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The Difference A Hand Makes

Filed by KOSU News in Science.
November 3, 2011

The other day I was walking through the Morgan Museum in New York, and there on the wall was a little watercolor. It was the picture of a hand, a left hand, painted, said the card on the wall, by the man whose hand it was, Theodore Gericault, a French artist who died very young, when he was 33.

And when I looked at it and read about how this painting came to be in 1824, I felt a sudden pang for another artist who also died young, who died a very different, much tougher death, in more recent times. He was more or less my age, and I’ve been thinking about these two artists a little bit too much ever since. The one who died more recently, in 1992, was David Wojnarowicz.

I’d like to start with him.

Thirty years ago David Wojnarowicz was a New York renegade who would steal into abandoned places; his favorites were crumbling wharves along the Hudson River, where he’d paint daring images on cracked, peeling walls. He also made videos, drawings, music. His work was everywhere, he was everywhere, making art, making trouble, making friends, and all the while he was writing one of the bravest, most painful diaries I’ve ever read.

In the 1980s, he got HIV, then AIDS, and as he died — and he had a slow death — he wrote about what it was like for him, how the sickness crept in and pulled him, thread by thread, from the busy, vital world, until, near the end, he had become an almost vacant space. Of the world, but no longer in it.

He described all this in his diary. The words are hard to read:

“Sometimes I come to hate people because they can’t see where I am. I’ve gone empty, completely empty and all they see is the visual form; my arms and legs, my face, my height and posture, the sounds that come from my throat. But I’m … empty. The person I was just one year ago no longer exists; drifts spinning slowly into the ether somewhere way back there…

…I am a stranger and I am moving. I am moving on two legs soon to be on all fours. I am no longer animal vegetable or mineral. I am no longer made of circuits or disks. I am no longer coded and deciphered. I am all emptiness and futility. I am an empty stranger, a carbon copy of my form. I can no longer find what I’m looking for outside of myself. It doesn’t exist out there. Maybe it’s only in here, inside my head. But my head is glass and my eyes have stopped being cameras, the tape has run out and nobody’s words can touch me. No gesture can touch me.

I’ve been dropped into all this from another world and I can’t speak your language any longer. See the signs I try to make with my hands and fingers. See the vague movements of my lips among the sheets. I’m a blank spot in a hectic civilization. I’m a dark smudge in the air that dissipates without notice. I feel like a window, maybe a broken window. I am a glass human. I am a glass human disappearing in rain. I am standing among all of you waving my invisible arms and hands.

I am shouting my invisible words. I am getting so weary. I am growing tired. I am waving to you here. I am crawling around looking for the aperture of complete and final emptiness. I am vibrating in isolation among you. I am screaming but it comes out like pieces of clear ice. I am signaling that the volume of all this is too high. I am waving. I am waving my hands. I am disappearing. I am disappearing but not fast enough.”

David died on July 22, 1992. He was 37.

When Theodore Gericault died, he was only 33. He too had been a troublemaker; his most famous painting describes a scandalous scene at sea when a French captain had abandoned innocent passengers and left them to die on a raft.

Gericault was a horseman, an artistic rebel, a man about town, but after a few too many spills on a few too many horses, he was bedridden, then contracted a wasting disease, probably tuberculosis, the AIDS of that day, and in 1824, we find him stuck in bed, losing breath, unable to get up or around, and the world is receding for him, as it did for Wojnarowicz, but Gericault is luckier. Somehow, he stays attached to what’s before him. His eyes don’t, as David’s did, “stop being cameras.”

He can still see and appreciate and draw and paint, and in this watercolor, which he literally painted on his deathbed, he extends his hand, places it on a blank page, traces it in pencil. You can see the original pencil marks at the end of some of his fingers, and then, as his last act, with his right hand he draws from the only model left to him, his veined left hand, and very soon after, he dies.

To be at the edge of your time, on the cusp of extinction, and still be working like that? This is a long way from “I am waving. I am waving my hands. I am disappearing”. This is pressing your mind against the world and still saying, “Here I am. Here’s what I see…”

This is a good ending. David, the unlucky one, lost his attachment, lost connection, and lost his reason to be.

So I stood in the museum, looking at Gericault’s hand on the wall, and, not that you can choose these things, I said to myself, when my time comes, may I go like him, with my eyes still in the world, like Gericault, not, please, not like Wojnarowicz.

David Wojnarowicz’ journals, photos, drawings were published in diary form as In the Shadow of the American Dream: The Diaries of David Wojnarowicz. (Amy Scholder, editor). (Grove/Atlantic, 2000). [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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