It never gets dark in Times Square. Sometimes I’d wake at two or three or four and watch waves of neon pass through my room. During these unwanted apertures of the night, I’d get out of bed and yank the useless curtain open. Outside, there was a Jumbotron, a giant electronic screen cycling perpetually through six or seven ads. One had gunfire, and one expelled a cold blue pulse of light, insistent as a metronome. Sometimes I’d count windows and sometimes I’d count buildings, though I never reached the end of either.

My room was on the corner of West 43rd Street and 8th Avenue, on the tenth floor of what had once been the Times Square Hotel. If I looked south, I could see the mirrored windows of the Westin. The gym was at eye level, and at odd hours I’d sometimes catch a figure churning circles on an exercise bike. The other window looked down onto a run of camera stores, bodegas, peep shows and lap-dancing clubs. It was a paradise of artificial light, in which the older technologies, the neon extravagances in the shape of whiskey glasses and dancing girls, were in the process of being made obsolete by the unremitting perfection of light-emitting diodes and liquid crystals.

I’d found the apartment the way I always did: by putting a plea on Facebook. It belonged to an acquaintance of an acquaintance, a woman I’d never met. In an email she told me that the room was very small, with a kitchenette and bathroom, warning me too about the traffic and the neon ads. What she didn’t mention was that the building was a refuge, run by a charity that rented out cheap single rooms to working professionals in addition to housing a more or less permanent population of the long-term homeless, particularly those with Aids and serious mental health problems. This was explained to me by one of the two security guards on the front desk, who gave me the white electronic card I needed to enter and exit the lobby and who took me up to the room to show me how to operate the locks. He’d just started the job, and in the elevator he told me about the building’s population, saying of things I might or might not see if we’re not worried about it you don’t need to be.

The halls were painted a hospital green and lit red and white by wall lights, ceiling lights and exit signs. My room was just big enough to fit a futon and a desk, a microwave, a sink and a small fridge. There were Mardi Gras beads hanging in the bathroom, and the walls were lined with books and toys. Reggae gave way to a baseball game through the thin wall, and outside crowds of people surged intermittently up from the subway at Port Authority.

I’d taken the room because it was cheap and because of a photograph I’d grown obsessed with that spring. It was shot a single block away in the summer of 1979 and shows a man standing outside the 7th Avenue exit of the Times Square – 42nd Street subway. He’s wearing a sleeveless denim jacket, a white T-shirt and a paper mask of Arthur Rimbaud, a life-sized photocopy of the famous portrait on the cover of Illuminations. Behind him a man with an Afro is jaywalking in a billowing white shirt and flared black pants. The shutter has caught him mid-bounce, one shoe still in the air. Both sides of the street are lined with big old-timey cars and cinemas. Moonraker is on at the New Amsterdam, Amityville Horror at the Harris, while the sign at the Victory, just above Rimbaud’s head, promises in big black letters rated x.

It’s The Deuce, of course: the old name for that stretch of 42nd Street which runs between 6th and 8th Avenue, and which was at the time one of the vice capitals of the world. In the 1970s the city of New York was almost bankrupt and beset by violence and crime. Times Square was populated by prostitutes, dealers, pimps and hustlers, and the old Beaux-Arts theatres had been turned into porn cinemas and cruising grounds.

What better place for Rimbaud? He looks entirely at home there, his paper face expressionless, the gutter glinting at his feet. In other images from the series, which is entitled Arthur Rimbaud in New York, he shoots heroin, rides the subway, masturbates in bed, eats in a diner, poses with carcasses at a slaughterhouse, and wanders through the wreckage of the Hudson piers, lounging with outstretched arms in front of a wall spray-painted with the words the silence of michel duchamp is overrated.

The photographs are black and white, beautifully composed silver gelatin prints. Though their setting is recognizably New York, they seem to report from some decaying dream city, a mythic place of violence and danger. In the 42nd Street shot a single silhouetted hand protrudes from Rimbaud’s side. Someone’s crossing behind him, at once captured and effaced. At the end of the road the sky glows mercury white, enshrouding the furthest buildings in a misty, apocalyptic light.

