More on Wojnarowicz

Although Teresa also decided to write about Wojnarowicz, I had originally intended to talk about this photo of his.

David Wojnarowicz, Untitled (Buffaloes), 1994. Source:

David Wojnarowicz’s “Untitled (Buffalo)” is one of the artist’s best-known works and perhaps one of the most haunting artistic responses to the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. The work depicts a herd of buffalo falling off a cliff to their deaths. The artist provides very little context for why and how the creatures got there. The work is in reality, a photograph of a diorama from a museum in Washington, DC depicting an early Native American hunting technique. Through appropriation of this graphic image, the artist evokes feelings of doom and hopelessness, making the work extremely powerful and provocative. Made in the wake of the artist’s HIV-positive diagnosis, Wojnarowicz’s image draws a parallel between the AIDS crisis and the mass slaughter of buffalo in America in the nineteenth century, reminding viewers of the neglect and marginalization that characterized the politics of HIV/AIDS at the time. 

Description of photo. Source:

This image is ‘ghostly’ in two ways. Firstly, the image itself depicts buffaloes jumping off a cliff, in black and white — all of which creates an ominous mood. As the description rightfully says, “the artist evokes feelings of doom and hopelessness.” Secondly, the fact that “[t]he artist provides very little context for why and how the creatures got there” further adds to the mood evoked since neither the source event for the image nor the context is properly explained. This ‘ghostliness’ also exists in Dream of Ding Village, since the narrator is the dead child.

It is interesting that both artists — in largely different contexts and probably uninfluenced by one another — decide to evoke a sense of ghostliness when depicting AIDS in their art, although quite different art forms. Besides the obvious reason that ghosts have a negative connotation, much like a disease does, AIDS in specific may remain dormant for a long time before emerging, as we see in Dream of Ding Village. This could be a possible explanation for the association of AIDS with ghosts — that the virus can remain invisible for long periods of time before appearing unexpectedly.

But then this begs the question: what do we win or lose by commenting on a certain phenomenon using a certain art form? Dream of Ding Village, as a novel, allows for various voices to be represented and creates venues for justification and explanation — What is AIDS? How does it play out in a certain village in China? And why so? What is the reason it was contracted? Is there anyone to blame? — all these questions are answered, explicitly or not, in the novel. Meanwhile, “Untitled (Buffaloes),” without any context, is quite jarring in itself, perhaps more so than a 300+ page novel. However, we tend to lose context, the point, and the answer to many questions that the photograph raises. And what does that imply for the goal the art aims to achieve? And is it the same goal?

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