Book of a lifetime: Close to the Knives, By David Wojnarowicz

 

In 1989 Barry Blinderman brought the New York artist, writer and activist David Wojnarowicz to Illinois State University for a solo exhibition, "Tongues of Flame". The artist stayed in Normal to work. He liked the town, and there was some irony in the idea that a man whose work and sexuality had been used as fuel to a nasty political debate would find peace in a place called Normal.

During that time I was working with a group of artists called Haha. One of the group, Wendy Jacob, was teaching at the university, which meant that her path regularly crossed with Wojnarowicz's. Earlier in 1989 a group of right-wing US senators attacked the National Endowment for the Arts for funding an exhibition curated by Nan Goldin called "Witnesses Against Our Vanishing". Senator Jesse Helms, among others, was particularly unhappy with the brochure. The artists and writers gave testament to their experiences of HIV/AIDS: the document is at turns fierce, uncompromising and frank. Wojnarowicz's work drew particular ire.

Wojnarowicz was more than able to combat people like Helms. His writing (collected in Close to the Knives) can be direct and brutal; even now it hurts to read it. Helms et al were unsuccessful in their attack because no public funding had been used to publish the brochure - and further trouble lay ahead. When the catalogue for the Normal exhibition came out, someone complained about the explicit materials, and the fire started again.

Wojnarowicz gave a reading at the gallery, and we drove from Chicago to hear him. It was simply a man and his words, and those words were exceptionally beautiful. It's almost impossible to remember how bad that period was, not only in terms of the deaths, and the nature of those deaths, but also the bitterness with which people with HIV/AIDS and those supporting them were attacked. It's almost impossible to stress how important Wojnarowicz's voice was, and remains.

After the reading we went back to Blinderman's house, and I met Wojnarowicz. I talked with him for a long time, but I don't recall the conversation. I think he was very patient, as I was such a fan. It meant the world to me to hear him speak. His writing is exceptional, clean and clear. The rhythm is something else, and that makes this work soar. "In loving him, I saw men encouraging others to lay down their arms… In loving him, I saw great houses being erected that would soon slide into the waiting and stirring seas. I saw him freeing me from the silences of the interior life."

Richard House's 'The Kills', long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, is published by Picador

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