david wojnarowicz: revisiting the legacy of the pioneering queer artist, writer and aids activist

As his blistering, autobiographical collection of essays Close to the Knives is reissued, i-D consider the profound influence of Wojnarowicz's work (from U2 covers to his iconic protest jacket), and its continued relevance today.

by La JohnJoseph
27 March 2017, 7:40am

In 1991, the year before his death, David Wojnarowicz published Close to the Knives, a memoir as murderous as it is erotogenic, as queer in form as it is in content. A collection of essays, diary extracts, interviews, and personal remembrances, the book showcases a life lived in dope holes, foster homes, and abandoned lofts, written with the fearful candour and maniacal devotion of a medieval mystic. Through the (relative) success of his artworks, Wojnarowicz was able to leverage himself out of the quagmire of sexual abuse and poverty he was born into, and became a prolific figure in the 1980s New York art scene, working across sculpture, painting, photography, and performance. It was from this vantage point, as a regularly exhibiting artist, the recipient of high profile funding and invitations to lecture, that he was able to represent the untouchables of his time, an undertaking which has arguably gone on to become his lasting legacy.

Wojnarowicz reached the peak of his notoriety as the AIDS crisis reached its own zenith. His work, and especially Close to the Knives, became a trenchant admonition against a society which allowed hundreds of thousands of people to die of the disease, wrongly believing that it could only be contracted by fags, whores and junkies, i.e. people who were considered expendable. His own life was curtailed at 37 by AIDS, and the fury with which he wrote of the death, upcoming, untimely, which was rapidly approaching him, still cuts to the bone. Even more so his immolating descriptions of the friends who were falling around him, leaving him to die in a field of the already dead. The images of protest he hammered out of his rage very quickly became seminal, and, in our own darkening moment, as our need for them grows stronger, they burn brighter still.

Undoubtedly you know Wojnarowicz's work, whether from the photograph of buffalos hurtling over a cliff that U2 picked up for a single cover, or the inescapable shot of the artist with his mouth sewn shut, an image that has been reworked ad infinitum by protesters, performance artists, and pop videos ever since. As recently as 2010 his work was making headlines; when the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. were forced under pressure from conservative protestors to remove his video piece A Fire in My Belly from display. His work retains its potency into the 21st Century, owing to the messianic combination of empathy and wild ire that burns up every page. Never has this felt more relevant than in our Trump-Brexit West, this moment in which it seems we may have finally woken up to the notion that a revolution will have to be built on compassion outside of single-issue politics as much as on a rage against the machine.

This is what we call intersectionality, the theory outlined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in the 1980s, which foregrounds the need to examine how different modes of discrimination interact within matrices of social power. As Olivia Lang notes in her introduction to the new edition of Close to the Knives, the book is studded with attempts by Wojnarowicz to acknowledge the disenfranchisement of people of colour. To make his white art fag reader cast off self-pity, and see that oppression also happens elsewhere, he writes of victimisation, "Sometimes it's a matter of thought, sometimes activity, and most times it's colour". This throbbing vein running through his writing, the insistence on seeing and being seen, creating a radical visibility for all those disposed, defines his enduring appeal.

We exist against a landscape of nebulous social media community standards, where allegedly humorous memes of rape and domestic violence can circulate freely, but pictures of female nipples cause accounts to be suspended, where an interminable parade of sexualised tweenage girls roll by unremarked upon, but a gay character in a Disney movie stirs up a boycott. The culture wars around what should and shouldn't be seen online and IRL, are reaching fever pitch, and so Wojnarowicz' work seems ever more vital. As the EU allows employers to refuse Muslim women the right to wear headscarves, as gay Afghan asylum seekers are deported with the advice to not 'act gay', as 13 US states seek to introduce 'bathroom bills', and hate crime in the UK is up 140% since May, could it be any clearer that our ability to exist, and to represent ourselves how we choose, is very much at stake?

Close to the Knives opens with the image of an eyeball pierced by a shard of glass, and from there on, motifs of eyes in and out of sockets, bloody and metallic run. Likewise the continuous relocation of the writer's point of view, looking at himself, at the horror of homophobia, racism, state enabled addiction, and eviscerating poverty all around him from outside, from above, from outer space even. He considers injustice constantly and makes us acknowledge it.

There's a picture of Wojnarowicz at a protest, taken from behind, his head fittingly cropped out. He's wearing a jacket which reads, "If I die of AIDS -- forget burial -- just drop my body on the steps of the F.D.A.". Ultimately he did die from the disease, but not before throwing everything he had at the cardinals, politicians, and televangelists who wilfully allowed AIDS to become a global pandemic. His fight, his death even, made him an icon of resistance; his work, centralising his queerness and working-classness, continues to prove empowering for people whose everyday existence is a struggle against violent erasure. This is not to say he's a Romantic hero of uplift, but instead, as Sholem Krishtalka notes in the essay David Wojnarowicz Gets it Better, "It offers no hope, and yet is not nihilistic". Rather Wojnarowicz is a pragmatic martyr, and he writes, "People have found it necessary to define their sexuality in images, photographs, drawings, and movies in order not to disappear". The integrity and compassion with which he defined himself, has ensured that his work has anything but disappeared. In fact it is more relevant than ever.

Close To The Knives by David Wojnarowicz, reissued by Canongate, is out now. La JohnJoseph is reading at A Celebration of David Wojnarowicz at the Horse Hospital in London on 30 March.


Text La JohnJoseph