It takes a strong stomach to watch the fourminute version of A Fire in My Belly, the autobiographical David Wojnarowicz video that is now playing on a continuous loop in hundreds of venues around the country, including three here in Syracuse. With the now nearly nostalgic chants of AIDS activists, “Black! White!
Gay! Straight! AIDS does not discriminate!” as background, the Wojnarowicz piece takes us through a dizzying montage of stills and motion pictures, mostly culled from his late- 1980s travels in Mexico, in the period between his diagnosis with HIV and his death from complications of AIDS in 1992.
If you go to the Everson Museum, to ArtRage Gallery in Hawley-Green or to Light Work Gallery at Syracuse University, you can watch the once-obscure video made controversial due to a successful Republican campaign to have it pulled from the Smithsonian.
In the video you will see a man sewing his lips together, legless beggars navigating the traffic of a Mexico City crosswalk, leopards pacing in a cage, a bandaged hand grasping for coins, puppets in a diorama, blood dripping in a bowl—and, oh yes, the image of ants swarming a crucifix lying on pebbles.
That last image is what prompted the Catholic League, a conservative national Catholic organization, to call the film “hate speech” and demand that it be removed from an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution last December. It’s the image that then House Deputy Minority Leader, now Majority Leader, Eric Cantor called an “outrageous use of taxpayer money and an obvious attempt to offend Christians during the Christmas season.” Other members of Congress called it a perversion paid for with tax dollars.
Syracuse area representative Ann Marie Buerkle (R-25th), closely allied with Cantor on many issues, was invited to offer comment for this story, but as of press time, her spokesperson had not gotten back to us. Likewise, Syracuse Diocese spokeswoman Danielle Cummings did not return phone calls.
The Smithsonian caved to the pressure, thus giving “far more people access to A Fire in My Belly than ever would have seen it at the Smithsonian,” according to Steven Kern, director of the Everson. “We joined with museums across the country to show this video in support of free speech. The decision about what makes art great is up to the individual to sort out. This is at the core of what makes American society great. It’s also what allows some people to be offended, and others to celebrate the very same piece of work.”
The video is on display on a 27-inch Sanyo television sitting atop a white threedimensional rectangle in the main entrance to the Everson. It appears like a postage stamp against the towering rippled concrete walls of the museum’s atrium. The contrast between the room containing it and the video portrait itself in some ways reflects the outsized attention it has gotten since being booted from the Smithsonian, but Kern insists the placement is not intentional. “We just happen to have a soaring space. This is the way it was displayed in the Smithsonian, and we are presenting it just as it was presented there.”
The video will continue to play through Sunday, Feb. 13, the date its run was scheduled to end at the Smithsonian. The Everson Museum, 401 Harrison St., is open Tuesdays through Fridays and Sundays from noon to 5 p.m., Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Light Work, 316 Waverly Ave., is open every day but Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. And ArtRage, 505 Hawley Ave., has hours Wednesdays through Fridays, 2 to 7 p.m., and Saturdays, noon to 4 pm.
“There are some tough images here,” acknowledged Kern. “Tough times make for tough art. This video allows us to explore many points of view. Clearly the artist is making his own autobiographical statement as he contemplates his own coming death. The image of the mouth being sewn shut, which is clearly a comment on the political silence of the 1980s regarding AIDS, is for me far more difficult to look at than the crucifix covered with ants.”
Locally, there has been little public reaction, said Kern, except for a few supportive e-mails from friends in the arts community. Hillary Small, who works at the front desk and serves as the museum’s visitor’s services manager, has seen numerous families come by since the video has been playing. “The kids just go right over to it,” she noted. “They’re drawn to it, because it’s a TV. And then the parents kind of herd them away.” She added that in the weeks it has been showing, “I haven’t had anyone come over with anything negative.”
Said Kern: “We are bombarded every day with visual information. We develop filters, and it’s good to have things like this to test our filters. If this kind of thing doesn’t break through we need heavy duty visual info remediation. Is this a great video? Who’s saying it’s a great video—I’m just saying we all have a right to see it.”