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David Wojnarowicz, Brush Fires in the Social Landscape
"Untitled (face in dirt)", 1990. Gelatin-silver print. 19 x 23 in© the Estate of David Wojnarowicz, Courtesy P.P.O.W Gallery, New York

David Wojnarowicz and Nan Goldin go head-to-head

Read an exclusive excerpt from the late artist and activist’s Brush Fires in the Social Landscape as we celebrate its 20th anniversary

It has been 20 years since the first edition of Brush Fires in the Social Landscape, the seminal book by iconic New York artist and activist David Wojnarowicz. Originally released three years after his death in 1992 from Aids-related complications, this poignant publication convened some of the most prominent artists of his era to illuminate his photographic legacy and unique ability to see beauty in the thick of ugliness.

Wojnarowicz escaped his abusive New Jersey childhood for the gritty whirlwind of the downtown New York art scene in the 1970s. Through painting, photography, filmmaking and performance, he spent the next two decades shining a bright light on the repressed and underrepresented, laying bare a city riddled with homophobia and stifling fears of the rampant Aids epidemic. In the process, he became a beacon for his generation.

This sensibility for the weird and outlandish – always portrayed with abundant affection – brought him close with another, equally provocative and influential photographer, Nan Goldin. The pair became longstanding friends and collaborators, a genius artistic union celebrated in a new anniversary edition of Brush Fires released by Aperture Foundation this month. Alongside contributions from the likes of Fran Lebowitz and Kiki Smith is an intimate conversation between Wojnarowicz and Goldin that sees them go head-to-head to discuss sex, self-destruction and the redemption in emotional connections. Here we preview an exclusive excerpt.

Nan Goldin: You wrote in one of your books about that line between you and self-destruction. And how you were standing on one foot, with one foot over the line.

David Wojnarowicz: I talk about that scene. I write a lot about what it means to come back from self-destruction. Essentially every person I’ve been friends with has been a fighter of some kind. And they are people that have made this world worth living in. Their sensibilities are what give me comfort in my life. So to see people come back from drugs or other compulsive behaviours, people who are fighting their way back from that... There are not many things that I can say I’m really happy about in my life, but I really love seeing those people come back, and I feel like what they’re coming back to do is to confront the state all over again, in a way that’s not self-destructive to them.

Nan Goldin: How do you manage to look head-on at all this stuff? What I feel about all your work and particularly your writing is that you go in with your eyes wide open, and you go as deep as you can. How do you feel safe enough to do that?

David Wojnarowicz: If something makes me uncomfortable, or scares me, or threatens me, I get really pissed off. I’m angry about feeling all this outside pressure that demands that I feel guilty or afraid. The only way I can stop that sense is to surround myself with that fear and get to understand its shape. And once I know its shape, then it can’t affect me. The only way I could survive all my life was to stick my fingers in it, even though I understood that to confront all this was somehow taboo. When I was younger I used to feel guilty that I looked at death, or that I looked at all that bad stuff around me and spoke of it. Even as a child, people would act like I was morose or weird.

Nan Goldin: You’ve said: ‘Hell is a place on earth and heaven is a place in your head.’ In reading your work that comes right through. I mean, I can’t avert my eyes any more, because of your text. But how do you walk down the street without averting your eyes?

David Wojnarowicz: I’ve done that since I was a kid. I remember trying to describe this to someone. And I said: ‘The two of us could walk down the street and you would probably notice the fresh begonias in the window up there, that drift of cloud on the right, that building and maybe this attractive person. And I would come away seeing the bum’s rotted feet, with the infections and the maggots and the stink and the smell, and I would come away with the full weight of what that block contained.’”

“I’ve been in rage all my life at this thing we call ‘society’” – David Wojnarowicz

Nan Goldin: And how do you translate that horror into something that you can live with? Through your writing?

David Wojnarowicz: Yeah. And I think it quickly develops into rage. I’ve been in rage all my life at this thing we call ‘society’.

Nan Goldin: You talk about this line between you and the mass murderer as being very thin, that each of us has that potential in us, and that we’re all capable of it. Do you feel in some way the book is your mass murder?

David Wojnarowicz: I’ve always wanted to write a book that really talked about the things I’ve seen in this country. If I could write a book that killed America, I would have done it.

Nan Goldin: Did you find that things were different when you moved to Europe?

David Wojnarowicz: I thought I’d live there for the rest of my life. I loved it. I mean, only ’cause a whole new collection of men were there. (Laughing) Boy, were they hot! But Europeans are practically crushed under the weight of their history. At least we are free to invent anything.

Nan Goldin: You write for relief from your own perceptions, but is it also because you think it’s important to leave a record? I think America is the land of revisionist memory.

David Wojnarowicz: Absolutely. My two biggest impulses for writing the books were: if some kid gets a hold of it and would feel less alienated, great. I really suffered as a teenager because I never had any indication that there was anything out there that reflected myself. But I also wanted to leave a record. Because once this body drops, I’d like some of my experience to live on. It was a total relief to have put words to what I put words to, an enormous relief.

Brush Fires in the Social Landscape is rereleased by Aperture Foundation