The character of Rimbaud was played by various men, but the series was conceived, orchestrated and shot in its entirety by David Wojnarowicz, a then-unknown New Yorker who would in a few years become one of the stars of the East Village art scene, alongside contemporaries like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and Kiki Smith. I’d encountered Wojnarowicz by way of my friend, the film-maker Matt Wolf, and had spent the past few months immersed in the extraordinary body of work – paintings, installations, films, photographs and books – he produced before dying of Aids in 1992, at the age of thirty-seven.

Rimbaud was his first serious project. In an interview years later he talked about its origins, saying, ‘I’ve periodically found myself in situations that felt desperate and, in those moments, I’d feel that I needed to make certain things . . . I had Rimbaud come through a vague biographical outline of what my past had been – the places I had hung out in as a kid, the places I starved in or haunted on some level.’

He wasn’t kidding about the desperate situations. His parents divorced when he was two, and for a time he and his two siblings were left in a boarding house, where they were physically abused. Their mother had custody, but when David was four or so the children were kidnapped by their father, an alcoholic sailor who worked on passenger ships. Ed took them to live with his new wife in the suburbs of New Jersey, in what David later described as the Universe of the Neatly Clipped Lawn – a place where physical and psychic violence against women, queers and children could be carried out without repercussions.

‘In my home,’ he wrote in his memoir, Close to the Knives, ‘one could not laugh, one could not express boredom, one could not cry, one could not play, one could not explore, one could not engage in any activity that showed development or growth that was independent.’ Ed was away for weeks at a time, but when he was at home he terrorized the children. David remembered being beaten with dog leashes and two-by-fours; remembered his sister being slammed on the sidewalk until brown liquid oozed from her ears, while neighbours pruned their gardens and mowed their lawns.

In the mid-1960s all three kids either ran away to or were dumped on their mother, who was living in Manhattan, in a tiny apartment in Hell’s Kitchen. Dolores was emotionally warmer than her former husband, but she was also erratic and struggled with the burden of raising her by now troubled children. At fifteen, David was turning ten-dollar tricks in Times Square, and by seventeen had left home entirely. He almost starved while living on the street. Later he’d remember his gums bleeding each time he smoked a cigarette. He never got enough sleep, either. Sometimes he’d spend the night on the roof of buildings, curled against the heating vents, and in the morning would wake covered in soot, his eyes and mouth and nose filled with a choking black dust.

What did it mean, to go back to those places and insert Rimbaud into the landscape of his childhood, to have him stand impassively by the painted barrier where David used to lean as a boy, waiting for ageing men to buy his skinny, unkempt body? That double-edged word haunted kept tugging at me. I’d been thinking a lot that winter about why people make art, and what it means when it outlives them. About cities, too: their empty spaces, the things they hide. Who knows how time works? David died over twenty years ago, but some nights, lying in the oily glow of the Jumbotron, it seemed not only possible but certain that the Rimbaud he’d created was still at large in the streets beneath me, passing anonymously between the men who wandered like moths in and out of the peep-show lights.



I’d come to New York to visit the Wojnarowicz archive at Fales Library, which is housed inside the big Bobst Library at New York University. Each morning I walked forty blocks down Broadway and 5th to Washington Square, picking up a coffee on the way. It was unseasonably cold that spring, just as it had been unseasonably hot the year before. At the library I’d show my pass and take the elevator to the third floor, deposit my illegal pens in a locker and borrow a pencil to fill out a request sheet. Series i, Journals. Series viii, Audio. Series ix, Photographs. Series xiii, Objects.

Over the course of three weeks, I photographed thirty-eight journals, occasionally dislodging old menus and receipts. I watched six films, most of them unfinished. I wrote down dreams, and in the evenings, when I walked home, my mind would be filled with images that had surfaced long ago, in the looking glass of someone else’s mind. A beluga whale, drifting through grains and sheaves of light. A man shooting heroin on an abandoned pier, tumbling out of consciousness, limp and lovely as a Pietà, spit bubbling from his lips. Dreams of an underground lake, receding down a country road. Dreams of fucking. Dreams of horses. Dreams of dying tarantulas. Dreams of snakes.

