When I was little, I used to steal communion from church. I didn’t break in or anything, I just palmed the thin wafer rather than swallowing it. To this day I’m not entirely sure why I did it. Perhaps I wanted to examine it, the beating heart of Catholicism, without the pomp and circumstance of Mass. By reenacting the Last Supper, Christians remember Christ’s promise to die for their sins and to hence give them a shot at everlasting life. Due to the tenet of transubstantiation, Catholics believe the bread and wine are really transformed into the body and blood of Christ. Thus, was I able to examine this so-called savoir in the privacy of my bedroom, where he didn’t look so special at all. Like many queer people, I came to rebel against the Church for its sexual conservatism. My frustrations with the Catholic Church, however, pale in comparison to the queer fury directed against it at the height of the AIDS crisis, during which the Church stubbornly refused to question the “immortality” of homosexuality, abortion, safer sex education, and condom distribution. This rage is palpable in History Keeps Me Awake at Night, David Wojnarowicz’s retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.
Like the ACT UP protestors who interrupted Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York on December 10, 1989, Wojnarowicz struck back at the Church. Both ACT UP and Wojnarowicz upended conventional boundaries between the sacred and the profane, with an ACT UP activist desecrating a communion wafer by throwing it on the floor and Wojnarowicz covering a crucifix with ants. The subtitle of the above piece references an artist and friend of Wojnarowicz who died on August 10, 1988 at the age of 54 from complications due to AIDS, having been diagnosed the year before. Wojnarowicz’s death followed soon thereafter, on July 22, 1992 at only 37, after learning of his own diagnosis in 1987, the year his mentor and sometimes lover Peter Hujar succumbed to AIDS-related pneumonia.
Perhaps surprising due to his apparent hostility to Christianity, Wojnarowicz used Christian imagery and references constantly in his work. Wojnarowicz was with Hujar when he died on November 25, 1987, only ten months after the latter’s diagnosis. He was 53 years old. After Hujar’s death, Wojnarowicz asked the others present to leave the room so he could video record and photograph the body. The resultant photos have a serene and ethereal quality that recalls the death of Christ. Wojnarowicz focuses on the face, the hands, the feet, where Christ would have worn the crown of thorns and where the nails of his crucifixion would have pierced his body. In spite of himself, Wojnarowicz reaches for the religious when seeking to document the solemn, as if these two registers were actually one. Like Christ, Hujar, as well as Thek and Wojnarowicz, were needless sacrifices, condemned in one case by the nonaction of Pontius Pilate and in the other by the nonaction of the US government. Unlike Christ, none of these men would ever come back to life.
Even when Wojnarowicz lapses into quasi-religious gravitas, his wrath is never far away. In his “memoir of disintegration” Close to the Knives, Wojnarowicz screams, “WHEN I WAS TOLD THAT I’D CONTRACTED THIS VIRUS IT DIDN’T TAKE ME LONG TO REALIZE THAT I HAD CONTRACTED A DISEASED SOCIETY AS WELL.” Wojnarowicz refuses to wallow in his grief, instead sharpening it into a shank. In Untitled (Hujar Dead), Wojnarowicz’s portraits of Hujar are overlaid with a text documenting a transition from incredulity to mobilization and ultimately to fantasies of the violence the narrator wishes to commit against the non-interveners. Crowded along the edges of the text like a frame are sperm cells and dollar bills, a symbol of the primary mode of infection along with the money politicians refuse to allocate toward AIDS research and prevention: a devastating one-two punch.
The deeper we delve, the more complicated Wojnarowicz’s relationship with Christianity becomes. In a series of hagiographic works, Wojnarowicz idolizes personal heroes like the French writer Jean Genet, here crowned with a saintly halo. On the left, angels battle a solider with arms like tree trunks against a wartime background. To the right, Jesus shoots up, referencing the other primary method of serotransmission. Lawmakers repeatedly cited the supposed limitation of the disease to the “disposable” populations of fags and junkies in order to justify their nonintervention. At first glance this offers yet another example of Wojnarowicz as enfant terrible, happy to shove a stick into the angry beehive of the Catholic Church. But then again, we might alternatively interpret this heroin Jesus as suggesting that drug addiction was a struggle on which Christ would have mercy. Wojnarowicz points out the hypocrisy of Christians who choose to selectively apply certain precepts, such as isolated injunctions against homosexual sex, over and against the overriding message of love and forgiveness espoused throughout the New Testament.
Love should have provided a clear bridge between the queer and Christian worlds, but instead of using love to unite, the Christian right used it to divide, creating hierarchies of “love” which elevated heterosexual monogamous intercourse in the missionary position above all other forms of intimacy. Nevertheless, there has historically been a long association between Christianity and homoerotic desire. Consider Saint Sebastian, an early Christian martyred in 288 CE during the last major push to eradicate Christianity from the Roman Empire. Despite the popularity of depicting him tied to a tree and shot with arrows, according to legend Saint Sebastian recovered from these wounds, only to die thereafter by clubbing. A handsome, semi-nude youth, Saint Sebastian was for much of Western art history one of the only religiously sanctioned opportunities to explore the male body. In Wojnarowicz’s rendering, an image of the Japanese writer Yukio Mishima masturbating is superimposed on Saint Sebastian, a reference to the author’s description of his first masturbatory experience, initiated by a Renaissance painting of the alluring saint. At the bottom of the scene, Peter Hujar lies in repose, as if oneirically dissolving the boundaries of this trinity. One of Wojnarowicz’s remarkable feats is how he’s able to interweave love and anger, two emotions we normally think of as opposites. In his searing prose, he imagines, what it would be like if, each time a lover, friend or stranger died of this disease, their friends, lovers or neighbors would take the dead body and drive with it in a car a hundred miles an hour to Washington DC and blast through the gates of the White House and come to a screeching halt before the entrance and dump their lifeless form on the front steps. Love at times calls for anger. Though he asserted the “Greatest Commandment” is “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (Matthew 22:39), Jesus also overturned the tables of the money changers, accusing them of turning the Temple into a “den of thieves.” At the core of Christianity lies the profound belief that God descended to earth to become one with his creation, born without sin but nonetheless capable of the full range of human emotion. It is this combination of the extraordinary and the ordinary that I pondered as a child, turning over a brownish disc of altar bread in my fingers, in search of its secret.