Controversy over video censored by Smithsonian continues to build steam


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The controversy surrounding the Smithsonian Institution’s decision to censor a video at the National Portrait Gallery shows little sign of dying down, with a report today that a commissioner for the gallery has resigned in protest. In addition, more arts groups around the country -- including the Hammer Museum in L.A. -- are voicing their protest of the decision by showing the video artwork in question.

Modern Art Notes reported Thursday that National Portrait Gallery Commissioner James T. Bartlett has resigned in protest of the Smithsonian’s removal of David Wojnarowicz’s ‘A Fire in My Belly,’ which was part of the ‘Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture’ exhibition.


Bartlett is a former board president of the Cleveland Museum of Art. The commission for the National Portrait Gallery serves as a quasi-board of directors for the institution.

‘A Fire in My Belly’ is a 1987 video artwork that contains brief imagery of Jesus Christ covered in ants. Following objections voiced by conservative politicians and the Catholic League, the Smithsonian decided to remove the artwork from the exhibition. (The exhibition was privately funded.)

In a recent interview with MAN, the curators of ‘Hide/Seek’ said that there is a chance that ‘A Fire in My Belly’ could possibly return to the show. ‘There is ongoing discussion about that. I don’t want to say anything more about that because it is delicate,’ said David C. Ward in the interview.

Also on Thursday, the site Art Info posted what it said is a leaked letter written by National Portrait Gallery Director Martin Sullivan suggesting that the organization is divided over the recent decision to remove Wojnarowicz’s video.

A handful of galleries and arts institutions around the country have announced that they are showing or will show the Wojnarowicz video in a symbolic protest against the Smithsonian’s decision. Among them are L.A.’s CB1 Gallery, the New Museum in New York and the Transformer Gallery in Washington. On Thursday, the Hammer Museum at UCLA said it will begin screening ‘A Fire in My Belly’ this afternoon on continuous loop from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. through Dec. 17. The Hammer said it will be using a monitor in the hallway of the Billy Wilder Theater and will have signs pointing people in that direction. The museum will screen the original 13-minute version edited by Wojnarowicz as well as a seven-minute version created from found footage -- a 21-minute loop in all.

Another L.A.-area gallery said it will show the Wojnarowicz video this weekend. Workspace, located in the Lincoln Heights neighborhood, said that it will screen the video on Sunday at 7 p.m., followed by remarks by Jonathan Katz, co-curator of Hide/Seek, via Skype.


-- David Ng


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