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Out and About: Gazing at Maps

A look back …

David Wojnarowicz History Keeps Me Awake at Night

Whitney Museum, July – September 2018


Gazing at Maps

by Alex Pekov

I read all the text. From the artist’s words on canvas to every comment and explication by the curators of the Whitney Museum’s exhibit on David Wojnarowicz History Keeps Me Awake at Night. Usually a process I find too laborious, even partly destroying my viewing pleasure, the text drew me in. I took photos of the texts, re-read them away from the exhibit, and even while writing this reflection. I attempted to interrogate the interplay of the textual and the visual that seems to be already considerably pronounced in Wojnarowicz’s collages, and peripherally think about the ways in which my viewer’s aesthetic sensorium gets both predisposed and mediated by the curatorial meta-text. I am also deterritorializing the text, moving it out of place and into my own fields of work, perspective, and reflection. This is a central topic of the Wojnarowicz’s work — de- and reterritorialization of assaulted and mutilated materials and bodies of various sorts, qualities, origins, and magnitude.

Consider the individual bodies of gay men in Wojnarowicz’s work that are re-territorialized as collective, national, global, real and oneiric ones. It is hard to overlook the presence of different variations of corporeality in Wojnarowicz’s works. I tend to interpret a vast number of the nudes of young men having sex (oftentimes described in the explications as pornographic) as a collective gay male body, an entire (counter)space of gay eroticism as an organic, vital, simultaneously life-asserting and self-endangering resistance to the AIDS epidemic in the United States. The peril of extinction hovers not merely above a certain individual (i.e., an artist dying from an incurable disease), but is instead accentuated as targeting the entire community (cf. the recurrent image of target in his works and that of a gunman pointing his weapon at the viewer).


David Wojnarowicz, When I Put My Hands on Your Body (1990).

All images take by the author at the Whitney Museum, no rights claimed.

So macabre a thanatology especially stands out in his work When I Put My Hands on Your Body (1990), which represents a photo of skeletons on a Native Americans’ burial site at Dickson Mounds, layered with Wojnarowicz’s own text about loss, inspired, as the explication contends, by “his own mortality and the deaths of many whom he loved.” The author daringly superimposes the dispossession and genocide of the Native Americans/Amerindians with a gradual disappearance of another tribe and minority. In this work, like in others discussed here, the text invades, expands, and complicates the temporality of the original still image—the title-giving opening sentence gives access to the pre-history—literally, archaeology—of the decomposed, hollowed out bodies in the durative present tense of the snapshot.

The artist chose to barely highlight the text’s lines that merge with the background, almost disappear (remarkably, the very word disappear at line 4 as if fades away precisely in this fashion), and become illegible in the photo’s most intensively lit up parts. Wojnarowicz potently demonstrates how Native Americans’ past attains an eerie synonymity with a possible futureless-ness of the gay community, if not the entire technocratic Western civilization steeped in extractive capitalism and responsible for a gradual destruction of the planetary body, already mutilated by the self-replicating map of the US that ultimately annihilates the Earth’s real continents and their biological, but also ethno-cultural, diversity.


left: David Wojnarowicz, The Newspaper as National Voodoo: A Brief History of the U.S.A. (1986)

right: David Wojnarowicz, The Death of American Spirituality (1987)

The exhibition is replete with images evoking the Indigenous cultures of the Americas and Africa, such as deities and fetishes, voodoo dolls, and alike (cf. The Death of American Spirituality, History Keeps Me Awake at Night). To my impression, Wojnarowicz seeks to pose these as signifiers of an alternative—mythopoetic—ecology and native historicity, which, however, populate his dreamscapes rather than some concrete topography. He thus enables a radically alternative indexicality of maps—the epistemological backbone of modernity ever since the Great Explorations, a sine qua non of later-ensuing settler-colonialism—by frustrating their correspondence to the diverse inhabited and pristine regions of the oikumene. An oftentimes nightmarish dreamwork, as Wojnarowicz states, provocatively dislodges the West’s worldview and the colonizer’s gaze. In each of these works, the main tension occurs between the organic and the man-made, nature and culture, the overwhelmingly non-human biosphere with its “little guys,” including ants and frogs, and the suffocating anthropocene of a largely suicidal humanity. Scars, cuts and fissures on the skin versus the countless crevices on the Earth’s body as a result of industrial intervention, re-stitching (as in his iconic work featuring a loaf of bread and the knitted lips) indeed serve as recurrent motives and conjure up an incredibly dense semantic field of trauma, which translates from Greek as wound.


David Wojnarowicz, What Is This Little Guy’s Job in the World, 1990

I read two works in particular against each other through Wojnarowicz’s ego-ecology. What is This Little Guy’s Job in the World comments on the relationship of human and non-human living bodies as opposed to the world of indifference (or, probably, world’s indifference) by bringing the two into one common frame via touch, an almost protective and caring holding. A staggering visual contrast in the sheer size of these life forms, their dimensional incommensurability is virtually alleviated in the textual comment, a soliloquy about the “little guy’s” capacity to leave his mark on this earth, and at the moment of dying become transubstantiated post mortem as the reason of a little kid’s awakening from a bad dream, for all these questions haunt the one whose gigantic hand embraces the little being. The two equally and inevitably face the same conundrum—that of their own finitude.


David Wojnarowicz, One Day, This Kid, 1992

I discern a feeble echo of this work in One Day, This Kid, not in the least by virtue of the resonating titles. Both pieces reflect on everyone’s unique coming into the world, an eventual departure, an enduring hope of vestigial presence in the form of a however tiny impact at the planetary scale (cf. “What shifts if this little guy dies?”). In this mesmerizing and pain-stricken retrospective of his biographical future, unfolding in the shadow of homophobia, anti-gay violence, the medical surveillance of gay and queer bodies and “correction therapy,” susceptibility to AIDS, religious fundamentalism and state-sanctioned violence, Wojnarowicz explores the future in the mode of an inexorable one day, as a terrifying terra incognita from the viewpoint of the little kid who will be eventually confronted with the many inflections of vulnerability due to his sexual identity alone. The stark contrast of the smiling schoolkid and his relegation to a gloomy, yet unknown, future which shall break out from the awakening of his sexuality onwards is unsettling. Through the overlapping of autobiographical and communal temporalities, I argue that Wojnarowicz narrates his individual trauma in the context of the community’s life, for this kid’s experience-to-be—[…] desire[s] to place his naked body on the naked body of another boy”—is doubtless generic, even if the viewer peers into a concrete, embodied, yet, remarkably nameless individuation thereof.

Wojnarowicz takes recourse in diverse types of dislocated corporeality, equally porous and vulnerable, be it a gay man’s body under the threat of violence and imminent death from AIDS, the planetary body under the ongoing assault of extractive capitalism, or the Indigenous body annihilated by settler-colonialism, to name a few. In his multilayered dream-works, Wojnarowicz gestures toward a mythopoetic ego-ecology which starts to signify at the intersection of multiple struggles, i.e. anti-colonial, anti-capitalist, that of the LGBTQI+ movement, and social justice, inviting a plethora of gazes to study the maps.

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