documentary “Max Richter’s Sleep” (2019) showcases the magnum opus of the title, an eight-and-a-half hour, 204 movement Neo-Classical piece performed by soprano, synthesizers, and string ensemble. It is performed for supine audiences who are encouraged to doze off during the proceedings.

Johns follows the genesis of the piece and the hardscrabble careers of Richter and Mahr. During hard times when the couple were scrounging to pursue their ambitious projects Richter took up composing for movies, producing haunting scores for, among others, “Arrival” (2016) and “Ad Astra” (2019). The day job allowed him to put on costly, labor-intensive shows in such venues as the Sydney Opera House and the Cathedral of our Lady, in Antwerp.


But the focus of the film is the first outdoor performance of “Sleep,” which takes place from dusk to dawn in Los Angeles’s Grand Park. A blue-lit, womb-like void, it is filled with rows of cots in which strangers lie next to each other listening to Richter and his ensemble perform what he describes as “an eight-hour lullaby.”

The filmmaking is artful, offering well-edited glimpses of the city surroundings and aerial views of the eerie venue. The music, which sounds to my untutored ears like a fusion of Philip Glass, Brian Eno’s ambient albums, Indian ragas, and a switched-on Pachelbel’s Canon, is indeed lulling and serene. Composed in consultation with neuroscientist David Eagleman, the composition is designed to tap into the rhythms of the sleeping mind and to provide a pause in the tumult of everyday life.

“Things just speed up,” says Richter. “That, in a way, suits corporations. But does it suit individuals as well? I don’t know. So I wanted to make a piece that has an element of quiet protest about it [and to] step off the wheel and take stock.”

“Max Richter’s Sleep” can be streamed on MUBI.

Go to mubi.com/films/max-richter-s-sleep.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.