For two full days I unpacked boxes of objects, each item loosely wrapped in crumples of white paper. There were boxes of figurines, boxes of Halloween masks and model cars, model guns, toy dinosaurs and armadillos. Some I recognized from films; some were so repulsive – a plaster cast of a tongue licking an ear, life-sized and painted a faecal green – that it was hard to bring myself to touch them. Others were so charismatic it took all my willpower not to slip them into my pocket. I kept taking photographs of a little wooden mask, its crude face calm, its surface stippled with leopard spots. The boxes formed a kind of artwork in their own right: a time capsule arranged around the missing presence of the artist.

Much of David’s work after his diagnosis is about disappearances of one kind or another. Maybe that’s a stupid thing to say, given the breadth and complexity of his art. But even a casual glance reveals things slipping out of sight, heading toward extinction. The ants in A Fire in My Belly, say, or the tiny frog in What Is This Little Guy’s Job in the World, sitting patiently in a giant human hand. His most famous photograph, which appears on the cover of U2’s One, shows a diorama of buffalo hurtling off a cliff. And the last thing he ever made was an image of his own face almost completely buried in dirt, his eyes screwed shut, his big teeth bared, like someone waiting for a blow to come.

He was diagnosed with ARC (a soon-to-be outmoded term meaning Aids-related complex) in the spring of 1988, a few months after his best friend – soulmate, former lover, teacher, surrogate father, surrogate brother – died of the disease, after a long and vicious illness. Peter Hujar was a famously brilliant, famously difficult photographer, and his protection and love helped David step aside at least a little from the burdens of his childhood.

He filmed the beluga whales in their tank at the Bronx Zoo a few days after Peter died, mixing them with Super 8 footage of his dead body lying in a spotted gown on a hospital bed. I’d watched it on one of the monitors at Fales. The camera sweeps up and down, settling on Peter’s beautiful hand, a hospital bracelet looped around his emaciated wrist. Later, there’s a re-enactment of a dream: a shirtless man being passed through a chain of shirtless men, his supine body slipping gently from hand to tender hand.

Peter’s was one death in a matrix of thousands of deaths, one loss among thousands of losses. It makes no sense to consider it in isolation. Between 1981 and 1996, when combination therapy became available, over 80,000 people died of Aids in New York City, most of them gay men, in conditions of the most horrifying ignorance and fear. Patients were left to die on gurneys in hospital corridors. Nurses refused to treat them, funeral parlours to bury their bodies. Politicians blocked funding and education, while public figures called for those with Aids to be tattooed with their infection status or quarantined on islands. Hardly any wonder David described being filled with rage like a blood-filled egg, or fantasized about growing to superhuman size and wreaking vengeance on those who considered his life and the lives of those he loved expendable.

In the archive, I watched Silence = Death, a documentary made by Rosa von Praunheim in the early years of the epidemic. David appeared repeatedly: a tall, rangy man in glasses, wearing a white T-shirt hand-painted with the words fuck me safe. He spoke in his deep, agitated voice about what it feels like to live with homophobia and hypocritical politicians, to watch your friends die and to know that your own body contains a virus that will kill you. Sometimes his words were overlaid against footage containing items now stored in the boxes I was working on. A rotatable globe, packed in tissue, Box 19.

What struck me, watching him speak – what, I suppose, had drawn me all the way across the Atlantic – was the intensity of his anger, the way he spoke up in all his work for those who were, because of their sexuality, because of the particularity of their desires, rendered voiceless and invisible. In an era in which people with Aids tended to be portrayed as helpless and isolated, dying wasted and alone, he refused the identity of victim. Instead, he set about explaining, in rapid, lucid sentences, how the virus revealed another kind of sickness, at work inside the system of America itself.

