When I Put My Hands On Your Body. An Intimate Encounter with David Wojnarowicz’s Archive by Tess Charnley

‘Intimacy’ is something we have been thinking about in the Art Histories recently; the intimacy of love and a love for art’s objects, and the intimacy we forge with certain ideas. Of course, making engenders a particular kind of closeness with the materials we use; the hand and eye’s special knowledge of material qualities and ‘the shape of things’ is what most art making depends on. But there is also an unquestionable intimacy in the love we have for art made by others. We often love and sometimes fall in love with the objects of art – and it is through our fidelity to that love that we discover something new about those objects, but also something new about ourselves. Research, when it is done well, is arguably an expression of love, which goes some way to explain why the madness of spending all weekend in bed with a book of theory or flying half way round the world just to see an exhibition, visit an archive or hear an artist talk, can feel so right. Writing about art is also an intimate affair, and good art writing can read like a love letter to the art objects of our desire.

I met with Tess Charnley at the Art School soon after she had got back from New York. We sat in the school’s café, and over coffee and cake, spoke about love and intimacy and the gut-felt longing one can have for art’s many things. Tess told me about Wojnarowicz and his death and the complex relationship she has with him. After our meeting Tess wrote the following brilliant and beautiful text and kindly suggested that we publish it here for others to read. For me, When I Put My Hands On Your Body embodies so much of what good art writing can be – it is intimate and honest and longing for something that ultimately can’t be found.

Tom Groves



When I Put My Hands On Your Body

 It was a March day in New York last year, wild with snow. Having spent two days schlepping from closed museum to closed museum, drawing time in cafes and bars, I was jet-lagged and uneasy. I had travelled from London to be in his archive, to follow an interest that I couldn’t seem to satiate at home, and everything was shut. It seemed fitting, considering his fascination with the elements, that this should be what stood between us. But on that Thursday morning, the snow was greying on the pavement as the city began to thaw.

Archives are strange places. They are imbued with so much time; the sense of time that comes with preservation, the time of a life, the time consumed by research. It’s a lot of pressure. Almost like going to meet someone with whom you have been talking online for weeks; you’ve forged a mediated intimacy and now it’s time for the real thing. You can’t know how much a person really turns you on until you sit with them, calculating how many centimetres you would have to move for your skin to be on theirs.

My fascination with David Wojnarowicz began in November 2017, when I first encountered one of his photographs in a small seminar room. The image was of Peter Hujar, his friend, mentor, and few times lover, shot moments after his death from AIDS. The photograph reeked of death and I felt an immediate kinship with Wojnarowicz. It made me dizzy. I hadn’t realised that death looks the same worn by most. The image led me stumbling from the room, propelled backwards again. For weeks, the photograph bounced around my consciousness, the face of its subject interchangeable.

The more I learnt about him, the more my interest grew. He was a writer, a painter, an activist. He died of AIDS. Also, he was sexy; in his descriptions of cruising the Hudson River piers, in the fury of his writing, in the cigarette dangling from his lips and the drawl of his voice. I thought about him incessantly and wrote about him sporadically. I still do.

His archive at Fales is extensive. It includes phone logs, letters, photography, video and reams of journals which he kept predominately in blue linen books with black spines, worn from hundreds of hands like mine. These journals were digitised in 2013 and so I have already scrutinised them from a distance, trying to work him out. But now I am here with dozens laid out before me, my skin reddening despite the snow outside. My ears are hot and I’m aware of a bead of sweat making its way down my arm. It’s a feeling I’ve never had without a man sitting across from me.

Often writing without punctuation, there is an urgency to Wojnarowicz’s words; onomatopoeia for his activism. But the journals are also eccentric and eclectic. Full of drawings; receipts; an old menu from a Chinese takeaway. And here is the magic of the archive. Touching his pages, seeing the way his pen has dented the paper, pulling out the menus, the receipts… Turning over a letter from Peter Hujar’s doctor with his AIDS diagnosis that Wojnarowicz has illustrated with a drawing of two men kissing, to see that his pen has bled through to the other side – the lasting image an intimate embrace.

The main thing I am here to see is the Magic Box. Found under his bed after his death, the Magic Box, an old wooden fruit box with ‘Magic Box’ written on masking tape on its exterior, houses fifty eight objects. According to his biographer, Cynthia Carr, no one knew of the box’s existence while he was alive and it is only once alluded to in his journals. The objects themselves seem disparate, ranging from rosaries and crucifixes to toy insects and miniature globes; dried flowers and photographs to a Buddha sculpture and a skull, but they are the roots of the cosmic symbology that crops up in Wojnarowicz’s work again and again. The snake in Junk Diptych; the maps that appear throughout his work; the ants in The Ant Series, to name a few.

Taking the lid off the box, the musty smell hits my nostrils and I envisage him performing the same action. When was the last time? And what did he retrieve, or deposit? How did he touch these things? Did he sift his fingers through, pulling out a necklace or a toy, or did he close his palms around each object individually, dividing his attention between them. And why? To collect and store these things, to weave them into his work, into his language. They must be significant. And what came first, the objects or the work? The box defines enigma.

I wonder if there’s any of his skin left on the objects, or if its all been rubbed away through years of handling. Fales provide white cotton gloves but don’t insist that they are worn apart from in handling photographs. I am acutely aware that this is the closest I’ll ever come to touching him. My skin on his skin, the object as the medium between us. One by one I lay the ephemera out on a piece of grey foam. They don’t all fit but that’s the fun of it. I can play around as I imagine he used to. Grouping different objects, arranging and re-arranging them, choosing a key player and the supporting roles. My favourite is the cobalt blue skull, the chalkiness of its surface not evident in photographs. Months later, I remember how I was struck by the intensity of its pigment. A similar vividity that sings out from Wojnarowicz’s paintings, blues and reds.

I leave the archive feeling empty in some way, familiar grief inching into my periphery. I want to tell him how I feel, how his work and his words have transformed me but there is a finality in a person’s archive – in seeing once and for all that all is left of a person’s trace is paper and things, flat screens with flickering images, crackling audio recordings that surely can’t come close to the real thing. Even if all of this is housed in one place they only produce a hum of the person, that you’ll chase for hours and never quite locate.

Tess Charnley 2019

Tess Charnley is an independent writer and curator based in London. She has recently curated a group exhibition, Experiment | Control at Blyth Gallery.’ Instagram – @tesscharnley



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