Here we go again. Almost a year after the controversy at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, Catholic groups in New York have started to raise alarm over David Wojnarowicz’s unfinished film ”A Fire In My Belly“ (1986-7) in the exhibition Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture at the Brooklyn Museum.
Like before, the groups are offended by an 11-second clip of the film, which shows ants crawling over a crucifix in a representation of human suffering. As the Daily News reports the Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn has sent a letter to the Brooklyn Museum, asking the museum to pull the film. Last year on December 1, otherwise known as A Day Without Art or World AIDS Day, the Smithsonian chose to take down the film because of pressure from the National Catholic League and House Republicans John Boehner and Eric Cantor.
Filmed primarily in Mexico, “A Fire in My Belly” addresses themes of suffering, sexuality, death and spirituality in Mexican as well as American culture. Mostly known for his work addressing the AIDS crisis, Wojnarowicz, who died from complications from AIDS in 1992, filmed most of A Fire In My Belly before he received his HIV positive diagnosis. However, much of the imagery in the film, particularly the scenes of Wojnarowicz sewing his lips shut, has been connected to the AIDS crisis since they were used in the film “Silence = Death” in 1989.
There are a few different versions of the film, floating around the Internet and in various institutions but, Hide/Seek features a 4-minute clip of the film with a soundtrack of an ACT-UP protest that Wojnarowicz was involved in that the curators Jonathan Katz and David C. Ward found in Wojnarowicz’s archives at Fales Library and Special Collections. The complete footage of the film can be seen below:
During his lifetime, Wojnarowicz was certainly no stranger to artistic controversy. In 1989, he sued Donald Wildmon, the founder of the American Family Association, for misrepresenting his work in a pamphlet that reproduced only the sexual images from his paintings and collages. The Brooklyn Museum, as well, is a veteran of the culture wars, most notably with the outrage of then New York mayor Rudy Guiliani at Chris Ofili’s “The Holy Virgin Mary” (1996) in the Sensations exhibition in 1999.
As someone who loves Wojnarowicz’s work, the original “A Fire In My Belly” controversy was troublesome and pointed to how little our culture has progressed since the original “culture wars” of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Now, a year later after the Smithsonian’s actions, the outrage over the same film in the same exhibition in a different city is tiresome. Can’t the Catholic groups find something else to be offended by instead of a 25 year old film?
The Brooklyn Museum is not backing down from their decision to exhibition the complete exhibition, which includes the Wojnarowicz video. The museum’s director Arnold Lehman stated that they will keep the exhibition in its completed form including the film and hopefully unlike the National Portrait Gallery, they can withstand the pressure.
The Brooklyn Paper took another angle to the controversy that blew up in DC last year. Reporter Aaron Short wrote:
Hey, art fans: Thank the lord that you live in Brooklyn! … Don’t miss it — and don’t forget to gloat over your DC friends.
Yeah, don’t worry. We will.
Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture opens at the Brooklyn Museum on November 18, 2011 and runs until February 12, 2012.