After Smithsonian exhibit's removal, banned ant video still creeps into gallery

Local arts activists led a protest march from the Transformer art space at 14th and P streets NW to the National Portrait Gallery, where officials recently removed a work of video art depicting Christ with ants crawling over him after complaints from a Catholic organization and members of Congress.
By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 6, 2010; 9:24 PM

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 no other art work 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.

Smithsonian rules allow protests outside the buildings, but photography and video are prohibited inside the art galleries.

Blasenstein and Iacovone were given "barring notice" citations, according to the police document, and cannot come into the building that houses the Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Blasenstein cited the AIDS/HIV crisis in its early days and recalled its slogan.

"Suddenly I realized that 'Silence Equals Death' wasn't some retro relic, but something that made it possible for me as a gay man to enjoy whatever acceptance and protections I have today. I wanted to make sure that this man who died 18 years ago wasn't swept from view again - especially from an exhibition professing to honor the marginalized," he said. The New York-based Wojnarowicz died of complications from AIDS in 1992 at the age of 37.

Katz, an art historian and pioneer in gay and lesbian studies, acknowledged historical context as well. "In 1989 Senator Jesse Helms demonized Robert Mapplethorpe's sexuality, and by extension, his art, and with little effort pulled a cowering art world to its knees. His weapon was threatening to disrupt the already pitiful federal support for the arts. And once again, that same weapon is being brandished, and once again we cower," said Katz.

The exhibition, which has signs alerting the public to its mature themes, is scheduled to run until Feb. 13.

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