Like many East Village artists, among them Keith Haring, Zoe Leonard and Gregg Bordowitz, he was a member of ACT UP: a direct action group established in New York in 1987. ACT UP, which stands for Aids Coalition to Unleash Power, tackled multiple aspects of the crisis. Among their many actions, they protested the Catholic Church’s stand against safe-sex education in New York public schools and used sit-ins to force pharmaceutical companies to make medication affordable and to open clinical trials to drug addicts and women.

Before I left England, I’d gone to a screening of United in Anger, a documentary about ACT UP’s remarkable work by two of its surviving members, the writer Sarah Schulman and the film-maker Jim Hubbard. It was stitched together from contemporary footage, and every once in a while, I’d see David standing at the back of a protest, identifiable by his height and by the jacket that he wore, on the back of which was printed a pink triangle and the words if i die of aids – forget burial – just drop my body on the steps of the f.d.a. – a reference to the Food and Drug Administration’s failure to confront the epidemic.

One of the slogans chanted at those protests was I’ll never be silent again. Hearing it, I was flooded with memories of my first Gay Pride parade, sometime in the late 1980s. I’d been taken by my lesbian mother, with a hand-painted banner on a pillowcase. I must have been eleven, I guess. I’ll never be silent again. We’d just moved to Portsmouth from Buckinghamshire, after she’d been outed among the parents at the Catholic convent school I’d gone to all my life. I’d grown up in the closet, and though I didn’t know anything then about Aids, I knew how liberating it felt to be chanting about silence on Waterloo Bridge, part of a thousand-strong army of dykes and queens.

I’ll tell you what I did know. I knew what homophobia meant. I knew what even one person’s disgust at someone else’s sexuality could cost in terms of homes and jobs, security and peace of mind. But I was raised in the country, and almost exclusively by women. Aids was not an immediate part of our world. It sank in slowly.

I remember a boy wearing a badge saying love and passion is still in fashion I remember my grief when Freddie Mercury died. And then, as a teenager, it came into sharper focus. I remember reading Fucking Martin, and Derek Jarman’s diaries, sobbing with anger at the pointless grotesquery of his death. But I was lucky. I didn’t lose friends or loved ones. I’ve had several Aids tests in the last two decades, but I became sexually active after combination therapy, when, in the West at least, the worst of the plague years had ended.

As I worked my way through the archive, I kept thinking about what it means to be the generation that comes after, growing up with the knowledge that there are legions of missing persons, that one’s tribe is full of ghosts. What are our responsibilities? Are we witnesses or voyeurs to someone else’s incalculable losses? I don’t have answers to these questions, but I turn them over all the time.

Towards the end of my stay in the library, I ordered up David’s audio journals. Over the past few years I’d grown accustomed to picking through the most intimate papers of the dead, but nothing prepared me for the intensity of listening to those tapes. Many were recorded on waking, or in the middle stretches of the night. Often you could hear car horns and sirens, people talking on the street outside. Then David’s deep voice, struggling upward out of sleep. He talks about his work and his sexuality and sometimes he walks to the window, opens the curtains and reports on what he sees there. A man in the apartment opposite, combing his hair beneath a bare bulb. A dark-haired stranger standing outside the Chinese laundry, who meets his eyes and doesn’t break the gaze. He talks about what dying will feel like, about whether it will be frightening or painful. He says he hopes it will be like slipping into warm water, and then on the crackling tape he starts to sing: low plaintive notes, rising and falling over the surf of morning traffic.

One night, he wakes after a bad dream and switches on the machine to talk it out. He’s dreamt about a horse being caught in some train tracks, its spine broken, unable to escape. ‘It was very much alive,’ he says, ‘and it was just so fucking upsetting to see this thing.’ He describes how he tried to free it, and how instead it was dragged into a wall and skinned alive. ‘I haven’t the faintest idea what it means for me. And I feel horror and a very deep sadness about something. Whatever the tone of the dream carries it was just so sad and so shocking.’ He says goodbye then, and shuts the machine off.

