The late David Wojnarowicz recently made headlines when an excerpt of his video “A Fire in My Belly” was removed from a Smithsonian exhibition after complaints from the Catholic League and conservative Republicans.
In a press release, the museum said the four-minute video “generated a strong response from the public,” which is true, if you count everyone who never actually viewed the work but wrote letters and made calls when prompted by the Catholic League’s Bill Donohue.
So what’s so offensive about the video? Here, check out the long version. We’ll wait till you’re done.
Pretty moving, huh? The piece is a tribute to Wojnarowicz’s partner, who died from AIDS-related complications in 1987. You might’ve noticed some ants crawling on a crucifix around the 17-minute mark. Donohue and his Republicans buds, including incoming House Speaker John A. Boehner and incoming Majority Leader Eric Cantor, didn’t like that part. Oh, there’s also a guy’s junk in there. And we’re not talking about Fred Sanford.
Thankfully, the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles is running the video on a continuous loop, so we headed over there earlier today for a look. We were psyched to see “A Fire in My Belly” on a big screen in a blacked-out room. Imagine our excitement when we were told it was screening downstairs in the Billy Wilder Theater. The Billy Wilder Theater! That’s a great space for this!
So we were a little disappointed upon walking through the glass doors and seeing a security guard, just inside the lobby, by the hallway to the bathrooms, watching the piece on a flat-screen TV. We felt a bit bamboozled by the Hammer, to be frank. The video wasn’t even screening in a dark room. Fighting censorship is incredibly important, but was this worth driving all the way across town for?
Yes, actually. It was.
There are so many potential distractions when watching a video online. Gmail. Facebook. Cats. Whatever’s on TV or in the fridge. Everything. But sitting there in the lobby of the Wilder Theater, listening to nothing but the hum of the building as we watched the piece, we were struck by its silence.
There’s a scene in “A Fire in My Belly” where the artist’s lips are sewn together with red string, and several critics have noted the irony of this particular work now being censored by the Smithsonian. We think the same irony exists with the piece’s eerie silence.
Death and censorship aren’t that different. They both end with quiet.