Arts Desk

One Year After “Hide/Seek”

Lisa Marie Thalhammer's Wojnarowicz mask

On Friday, Nov. 18, D.C. art nonprofit and alternative art space Transformer is hosting its eighth annual silent auction and benefit gala. In some respects, though, it's more of a one-year anniversary party.

It was just about this time last year that the National Portrait Gallery opened "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture," an exhibition of works by LGBT artists. The exhibit of queer art showed for the month of November 2010 without incident, until conservative media activist Penny Starr took notice. Through a website run out of Brent Bozell's Media Research Center, an organization known for coordinating consumer complaint campaigns against organizations they deem morally dubious (or progressive), Starr cried foul over an artwork that she described as offensive to Christianity. (With Christmas upcoming, no less.) The Catholic League chimed in, as did conservative congressional leaders prompted by Starr. After a day's worth of telephone and email complaints, Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough pulled David Wojnarowicz's "A Fire In My Belly" from the exhibit, igniting a firestorm of protest.

One year later, that act of censorship is still making waves. Next week, on November 18, while Transformer enjoys its auction, "Hide/Seek" opens at the Brooklyn Museum. There, curator Tricia Laughlin Bloom is restoring Wojnarowicz's short film to the exhibit. Not everyone is happy about this. Yesterday, the New York Daily News ran a triple (quadruple?)-bylined story about how the artwork is enraging Christians, even though the show has not yet opened. Bishop Nicholas A. DiMarzio of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn wrote a quiet letter to Brooklyn Museum board chair John Tamagni requesting that the piece be taken out of the show.

Picture Bozell and Starr clinking champagne glasses: Mission accomplished. Despite the fact that the part with the ants crawling over a crucifix makes up only a fraction of Wojnarowicz's film—even granting in the first place that ants are so offensive, and Christians so easily offended—the outrage manufactured by the Media Research Center appears to have stuck. They appear to have convinced other conservative media outlets and activists that Wojnarowicz is a readymade for baiting Christmas tree–taxing liberals. To make an artwork notorious is a significant accomplishment, even if the end result is that many more people see the artwork than the censors would prefer.

The first organization to make sure the artwork was seen was D.C.'s own Transformer. The nonprofit's executive and artistic director Victoria Reis and board chair James Alefantis had a copy of A Fire in My Belly playing from the Logan Circle gallery's window on Dec. 1, the day after Secretary Clough removed the work from the National Portrait Gallery. Other institutions followed suit, including the New Museum, the Tate Modern (in London), and PPOW Gallery, which represents Wojnarowicz's estate.

Late last month, Transformer launched Storefront Video, once again exhibiting video out onto P Street from its storefront window. This time around, they're working with the Smithsonian: The first batch of rotating Storefront Video films comes courtesy of the Hirshhorn Museum's teen design studio, ARTLAB+. On Nov. 17, Transformer will host video by one of the Smithsonian's erstwhile critics: Michael Dax Iacovone, a winner of the 2011 American Library Association Award for Intellectual Freedom for the iPad protest and subsequent Museum of Censored Art that he and collaborator Michael Blasenstein captained in response to Clough's act of censorship.

On Dec. 1–4, Transformer will close out the Storefront Video series with works from Visual AIDS, an organization founded by Reis' mentor, Patrick O'Connell. O'Connell founded Visual AIDS; devised the vernacular (and truly brilliant) red ribbon metaphor and campaign to support AIDS patients; and started Day With(out) Art, which sees participating museums close every Dec. 1 or host special AIDS-related exhibits. The artist Wojnarowicz, whose work confronted the disease, lost his life to AIDS in 1992.

If the same crisis had happened this year, artists and activists would no doubt be rallying around an #occupysmithsonian banner. But on Dec. 2 last year, they gathered at Transformer, which had commissioned artists Ed Rock, Geoffrey Aldridge, and Grant Duncan to make face masks of Rimbaud and Wojnarowicz (after one of Wojnarowicz's Rimbaud-inspired works). A similarly inspired protest piece by artist Lisa Marie Thalhammer (pictured) was captured in stories by a number of media outlets, including The New York Times, according to the artist. She has donated that piece for this year's Transformer auction, putting a small piece of D.C. art history up for grabs.

In the wake of the crisis, Clough earned an informal rebuke from the Smithsonian, congressional budget cuts never really materialized, and Wojnarowicz's work sparked a national conversation. The Smithsonian did lose some financial support—from the liberal organizations that Clough's decision provoked, including the Andy Warhol Foundation and Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation.

Note what did not happen: Conservatives did not or could not make hay out of an exhibit of gay art. Recall Starr's original headline: "Smithsonian Christmas-Season Exhibit Features Ant-Covered Jesus, Naked Brothers Kissing, Genitalia, and Ellen DeGeneres Grabbing Her Breasts." Conservative bullies seized on moldy old ant-covered Jesus, but couldn't, or didn't, simply point to the exhibit and cry "gay." Or Starr did—but it didn't take. One year later, the crisis looks a lot like progress.

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