Something alive, something alive and lovely caught and damaged in the mechanisms, the gears and rails of society. When I think about Aids, when I think about the people who have died, and the conditions they experienced, when I think about those who have survived and who carry inside themselves a decade of mourning, a decade of missing people, I think of David’s dream. When I cried while listening to the tapes, which I did periodically, surreptitiously wiping my eyes on my sleeve, it wasn’t just out of sadness, or pity. It was out of rage, that I lived in a world in which this kind of mass death had been permitted, in which nobody in a position of power had stopped the train and freed the horse in time.

If I say to you these names, if I say Peter Hujar, Arthur Russell, Klaus Nomi, Cookie Mueller, Derek Jarman, Jack Smith, Keith Haring, Robert Mapplethorpe, do you know who I mean? Multiply them by ten thousand. Now answer me this: how do we begin to calculate what we have lost?

 

It got colder and colder. One night, walking home at 2.30 in the morning, I saw a carriage horse bolting down a deserted 43rd Street. Another evening, I passed in the crowd on 42nd a man shouting to no one in particular New York! We’re drowning in colours! I grew accustomed to the repeating patterns of the neighbourhood: the camera stores, the shops that sold tchotchkes for tourists, the corner delis with their plastic tubs of tasteless tropical fruit. In the elevator at the Times Square Hotel, I stepped in and out of conversations. Two women interrogating a man with greased-back hair about Louis Vuitton bags. What colour you want? Black. When you going? She’s going in an hour and a half.

Every city is a place of disappearances, but Manhattan is an island, and to reinvent itself must literally bulldoze the past. The Times Square of the Rimbaud photo, the Times Square of David’s youth, had in the intervening decades undergone a drastic shift. The porn cinemas were long gone, replaced by corporate offices and high-end magazines. The Victory, which in the Rimbaud photo was screening X-rated movies, was now a gleamingly restored children’s theatre, while the New Amsterdam was owned by Disney and had shown nothing but Mary Poppins since 2006.

During the long, lit evenings, I pored over books about New York’s gentrification, and how it intersects with Aids. Sarah Schulman’s extraordinary polemic, Gentrification of the Mind, had just been published. In it, she explains how the thousands of Aids deaths freed up rent-controlled apartments in Manhattan to market rates, since at the time homosexual partners could not inherit leases, even of homes they’d inhabited for years. David did manage to cling on to Peter Hujar’s place, but only after a gruelling legal battle. And even then, he spent the last three years of his life being tormented by the developers transforming the Yiddish theatre downstairs into a multiplex. They damaged his possessions, flooded the apartment and filled the building with dust and noise.

It’s ironic that Manhattan is becoming a kind of gated island for the super-rich, when one considers that in the 1970s it was closer to a gated prison for the poor, its reputation as a danger zone exploited in the 1981 sci-fi film Escape from New York. The more I heard about its changes, the more I realized that the building I was staying in represented an anomaly, an anachronistic holdout against the march of the developers. The Times Square Hotel was at the time in the third of its incarnations, and its history encapsulated the neighbourhood’s uneasy accommodations between capital and enterprise, poverty and need.

Built like an art deco liner, with fifteen storeys and a marble ballroom, it opened in 1924, slipping over the decades from glamour to a faded gentility. By the 1970s it housed a long-term population of mostly elderly residents. In this period, homelessness had reached crisis point in New York City, and housing agencies began to employ hotels as temporary lodgings for the destitute and vulnerable. The Times Square became a welfare hotel, its empty rooms used to warehouse the overflow from the city’s teeming shelters. In 7 Miles a Second, a graphic novel about his childhood, David remembered times when he was forced to stay in such places, with rotting mattresses and doors sawed two foot from the floor, so any creep could crawl in while you slept. Even exhausted, he preferred the relative openness of the streets.

