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Artist attempts to hang 'Censor' sign on Smithsonian secretary's neck

April 27, 2011 - 12:16 AM
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Artist Adrian Parsons is separated from Smithsonian secretary Wayne Clough after Parsons attempted to hang a sign around his neck. (Photo: Maura Judkis)

Updated 11 a.m.

Artist and activist Adrian Parsons attempted to hang a "Censor" sign around the neck of Smithsonian secretary Wayne Clough following a panel discussion about the National Portrait Gallery controversy at the Freer Gallery Tuesday night. Parsons approached Clough after the discussion had concluded, shook his hand, and tried to hang the handmade sign, but it was swatted away by the secretary. When he was pushed against a wall by a security guard, Parsons shouted, "Clough stands for censorship!" He was escorted from the premises by security and questioned, but no further action was taken against him.

The scuffle followed a tepid discussion in the opening day of "Flashpoints and Fault Lines: Museum Curation and Controversy," the Smithsonian-organized forum that comes months after a controversy about Hide/Seek, a GLBT-themed art exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery had closed. On Nov. 30, Clough ordered the removal of the David Wojnarowicz film "A Fire in My Belly," after it became the target of conservative criticism for its religious themes. The decision was met by a huge outcry from the art community, who demonstrated against the censorship. In the days following, Parsons protested the Smithsonian's actions by picketing in front of the gallery, and projecting the censored film onto the facade of the Portrait Gallery.

wayne clough
Parsons, attempting to hang the sign on Clough.

Parsons' protest action against the Hide/Seek controversy is the third to occur within Smithsonian walls. On Dec. 4, Mike Blasenstein and Michael Dax Iacovone played Wojnarowicz's film on an iPad in the Portrait Gallery and were subsequently banned from Smithsonian property, a charge that was later dropped. The pair founded the Museum of Censored Art, a trailer that displayed "A Fire in My Belly" along with materials about censorship and freedom of expression. Protesters also organized a flash mob on the last day of Hide/Seek, and played the film on their phones near the space where it was once displayed.

Parsons told TBD he got the idea to make the sign only halfway through the discussion, after hearing Clough speak. The secretary once again defended his decision to remove the art, saying, "I believe my decision was right then when I made it, and I believe it is right today." He only spoke for a few minutes, turning the discussion over to the assembled group of museum administrators who discussed their experiences in curating exhibitions about sensitive topics, like evolution.

"I told him I made him a sign," says Parsons, of his interaction with the secretary. Parsons said he was angered by Clough's defense, and by how meaningless the forum was. He ducked out of the session, went to art-supply store Utrecht for the materials, and came back to put it on Clough's neck – an act that could have been considered simple assault under D.C. law.

Smithsonian spokesperson Linda St. Thomas said that Clough and the institution will take no further action against Parsons, and will not press charges. Clough was not present for the morning sessions of the forum on Wednesday.

Parsons' angry confrontation with Clough wasn't the only one – Blasenstein took the microphone during a question-and-answer session and asked the secretary why he remained silent for nearly two months after his removal of the film, as his curators worked to defend their show.

"This panel is irrelevant ... because none of you on the panel, or on any of these panels, made the decision to censor," Blasenstein said to Clough and the panelists, which included Hide/Seek co-curators Jonathan Katz and David Ward. Visibly nervous, Blasenstein recalled that Clough was once quoted as saying Smithsonian values included, "Accountability, transparency and integrity. To this day, sir, you have not answered any questions publicly like hopefully you appear to be doing now."

"I made a statement tonight that was very clear, it was consistent with everything I've said," responded Clough, who emphasized that the public forum was a learning experience for all involved. "My decision had to do with maintaining the exhibition, and maintaining the vitality of the Smithsonian."

Parsons and Blasenstein say they hope to attend other sessions of the forum, if they're permitted – Parsons said he suspects he'll be denied entry to Wednesday's discussions (Update: St. Thomas says that he is not). He wasn't formally banned, like the iPad protesters briefly were, but as Parsons was being questioned, Blasenstein jokingly recalled his own exile from Smithsonian property, shouting out, "Hope you've seen the pandas, Adrian."

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