Pesky ant video refuses to die

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Despite protests and angry criticism by the show's co-curator, the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery defended its decision to remove a video from a current exhibition while pledging that no other artwork will be removed.

Jonathan Katz, a co-curator for the provocative show "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture," said he wasn't consulted about the removal of the video. "It was an incredibly stupid decision. I am flabbergasted that they rose to the bait so readily," he said in an interview Monday.

The museum removed the video art last Tuesday because officials said it was a distraction to the groundbreaking themes of gender identity and same-sex love from artists as diverse as John Singer Sargent and Georgia O'Keeffe. "One of the exhibition's 105 works - a short segment in a four-minute video created as a complex metaphor for AIDS - was perceived by some to be anti-Christian," said a statement from the Smithsonian Monday.

The Smithsonian's statement came two days after two protesters were charged with disorderly conduct at the museum.

On Saturday afternoon, Mike Blasenstein stood at the second-floor entrance to the show with the banned video playing on an iPad he hung around his neck. He also held some leaflets detailing why he was protesting the removal of David Wojnarowicz's "Fire in My Belly" video, which featured a Christ-figure crawling with ants.

The 11 seconds with this image had triggered a firestorm among some Catholic and conservative commentators and influential politicians on Capitol Hill.

Last week Katz was in London lecturing at the Tate Modern. The other curator, David C. Ward, a historian at the Portrait Gallery, participated in the meetings about the video and disagreed with the decision, ultimately issued by Secretary G. Wayne Clough.

"Unfortunately the exhibition itself has been lost in the mudslinging," Katz said, who said the criticism was based on "homophobia and raw politics." He said he admired the gallery for doing the show, adding, "the way forward is to refocus attention to the degree by which the show, by remaining up, continues to resist the politics."

Linda St. Thomas, the chief spokesperson for the Smithsonian, said Katz wasn't consulted because of the time difference and the decision was made by several high-ranking officials, including Martin Sullivan, the portrait gallery director.

Ward, the co-curator, said the film was "in the tradition of film surrealism from the late 1960s and early 1970s. We have been distorted. It is not anti-religion or sacrilegious. It is a powerful use of imagery."

Blasenstein said he had been looking forward to the show and was appalled when he "read about the art being censored." He was detained with photographer Michael Dax Iacovone, who was taking a video of the protest.

The duo arrived at the museum right after it opened but didn't find many people in the exhibition. Then they moved to the entrance, and Blasenstein put the iPad around his neck with the video running. "I made the mistake one time of passing one flyer out. The guard said you can't pass them out. I was then holding them," said Blasenstein, 37, who works in Washington as a webmaster for a nonprofit organization.

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