The most arresting thing I have ever seen by artist/filmmaker David Wojnarowicz is a 1:42 second monologue by him, speaking in silhouette before a red background, telling the story of a friend getting gay bashed. It’s told in a furious, occasionally stammering rush, and it’s harrowing and heartbreaking — the only break in the image is a series of inserts of a shirtless young man whose body becomes increasingly wounded over the course of the telling. You can see it on YouTube.
One of the most famous images of Wojnarowicz is likewise arresting: The artist with his lips sewn shut. It’s a still from the film “Silence = Death,” in which director Rosa von Praunheim interviewed New York artists about the effect AIDS had on their community, which was, in a word, apocalyptic. The film was made in 1990. Wojnarowicz himself would die in 1992 from the disease. Wojnarowicz had long been outspoken on the subject of AIDS, including having made a short film about the subject in 1987. That film was called “A Fire in My Belly,” and you’ve probably heard about it recently.
If you haven’t gotten the whole story, I’ll try to offer it up in a thumbnail. A segment of “Fire” was included in the exhibition “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington. This show was privately funded, with much of its money coming from the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. (Full disclosure: The Warhol Museum coproduced and was the performance venue for one of my plays some years back). The film is a silent montage of images, lasting a half-hour or less. Many of the images are from Mexico, including Day of the Dead and other religious iconography, including an 11-second segment showing ants crawling on a crucifix.
Some objected to this, including The Catholic League and incoming House Speaker John Boehner. And it is their right to object. Wojnarowicz’s work was often provocative, and never shied away from openly gay subject matter. Not everybody is going to appreciate this, nor do they need to. “Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital,” Oscar Wilde once wrote, and, even 23 years after Wojnarowicz filmed his short movie and 18 years after he died, his work remains new, complex, and vital.
But his critics went beyond merely disapproving of the short movie — they pressured for the movie’s removal. “American families have a right to expect better from recipients of taxpayer funds in a tough economy,” Boehner’s representative said, ignoring the fact that the exhibition was privately funded. If the Smithsonian didn’t do something about it, the museum would be subjected to “tough scrutiny” in the coming year.
So the Smithsonian did something: It pulled the video. And the Warhol Museum did something in response: It said it would no longer fund exhibitions at the Smithsonian. And other museums did something as well: They immediately made plans to show the movie.
The Walker Art Center is among these museums, and begins showings today at 11:30 a.m. and will continue to show it through the end of the year. Screenings can be found here. Walker director Olga Viso explained her reasoning on the Walker website: “As stewards and supporters of our cultural legacy, it is essential for institutions like the Walker and, indeed all citizens, to support the independent voices of artists and the value of creative and artistic freedom. It has never been more important to speak out and openly for the freedom of expression.”
It’s a low resolution version, and there are several versions of varying lengths, with the Walker showing all of them, so if you want to see it in better quality, the Walker is the place to see it.
(Not all leaders in the museum world took this stance, by the way. The Washington-based American Association of Museums, headed since 2007 by Minnesotan Ford Bell, is standing by the Portrait Gallery. Bell is quoted in the Washington Post saying, “We concur that it should not distract from the other thoughtful and provocative work in this important exhibition. However, we regret the controversy surrounding the excellent show.”)
The Walker has another film it will be playing, fairly continuously, through June 26, starting today, and it’s a sort of accidental companion piece to “A Fire in My Belly.” The film is “Blue,” and it was the last film by British director Derek Jarman. I saw it many years ago, when it first came out, and watched it again last night, and it is a sad, engrossing, typically distinctive film from Jarman, who was then dying of AIDS.
He had lost his eyesight to the disease, and his blindness has been preceded by flashes of blue. This is a film about blindness — the whole of it, visually, is a static blue field, over which Jarman discusses his disease in a solemn storytelling tone, taking us through his experience of loss of eyesight, his personal philosophy, and his memories, often framed in terms of sound (and his descriptions are often matched by some subtle foley work). Jarman’s work is also informed by artist Yves Klein, whom the Walker is exhibiting now — the blue we see onscreen is Klein’s trademark blue monochrome, and Klein was another artist who died quite young. Four months after the film was released in 1993, Jarman died of his illness. It’s an interesting pairing, these two films, both created by visual artists near the end of their lives, both men dying from AIDS, one completely silent, one nothing but sounds, both addressing their experiences.
It was an entire generation of artists who were destroyed by AIDS, but at least we have their own documents of their experiences, and, because they were artists, they made art of these documents. Where do these documents belong but in an art gallery?
There’s a terrible irony in the fact that, decades after Wojnarowicz posed with his lips sewn shut, protesting the fatal silence that had descended around the AIDS epidemic, he’s been silenced again. But Boehner and his friends are fighting this culture war with tactics that are out-of-date in the time of WikiLeaks. The more you try to suppress something nowadays, the more avenues people have to access it. Thanks to Boehner, Wojnarowicz is suddenly contemporary again, and more people have probably seen his film than would have had he just let it play in a corner of a photography gallery. And so be it. Irony is good for art.