David Wojnarowicz by Amelia Abraham
Illustration by Elena Durey.
Amelia Abraham (b. 1991) is a journalist from London. Having worked as a commissioning editor at VICE and Refinery29, she is now writing freelance and working on her first book for Picador. Her main interest is LGBTQ culture and identity politics, and she has written for The Guardian, The Observer, The Independent, The Sunday Times, The New Statesman, ES Magazine, VICE, i-D magazine and Dazed & Confused.
David Wojnarowicz (14 September 1954 – 22 July 1992)
“I’m a prisoner of language that doesn’t have a letter or a sign or gesture that approximates what I’m sensing,” wrote the American artist, author and activist David Wojnarowicz, contradicting himself. The horror of the AIDS crisis left him without words, he often said, but it was also the motivation for his beautiful writing-as-protest and his Dali-esque images of decay. He needed to figure out a way to get what he was going through down on paper, so history couldn’t skip over it.
He succeeded; when I discovered his memoirs – Close to the Knives, published in 1991, and story collection Memories that Smell like Gasoline, published in 1992 (two of six books he wrote) – they seemed like the closest way that someone of my generation, born after the initial outbreak of AIDS, could possibly come to understand the impact it had. Shot through with rage, manic in their urgency, both books paint a terrifying picture of how the epidemic tore across the landscape of the New York City Wojnarowicz called home.
Knives opens with a portrait of the artist as a young man, a teenage Wojnarowicz on the streets of Times Square, selling his body for sex. Born in the New Jersey suburbs, he’d had a difficult childhood, suffering abuse at the hands of his father, and then running away to the city where he picked up men on the streets and the ripe cruising ground that was the piers on the Hudson river. Some of his early artworks depict this time too, like the photos of him in New York at night wearing a mask of the French poet Arthur Rimbaud.
He writes explicit vignettes of his sexual encounters in Knives; talking about how dangerous they felt in what was a violently homophobic social and political climate. At the time that AIDS hit and at the time of writing, American politicians like Senator Jesse Helms and well-known Christian fundamentalist leaders were publicly decrying AIDS to be a “gay virus”, sent to wipe out homosexuals. President Ronald Reagan ignored that it was happening. He didn't say the words “AIDS” until five years after the outbreak of the virus.
Meanwhile, Wojnarowicz’ friends were dying. In 1987, at the deathbed of his lover and mentor, the photographer Peter Hujar, Wojnarowicz took 23 photographs of the corpse, to create a record of the destruction. In his mind, although the impact of AIDS was something there was no language for, the government’s silence over it needed to be counteracted. Reagan's inaction meant no funding to find an appropriate “cure”, a tragedy Wojnarowicz termed “government sponsored genocide”. He allowed his experiences to politicise him, to be publicly angry; "If I say I am homosexual, or "queer" does it make you nervous?" he wrote in Knives, bitterly.
Today, it’s been 25 years since AIDS-related illness took Wojnarowicz’s life and he is still regarded as the one of the main voices of political resistance from a time when hundreds of people were dying from AIDS each week in New York City. You can watch his film (A Fire in My Belly) on YouTube, and Canongate have republished Close to the Knives with an introduction from the writer Olivia Laing, who calls it "A book of a lifetime, my book for these dark times, an antidote to stupidity, cruelty and oppression of all kinds."
While he was a brilliant performer, and a vital activist, my favourite thing about Wojnarowicz remains the way in which he writes. Loose in structure, you can dip in and out of his books – open the pages wherever you please and you’ll still get the full effect. The imagery is like camera work, panning, zooming in, or out into a bird’s eye view. He writes like Jack Kerouac, fast-paced, often without punctuation. He was in a rush, and he knew that – as a HIV-positive man – documenting and making art was the only way to live on beyond a certain and close-impending death. “Smell the flowers while you can,” he would write, over and over, like he couldn't believe what was happening.
Illustrator Elena Durey is an queer Irish illustrator, currently studying BA (Hons) Illustration in sunny Falmouth and would like to meet your dog.