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MoMA purchases crucifix video that was removed from Portrait Gallery exhibit

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.

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 13, 2011; 8:17 PM

The Museum of Modern Art, the influential repository of film and video work, has purchased "A Fire in My Belly," the video by David Wojnarowicz that was removed from an exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery.

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Its removal by the museum has caused a heated debate among artists and arts organizations, with artists organizing protests against the gallery, part of the Smithsonian Institution, and many art centers showing parts of the video in response to the decision.

The acquisition and immediate screening at the New York museum was viewed as both an imprimatur of the late artist's work and a rebuke to its critics.

"They are standing behind the film and making a statement. For a powerful, important and historic museum to make this statement, I'm thrilled," said Wendy Olsoff, the co-owner of the PPOW Gallery in New York, which handles the Wojnarowicz estate.

MoMA announced Thursday that it had purchased the original 13-minute version and a seven-minute excerpt, made by Wojnarowicz in 1986 and 1987. The museum has 13 works, including photographs and paintings, by the artist, who died from complications of AIDS in 1992. "Fire" is its first video addition to those holdings.

" 'A Fire in My Belly' is an important addition to MoMA's collection of works by David Wojnarowicz. A collage of moving and still images, it communicates the artist's views on mortality and spirituality, in some instances using explicit iconography," said Sabine Breitwieser, chief curator of the museum's department of media and performance art. "It includes the famous self-portrait of the artist sewing his mouth closed, an image that became an icon of the movement trying to increase awareness of the AIDS crisis, which stood for 'silence = death.' "

Breitwieser said the controversy brought the work to the museum's attention. The debate "provided us with an opportunity to look more closely at it and to deepen our engagement with this artist by adding it to our holdings of his work," she said.

The museum would not disclose the purchase price.

The video was immediately placed on view in the museum's "Contemporary Art From the Collection," an exhibition that looks at art and current events since the late 1960s.

MoMA joined with the Association of Art Museum Directors, which criticized the actions of the Smithsonian in removing the work.

The Portrait Gallery included an excerpt of "A Fire in My Belly" in its current show, "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture." The exhibition, which continues until Feb. 13, is the largest in the gallery's history and the first national museum to devote a show to issues of gay love, sexuality and gender differences.

After nearly a month on view, the museum received complaints from Republican leaders, including Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), now speaker of the House, and Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), that the video was offensive because of the brief appearance of the image of a crucifix with ants crawling on it. A number of conservative critics and politicians objected to its content.

The Smithsonian, led by Secretary Wayne Clough and museum director Martin Sullivan, ordered the work removed in late November. The two curators of the show, David Ward, the historian at the Portrait Gallery, and Jonathan Katz, an authority on gay art and images and a professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo, objected to the decision.

Katz said Thursday he hoped the purchase signaled a change at MoMA and other major museums in their discussions of sexuality. "They have the work, and display the work, of many queer artists," Katz said. "The issue is, are they talking about art, politics and sexuality? If they are not doing that, then it doesn't matter if they have the video."

The New Museum in New York, the site of Wojnarowicz's first U.S. retrospective, has been showing the film.


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