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D.C. Video Fight Spills onto Upper East Side Streets

By Amy Zimmer | December 18, 2010 12:25pm | Updated on December 19, 2010 10:49am
Image from David Wojnarowicz's
Image from David Wojnarowicz's "Fire in My Belly"
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Courtesy of P.P.O.W. Gallery

By Amy Zimmer

DNAinfo News Editor

UPPER EAST SIDE — A controversy over a video pulled from a Smithsonian Instution exhibit of gay and lesbian portraits is spilling into Manhattan this weekend.

The work, by late artist David Wojnarowicz was removed from the Washington D.C.’s National Portrait Gallery, sparking charges of censorship.

Several New York art institutions have already vented their anger  by showing the video in their gallery spaces or sharing the work online, giving new life to “Fire in My Belly,” a piece from 1987 created in response to the artist’s diagnosis of AIDS.

It features brief footage of a crucifix covered in ants. Because of these scenes, the Catholic League’s William Donohue, along with some members of Congress, pressured the Smithsonian into removing the work from the “Hide/Seek” exhibit.

“Yanking the piece is unconscionable,” said Bill Dobbs, a member of Art+, a New York-based activist group that is organizing a protest march this Sunday from  the steps of the Metropolitan Museum to the Cooper-Hewitt Museum — a division of the Smithsonian.

“It’s a moment for the New York art world to say something and to demand the video be reinstated right now. … Art should be challenging, not just beautiful.”

The “Hide/Seek” show, considered the highest-profile exhibit of gay and lesbian art at a major museum, opened at a time when the museum culture wars seemed long over. But instead it has reignited debates, inspiring some institutions to speak out, like the Andy Warhol Foundation, which has threatened to stop giving money to the Smithsonian.

Dobbs, who knew Wojnarowicz before the artist died of AIDS in 1992, was involved with Art+ more than 20 years ago when it began as an offshoot of the AIDS activist group, ACT UP.

He recently relaunched the group in reaction to the video incident.

“There’s been a lot of good response,” he said. “People are discussing it and getting politicized.”

Wojnarowicz's piece was pulled in early December — already a month into the show.

“We started showing the video in our window the next day,” said Jerry Kajpust, director of external affairs for the Leslie/Lohman Gay Art Foundation in SoHo. “The whole idea of art as expression is under attack."

Wojnarowicz’s work was no stranger to backlash. In 1990 he won a Supreme Court case versus the American Family Association after he filed a lawsuit against them for copying, distorting and disseminating his images in a pamphlet opposing the National Endowment for the Arts' funding of shows that included his work and others’.

Protest details: Sunday, Dec. 19th 1:00 PM, starting at the Metropolitan Museum front steps (Fifth Avenue and 82nd Street)

Where “Fire in My Belly” is being shown:

- The New Museum, 235 Bowery, in the lobby, through Jan. 23

- International Center of Photography, 1114 Avenue of the Americas as 43rd Street, through Feb. 13

- Leslie/Lohman Gay Art Foundation, 26 Wooster Street, in the window, ongoing

- P.P.O.W, 511 West 25th Street, Room 301, which also has a link to the film at www.ppowgallery.com