I don’t know if he ever visited the Times Square itself, but as a kid he certainly turned tricks in places like it. He wrote about them later: the middle-aged men who’d pick him up, the grubby little rooms they’d take him to. One time, the john made him watch another couple through a peephole in the wall. When the woman turned around he saw there were unhealed knife wounds all over her belly. In 7 Miles a Second, there’s a picture of her torso, coloured in inked swatches of red and pink and brown. ‘What really twisted my brain,’ kid David says, ‘was how that guy could fuck that woman’ – a hooker he recognized from outside Port Authority – ‘with those fresh wounds staring him in the face! Like he couldn’t conceive of pain attached to the body he was fucking.’

This is what the Times Square Alliance is supposed to have erased: the panhandlers, the hookers and hustlers, the damaged and hungry bodies. And yet, by some quirk, the hotel itself had run counter to the tide. By the 1990s it was virtually a no-go zone, teetering on bankruptcy and in violation of hundreds of housing, health and fire codes. For most buildings in the area, this spelled the beginning of gentrification: the relentless cycles of eviction, demolition and refurbishment. But the Times Square Hotel caught the eye of Rosanne Haggerty, a recent college graduate who became obsessed with restoring the building. Haggerty established the charity Common Ground and succeeded in turning the hotel into what is now the largest permanent supportive housing residence in America: a refuge for the vulnerable population it had once housed so precariously.

Every day I encountered people in wheelchairs and on crutches, people missing limbs, people with burns like brands running up their arms. It was recognizably the same world that David had inhabited. Though in time he lost some of his attraction to the chaos of street life, he remained attentive to its citizens, alert to the hurt and the dispossessed. His first book, Sounds in the Distance, is a collection of monologues recorded from people he encountered at one or two or three in the morning, out on the piers, or in dive bars, bus stations and coffee shops. In ‘Twenty-Year-Old Woman in Times Square’ a hooker talks about having her arms slashed by a trick with a knife. Look at this, she says. I fuckin wrapped them up but they haven’t stopped bleeding. He doesn’t objectify his people, but instead lets them speak for themselves, amplifying their voices into print. It’s not voyeuristic, I don’t think, but rather a raw, defiant way of bearing witness, to a larger and more perilous America than we like to think exists.

Times Square itself might have been sanitized, but the old street life was still going on around the margins. The archive was closed at weekends, and so I went for long walks around the neighbourhood, drifting through Midtown and Hell’s Kitchen and on to the wreckage of the Hudson piers. Most of those walks have melted into one another, but one remains distinct. It was St Patrick’s Day. In the morning Times Square was filled with drunken teenagers in green baseball caps, and I walked right down to Tompkins Square Park to escape them. By the time I turned for home it had begun to snow and the streets were almost deserted.

At Broadway and 39th I passed a man sitting in a doorway, crying. He must have been in his forties, with cropped hair and big cracked hands. I went over to ask if he was OK. He said that he’d been sitting there three days and not a single person had stopped to speak to him. He told me about his kids – I got three beautiful babies on Long Island – and then a confusing story about work boots. He showed me a wound on his arm and said I got stabbed yesterday. I’m like a piece of shit here. People throw pennies at me. It was snowing hard, the flakes whirling down. My hair was soaked already. After a while, I gave him five bucks and walked on. That night I watched the snow falling for a long time. The air was full of wet neon, sliding and smearing in the streets. What is it about the pain of others? It’s not like it’s infectious, is it?

 

I’d come to the Wojnarowicz archive to see the Magic Box, but for two weeks I kept putting it off. It wasn’t until the Monday after St Patrick’s Day that I finally called it up. According to his boyfriend, Tom Rauffenbart, David kept the box under his bed at Hujar’s loft, never discussing its function or significance. It had its own subcategory in the finding aid. Series xiii, Subseries b, The Magic Box.

It was made of pine, the wood stained here and there with water. The sides read florida’s finest citrus in looping red cursive and the top said indian river citrus above a jolly frieze of cut oranges and sunbeams and distant orange groves. Someone had stuck a strip of masking tape above the trees, and written on it in crayon magic box.

