Inside D.C. entertainment

National Portrait Gallery censorship controversy: Who was David Wojnarowicz?

December 2, 2010 - 02:07 PM
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It's safe to say that most of the people who called for the removal of artist David Wojnarowicz's film, "A Fire in My Belly," have never seen the work — Rep. John Boehner included. That's why it's so easy to make assumptions about its intent. Wendy Olsoff, co-owner of PPOW Gallery in New York, which has represented Wojnarowicz's work since 1988, would like to set the record straight.

"How the [Catholic League] is explaining it, and how it's being represented by the right wing is destroying it," says Olsoff. "It's not about ants eating Jesus. It's not about putting down Catholicism ... They're making it an anti-Christmas show and it's just not true. They knew that would scare everyone as much as possible."

So what is the work about? And what is the crucifix doing in there? Wojnarowicz created the video in 1987 as a tribute to his colleague and lover, Peter Hujar, who died of AIDS that same year. The video contains some grisly images: Mummified bodies, bloody icons, a man masturbating, lips being sewn shut, and 11 seconds of ants crawling on a crucifix. These images represent Wojnarowicz's feelings of isolation and marginalization as an openly gay man living with AIDS in the 80s — an era in which carriers of the virus were demonized. They are a memento mori, or a reminder of our mortality. The cross is a symbol of persecution — that of Christ, and of homosexuals. The ants are a symbol of nature, and the juxtaposition with the cross represents nature's connection to societal systems, like religion.

Andreas Sterzing,
"David Wojnarowicz" (Silence = Death), 1989

"David did a series called the ant series," says Olsoff. "He used ants in many of his videos in a similar way. He was respectful of nature. He put ants over money, guns, and toy soldiers, too. It was really about changing boundaries and changing ingrained belief systems and trying to alter them."

Those systems included our government, religion, and the financial system, and Wojnarowicz encouraged people to think about the power these systems hold over us, says Olsoff. Tuesday's response to governmental and religious pressure on a cultural institution seems to prove his point precisely. Wojnarowicz wrote extensively about conformity, censorship and freedom of expression after the NEA withdrew funding for one of his exhibition catalogues when he attacked public officials in an essay.

"He said the Right wants a one-tribe nation where everyone looks the same and acts the same," says Olsoff. "When they saw this at the Portrait Gallery it scared them, so they quickly found the crucifix. It's much more complicated than that."

Olsoff stood by Wojnarowicz in the 80s, when his work was being attacked by conservatives. When she found out about the Portrait Gallery's decision, she was in Miami setting up her booth for the Seven art fair, a satellite of Art Basel. She had never expected she would need to defend Wojnarowicz's work again, 20 years later.

"I became really upset that again, David was being used as a lightning rod," says Olsoff. "I'm very frustrated that we haven't moved ahead in 20 years, and that the Smithsonian pulled the work so quickly, before a discussion could occur."

Olsoff fears for the rest of the show — "Why pull one work? Then you can just pull another" — and says she still has great respect for the gallery for hosting the show. Though she is upset about the attacks on Wojnarowicz's work, she knows they are not personally directed towards him.

"[Politicians are] trying to get their supporters to get behind them for bigger reasons," she says. "It's not about David. He's just being used."

Olsoff spoke of the young artist's courage, even when he was the subject of governmental scrutiny and criticism.

"He was unafraid to speak his mind. He was angry and he was not afraid to be angry," says Olsoff. "He was very strong and very passionate, and he left a lot of writings. Every young person should read them."

One of those writings appears in a work of art called "Untitled (One Day This Kid...)" It reads as the opposite of Dan Savage's "It Gets Better" project, recently created to combat anti-gay bullying in schools by telling children that their lives will get much better after they graduate. Wojnarowicz depicts an innocent, freckle-faced kid, and describes how his life is about to get much, much worse:

"This kid will be faced with electro-shock, drugs, and conditioning therapies in laboratories tended by psychologists and research scientists. He will be subject to loss of home, civil rights, jobs, and all conceivable freedoms. All this will begin to happen in one or two years when he discovers he desires to place his naked body on the naked body of another boy."

"I think David knew it was going to happen again," says Olsoff. "I think he saw the politics in the 80s, and knew that homosexuals weren't going to be accepted in 20 years — that people of any difference wouldn't be accepted in society easily. His work resonates to this day."

One Day This Kid
Untitled (One day this kid…), 1990
30 ¾ x 41 inches
edition of 10
Courtesy of the Estate of David Wojnarowicz and P.P.O.W Gallery, NY
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