A Fire in My Belly

David Wojnarowicz died of AIDS on July 22, 1992 in New York City, a sad end for an artist whose complex work had been so tied to the rage, pain, and horror he and millions of other people experienced going through the plague in the ‘80s and ‘90s. His work brought attention to the ways in which the US government ignored the plight of AIDS victims, and toward the end of his life had to fight against conservative Republicans threatened by his work. Over 20 years later, his work still threatens the same types of people, in this case future Republican House Speaker John Boehner, who, with the support of other leading Republicans, threatened to defund the Smithsonian unless they removed Wojnarowicz’s video Fire In My Belly from the groundbreaking gay art show Hide/Seek: Desire and Difference in American Portraiture, which is now up at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

The first part of the video itself is a ‘work-in-progress’ travelogue featuring footage Wojnarowicz took when visiting Mexico in 1986. We see luchadors in the wrestling ring, cockfighting, beggars, and lengthy footage of a circus. The second part, made later, uses documentary footage from the same Mexican trip, this time focusing on religious iconography — an actor playing Jesus in a crucifixion reenactment, a cross on the ground with ants crawling over it, skeleton dolls, and puppets bursting into flames. These images are then intercut with Wojnarowicz stitching both his mouth and a loaf of bread shut. Wojnarowicz then takes his pants off and masturbates. When he reveals his cock, we see a puppet bursting into flames, and then see images of Jesus suffering — drawing parallels between the suffering of Jesus and victims of AIDS.

Since the Hide/Seek exhibition featured a 4 minute excerpt which leads with the ants crawling on the cross, both the Smithsonian’s head and Republicans were successfully able to misinterpret the video as being purposely offensive to Christians, no doubt to cook up controversy and reignite the culture wars. The museum, which had taken the courageous step of putting the show up in the first place, backed down, afraid of a Republican House attempting to defund the institution once they take power — even though most of the money that funded the show came from fundraising efforts in the gay community. It was a bitter reminder on World AIDS Day that censorship, homophobia, and AIDSphobia are not dead.

As a magazine filled with content that would not please the powers that be, it’s important we support other artists, both living and dead, who do the same thing, and have posted the to our minds not very offensive video above. It deserves to be seen, and considered, and talked about in the context it was originally intended for. Despite the museum’s decision, Hide/Seek is an important show, and still deserves to be supported. However, you can protest the censorship, and the Museum’s reaction to such predictably phony outrage by calling or emailing the Smithsonian or emailing and the office of John Boehner, or perhaps joining one of the protests in NYC over the coming days.

Published on 14 December 2010