Saturday, December 11, 2010

"Hell Is a Place on Earth. Heaven Is a Place in Your Head."

David Wojnarowicz (1954 - 1992) was a genius. 

His visual art merges an intense Pop-Art impulse with the bleak, necessary poetry of a letter written on death row:  every image he uses feels as if it has been looted from a primordial basement of consciousness, stock footage of cowboys and fetuses and astronauts and trains and dinosaurs and afternoon forests juiced up by desire and ingenuity, a need to let the world know there's another place to live, another way to see. 

In all the bull-shit surrounding the controversy at the National Portrait Gallery (New York Times Wojnarowicz piece), Wojnarowicz's accomplishments and originality are once again being crowded out by small-minded religious zealots and scaredy-cat arts administrators and writers, much like what happened to him in the late 80s and early 90s when his work was assailed by Donald Wildmon and Jesse Helms.  Wojnarowicz's place in the world became about "one of those artists" who got victimized by the government; I remember reading in an newspaper article back then that he was "Mapplethorpe Junior" in an offhand dis. 

The important thing to remember about Wojnarowicz is that he was working out his political and moral outrage through a sophisticated visual language and algebra:  a mythopoetic tapestry that appropriated substance and style from so many media and systems that the results were more than synthesis or collage:  his art, writings, videos, performances, sculptures, graffiti, and exhibits all became chapters in a dreambook about one person's search for truth in a universe constructed by small-minded zealots and scaredy-cat administrators.  He was trying to make a place for himself not in a careerist sense but in an existential one.  And his work has the heat and shine of that rapture.  He discovered a way to think beyond thinking.

In his book of essays, Close to the Knives: a Memoir of Disintegration, he writes:   "Hell is a place on Earth.  Heaven is a place in your head."  Every creative thing he did was evidence of this thesis:  he made a heaven out of all the crap.  He made 2 + 2 not just equal 5, but constructed a moral/poetic/spiritual/political 2 + 2 that equals a number that is impossible to write down.

Please don't remember Wojnarowicz as the center of some foolish battle about censorship, where everyone on "both sides" scream out platitudes.  Remember him as an artist capable of transcending such stupid binaries and literal-mindedness by insisting on his one true vision of the Heaven inside his own head.  In every work, he gives flesh and bone to that vision, and his dedication and discipline makes most other contemporary art seem just another part of the sad, dismal system Wojnaorowicz describes as "the One Tribe Nation," a culture of easy answers and easy outrage where everyone has his/her own place to be offended and/or blessed.  Wojnarowicz fought against that complacency by giving us the alternative:  greatness, succinct and true.     

I wrote a poem a few years ago about one of his pieces...

David Wojnarowicz

The mud got
Lush that last week
Before he croaked
And the trees started sprouting

A vagabond
Alive for about ten seconds
Created a dynasty

Take the fever
Of a five-year-old boy
And attach it to celluloid
All the sci-fi you can take
Boiled down to one

Two half-naked astronauts
Waking up in one another’s arms
Beside the sea

More images and information:  David Wojnarowicz.