I pulled on my itchy cotton gloves and slid the lid open. Inside, there was a jumble of objects, the sort of miscellaneous hoard you might find at a car boot sale or flea market stall. I lifted them out one by one, making messy, vaguely colour-coded piles across the table. A tin crocodile with a feather in his mouth. A river stone. A red plastic cowboy. A rose quartz, an unopened bag of toy bugs, a cotton snake, a crucifix. Dime beads, a Joker, an envelope of pesos. Fistfuls of necklaces, a glittery snowman in a top hat. Rings, penknives, a knuckle of malachite, a watch, some toothpicks, a plastic box of dried flowers and little shells and bones. Three model steam trains. Two grinning skulls with diamanté eyes. A watermelon key ring, its chain a little rusted. The curator came over then, and asked if I’d smelled inside. I stuck my nose in. Musk and incense, cut with the lingering scent of oranges and cigarettes.

No one knows exactly what the Magic Box was for. An amulet, maybe. Some kind of protective spell against all the bad things that kept crowding in. Perhaps it was meant to exert a benign, calming influence, on the nights when David woke, heart pounding, convinced a serial killer was prowling through his room. It wasn’t just the disease that had him by the throat. Three years before he died, he got caught up in one of the most gruelling and public battles of the culture war. Some of his collages, which contained miniature photos of sexual activity, were used by the right-wing American Family Association as a way of discrediting the National Endowment for the Arts. In the end, David took the AFA to court for taking his images out of context, winning a landmark case about how an artist’s work can be reproduced and used.

I’d read his testimony from the trial. He talked with an intense eloquence about his paintings, explaining the context and meaning of all their intricate parts. In addition, he addressed the use of explicit imagery in his work, telling the judge, ‘I use images of sexuality to deal with what I have experienced, and the fact that I think sexuality and the human body should not be a taboo subject this late in the twentieth century. I also use images of sexuality to portray the diversity of people, and their sexual orientations, and one of the biggest reasons I feel uncomfortable about the idea of the human body being a taboo subject is that, had the human body not been a taboo subject in this decade, I might have gotten the information from the Health Department, from elected representatives, that would have spared me having contracted this virus.’

The human body: that imperfect, desiring, desirable, wounded object. In his memoir Close to the Knives, he elaborated on this train of thought, writing:

I discovered making things meant leaving evidence of life behind when I moved on. Making things was like leaving historical records of my existence behind when I left the room, or building, or neighborhood, the state and possibly the earth . . . as in mortality, as in death. When I was a kid I discovered that making an object, whether it was a drawing or a story, meant making something that spoke even if I was silent. As an adult, I realize if I make something and leave it in public for any period of time, I can create an environment where that object or writing acts as a magnet and draws others with a similar frame of reference out of silence or invisibility . . . To place an object or writing that contains what is invisible because of legislation or social taboo into an environment outside myself makes me feel not so alone; it keeps me company by virtue of its existence. It is kind of like a ventriloquist’s dummy – the only difference is that the work can speak by itself or act like that ‘magnet’ to attract others who carried this enforced silence.

There are many things I could say about the Magic Box. I could say that it seemed to me, like much of David’s work, to form a kind of occult counter-history of America, packed with the ritual objects of its rival tribes. I could say that when I opened it, I remembered the persistent myth that Manhattan Island was bought from the Canarsie Indians for a box of beads and other trinkets, and that I sometimes wondered about the kind of city the Magic Box might purchase. I could say that when I’d unpacked all the objects, I looked at them and felt, for the hundredth time that month, sick with rage that this courageous, sexy, radical, difficult, immensely talented man died at the age of thirty-seven. But none of these statements would tell you how it felt to see the things that David had assembled, in the face of his own oncoming death. They settled in my heart, as I expect they have settled in the heart of everyone who’s seen them.

Here: you can have them too. Take them as a spell against silence, a prophylactic to repel prejudice. Tin crocodile, river stone, red plastic cowboy: a talisman to ward off fear, to cast out shame. It’s still here, I guess is what I’m saying. Against the odds, you can still touch it.

 

Image © David Wojnarowicz, Arthur Rimbaud in New York (Times Square), 1978-79/2004, courtesy of P.P.O.W Gallery, New York 

The Defeated
Thank You for Having Me