The David Wojnarowicz story was always about perseverance. Or no, not perseverance but courage, the courage to stare into the face of the abyss and report back on what he found. In the decade and a half before his death in 1992 at age 37 of AIDS-related complications, Wojnarowicz created a string of work — films, installations, writings — that is relentless in its evocation of life on the fringes (sexual, cultural, creative) and the revelations that exist, for both him and us, there.
“I had been drugged, tossed out a second story window, strangled, smacked in the head with a slab of marble, almost stabbed four times, punched in the face at least seventeen times, beat about my body too many times to recount, almost completely suffocated, and woken up once tied to a hotel bed with my head over the side all the blood rushed down into it making it feel like it was going to explode, all this before I turned fifteen,” Wojnarowicz explains in “Memories that Smell Like Gasoline,” an artist’s book that came out just a few months after his death, tracing in one headlong sentence the brutality he went through as a teenage street hustler in 1970s Times Square.
It was both the tragedy and the triumph of his existence — an existence deftly rendered in Cynthia Carr’s “Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz,” which came out last summer — that he had no choice but to transform these experiences into art, not transcending them but engaging them, in the most literal way imaginable holding their gaze.
That sense of focus, of not quite equanimity but awareness, resides at the center of “7 Miles a Second” (Fantagraphics: 68 pp., $19.99), the graphic novel, newly reissued and expanded, on which Wojnarowicz collaborated with artist James Romberger during the last years of his life. Like “Memories That Smell Like Gasoline,” or his searing 1991 memoir, “Close to the Knives,” it is steeped in the personal, and yet to read it only through that filter is to miss the point.
Rather, what Wojnarowicz is after is a kind of shorthand, an urgency stirred by the virus in his blood. “Sometimes I don’t think about this disease for hours,” he writes. “But each day’s dose of medicine, or the intermittent aerosol Pentamidine treatments, or the sexy stranger nodding to me on the street corner reminds me in a clearer than clear way that the virus’ activity is forever.”
Infection, in other words, became his language, his vernacular, his strategy for thinking about the world. “I wake up with intense nausea,” he observes, “feeling wet like something from my soul, my memory is seeping out the back of my head into the pillow.” This, he wants us to recognize, is what art is: These traces, sweat on a pillow, residue that we leave behind until it too evaporates.
Part of the power of Wojnarowicz’s work is that he dealt with such concepts accessibly; he didn’t have time to waste. It was the source of his restless imagination, his willingness to experiment with unexpected forms.
“7 Miles a Second” is a case in point, originally published by DC/Vertigo in 1996, at a time when graphic novels didn’t have much cache. Yet this, one imagines, must have been part of the appeal for Wojnarowicz, the opportunity to work in a degraded medium, to use the mechanics of pop culture to get at the mechanics of the soul.
“And I’m carrying this rage, like a blood-filled egg and there’s a thin line between thought and action and that line is simply made up of blood and muscle and bone and as each t-cell disappears from my body it’s replaced by ten pounds of pressure,” he declares in a passage accompanied by a sprawling image of him, grown enormous, punching his way through Manhattan’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral, a symbol of the institutionalized hypocrisy he stood against. Here we see it, the immediacy and the anger, everything that’s inside him as it explodes.
This, of course, is the role of art, or one of them — not to salve but to provoke. For Wojnarowicz, as for all of us, the central question was irresolvable: How do we reconcile our desire (need?) to escape with the reality that there is no escape, that we are bound by our deterioration, our inability to pierce the surface of the world?
And yet, if that suggests art is ultimately a futile gesture, it is also the only gesture we can make. It may be true, as William Burroughs once wrote, that we are “here to go,” but it is equally the case that we are here.
As for Wojnarowicz, he encoded such a conundrum directly into “7 Miles a Second”; it is the impulse that drives the book.
“My mind cannot contain all that I see,” he writes here. “I keep experiencing this sensation that my skin is too tight; civilization is expanding inside of me. Do you have a room with a better view? I am experiencing the x-ray of civilization. The minimum speed required to break through the earth’s gravitational pull is seven miles a second. Since economic conditions prevent us from gaining access to rockets or spaceships we would have to learn to run awfully fast to achieve escape from where we are all heading.”