Censored, Censured, but Never Forgotten: Rescuing the Legacy of a Controversial New York Artist
By Pia Catton
PPOW Gallery is picking up where the Smithsonian left off.
On Thursday, the Chelsea gallery opens an exhibit of work by the late artist David Wojnarowicz, whose re-edited film “A Fire in My Belly” was removed from the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” in November after objections from the Catholic League and Members of Congress.
The exhibition at PPOW, titled “Spirituality,” is intended to show that Mr. Wojnarowicz had much more to say on the subject of religion than was contained in the 4-minute adaptation shown in Washington D.C., which came under fire for its brief depiction of ants crawling on a crucifix. “There were a lot of misconceptions put out there that we want to clarify. This exhibit will present David’s views about religion,” said PPOW Gallery owner Wendy Olsoff.
On view through April 9, “Spirituality” includes the artist’s journals, photography and sculpture, much of which is directly related to “A Fire in My Belly,” which comprises two reels of unfinished film shot in 1986 and 1987, and recently preserved in a digital format. The short films are on view, as is Rosa von Praunheim’s 1989 documentary “Silence=Death,” in which Mr. Wojnarowicz (1954-92) appears, and to which he contributed film footage.
“Spirituality” comes at a time whn Mr. Wojnarowicz has gained sudden recognition for the censorship controversy sparked by a mere fragment of his work: The Smithsonian’s 4-minute edit was taken from a 7-minute excerpt of an unfinished film. The response in the art community was global and lightening fast—museums and arts institutions showed loaned DVD copies of the film (not the Smithsonian’s edit)—but it could not address the broader context.
“Showing the film was a quick response to the censorship,” said Ms. Olsoff. “The exhibition shows David’s thought processes in a much deeper way.” Estate of David Wojnarowicz/P.P.O.W. Gallery, New York The late artist David Wojnarowicz appears in Rosa von Praunheim’s 1989 film ‘Silence=Death,’ a documentary about the AIDS crisis.
The New Jersey-born, New York-bred artist, who died from AIDS-related complications at age 37, created painting, sculpture, film, poetry and music that explored themes of religion, individuality, culture and, in the 1980s, issues of AIDS and sexuality. Attempting to describe Mr. Wojnarowicz’s aesthetic leads even those who knew him well to pause. Marguerite Van Cook, a friend and collaborator who showed his work at the Ground Zero Gallery, which she owned with husband James Romberger, emphasized that breaking artistic boundaries was central to him. “As a painter, his work is expressionist. How do you transfer that to the Dada and German influence, and then just plain punk?” she said. “Then, he’s also text-based. What comes through all of these mediums is his power to deliver through his energy—to theorize and mix the tactile.”
That range is evident in the two reels of “A Fire in My Belly,” which includes footage from a trip to Mexico, a sculpture of a loaf of bread being sewn together with red thread and juxtaposed with the artist’s lips appearing to be sewn shut, as well as images of the crucifixion with ants crawling on the body of Jesus.
The new PPOW show includes the bread sculpture, as well as several photographs of ants crawling on objects, plus multiple works into which red thread is sewn. Mr. Wojnarowicz’s energy, however, is most visceral in “Silence=Death,” a film that is not for the faint of heart. He appears toward the end as an interviewee and as a performer reading his own poetry. Footage from “A Fire in My Belly”—much of it edited to music from Diamanda Galas’s “Plague Mass”—is spliced in for a searingly poignant effect.
“David is woven through it,” said Ms. Olsoff. “David worked on this video and saw it completed. It is the closest thing we have to the artist’s edit of the unfinished film footage called ‘Fire in My Belly.'”
The use of his footage in Mr. von Praunheim’s film, however, raises the question: If “Silence=Death” contained the last, possibly approved edit of his footage, what are the two reels (7 minutes and 13 minutes) that were shown around the world with the title “A Fire in My Belly” and acquired by MoMA?
Sabine Breitwieser, MoMA’s chief curator of media and performance art, acquired “A Fire in My Belly” for the museum after the Smithsonian controversy. “I believe the film is not raw footage,” she said. “It is something he edited in several versions. He was thinking about it a lot. These were things that were haunting him.” Ms. Breitwieser added that the acquisition had a two-fold purpose: “It was a gesture, in some ways, but to also deepen the holdings.”
Ms. Olsoff said the two reels of film mark a key point in the arc of the artist’s life. “The film was a pivot point. When he came back from Mexico, his world changed,” she said, referring to the AIDS era. “The images and work from Mexico became part of his new pieces that were directly about AIDS. Then if you look backwards to 1979, through his journals and art work, this thread of imagery related to Catholicism is there from very early on.”
Even if we cannot know what the artist intended, there is a certain irony in small work with such a broad message. Said Ms. Breitwieser: “It’s a great film fragment and bears all his practice in it.”
Source: The Wall Street Journal