The artist, whose name you either don’t know or worry you’ve mispronounced, left behind a body of work whose radiant fury is becoming more and more essential by the minute
David Wojnarowicz is the best artist, writer, photographer and thinker whose name you either don’t know, or worry you’ve mispronounced. He was a gay man, born at a time when this was against the law, was raised on the streets of New York, initially scraping together money through sex-work, later by working as an artist. His images are instant and violent, at once stark and baroque. His films are poetic and profane. Wojnarowicz writes like a cross between James Baldwin, William Burroughs, and Jean Genet, and absolutely deserves to be mentioned in the same sentence, and read seriously, ecstatically, widely, prophetically, and closely.
Before dying of Aids-related illnesses in 1992, aged only 37, Wojnarowicz had trekked across America, collaborated with Nan Goldin, Diamanda Galas, U2 and his one-time love Peter Hujar, picked fights with Keith Haring, and left behind a body of work whose radiant fury is becoming more and more essential by the minute. There’s no better starting point than his collection of essays, sex memories, travel journalism, dream diaries and manifestos Close To The Knives, which has just been reissued. It’s full of lines like “He was the kind of guy I’d rob banks for” and “when they invented the car, they invented the collision, and the darkness of what time leads the willing body into.”
Drenching its pages is a fury so focussed that if you read it in the right mood, it feels divine. Like, angels with burning swords divine, Zeus’s thunder divine. Rage is an easy emotion to feel, but a hard one to direct, and it takes a master to write well with that rage, let alone artistically, let alone politically. And this is not straightly political book, though it is a deeply political one. The things he wishes to overthrow are not just the president or the ruling party, or even the economic system. It’s the whole lot he wants to smite: money, the entire government, TV, advertising, every abusive father and every killer of buffalos, rapists, modern architecture, God, the mob. And lastly, by no means least, that absolute stinking disgrace we call Death, and every one of Them that has hastened one of Us towards its shitty claws.
Close To The Knives couldn’t have come at a better time. By which I mean, at a worse time.
“I will wake you up and welcome you to your bad dream”
Up until recently, you could kid yourself into believing that with Wojnarowicz’s death, the war that he fought, tooth and nail, was won. It’s 20 years since antiretrovirals slashed Aids mortality rates, at least for the wealthy and the western. The state of Arizona – which Wojnarowicz wrote beautifully about cruising in when doing such a thing was extremely dangerous – legalised same-sex marriage in 2014, along with the rest of the United States.
Yet a lot has changed in the last year. The dark that Wojnarowicz saw all around has risen again. In sickening parallel, a day after I read his account of his friend being gay-bashed with a bike chain in New York, I read about a Czech man who was beaten to death with a bike lock, part of a spate of post-Brexit violence.
He writes “I thought of the neo-Nazis posing as politicians,” and, well, SURPRISE! It’s literally like that now, but not even joking. “Hell is a place on Earth,” he writes at one point. “Heaven is a place in your head.”
He saw an earth poisoned and bloodied by the forces of authority and evil, and a void for a sky. And that feels a bit more realistic than it did on November the 7th.
“Since my existence is essentially outlawed before I even come into knowledge of what my desires are or what my sensibility is, then I can only step back from the arms of government and organised religion to walk from there to here.”
Like any old time prophet, David Wojnarowicz is fond of divine justice. He knows that the pendulum swings both ways. As Olivia Laing writes in the introduction of the reissued Close To The Knives, if Silence = Death, then Wojnarowicz knows in his bones that the opposite is true. Noise is life. And art is noise.
He was born in the middle of the last century, and spent the first half of his life in a country in which the agents of the system – who he sees as everyone from politicians to police officers to the pieces of shit who hang around on the street and beat up gay people for something to do – wanted to cause him grievous bodily harm because he loved and wanted men. The second half of his life was lived under the shadow of a virus, created by nature and spread through sex, whose cure was held-off by the same state whose apparatus had imprisoned and wounded him and so many like him.
Close To The Knives is written with an apocalyptic urgency, because he is himself both surviving a plague, and facing down his own personal armageddon. You read it like you’re sitting in a bus careening off a mountain, because that’s how it was for an author facing an inevitable, early, and horrifically unfair end. He didn’t live long enough to read articles in left-wing papers attacking LGBT rights in the wake of the election of a fascist, or see politicians talk of Legitimate Concerns About Immigration in the midst of a resurgence in the politics of ethno-nationalism. Evil exists, and there can be no compromise with the agents of it, he’s saying. Drown out the silence, he’s saying. This is a fight to the death.
“Surveying the scene before me, I wonder: what can these feet level? What can these feet pound and flatten? What can these hands raise?”
Wojnarowicz also knows that if violence is performed against love, and if a war is waged against our bodies, then the counter attack is neither love, nor violence, but some new, hardline, and extremely sexy combination of all of the above. Close To The Knives talks about freedom, fucking and fascism, and asks us to map their relations. It’s also a book about nature, the unfeelingness of the world and our need to split that void open.
There’s one sentence worth ending on: “If the cops roll up in their vehicle with their shotguns cradled and bolted between the front seats, and the design of their genes and gray cells makes it possible for them to put the guns on our bodies, then I can in that moment unfurl a screen that creates a horizon and landscape that is uninfected by the letters and words of "law" and pull out my weapon and defend myself from intrusive and disruptive actions.”
The first time I read that, I saw the words “cops,” “shotgun,” “weapon” and thought he was talking about reciprocal violence. But rereading it, I see “screen,” “horizon,” “uninfected by law,” “landscape,” and “defend.” He’s talking about something else, something harder, more complicated, and more radiant. Wojnarowicz is a filmmaker and his screen is a shield. A landscape that terrifies our foes like their guns terrify us. Protection, as wide as the horizon, that’s what we can offer each other. Perhaps that’s the heaven he’s talking about.
David Wojnarowicz’s Close To The Knives: A Memoir Of Disintegration is published by Canongate