Behind heavy grey curtains, a bandaged hand drops coin after coin. Blood splashes. Two halves of a loaf of bread are sewn together with red string. Stone skulls flash. A man begins to undress himself; a human mouth is sewn together with red string. The man’s hands unbutton his shirt; deformed faces grin; the man’s pants come off; bloody masks flash. The man begins to masturbate. Another man blows fire from his mouth; a snake consumes its prey. While the film plays, the viewing room is dark and uncomfortably silent.
“A Fire in My Belly,” an unfinished short silent film made in 1987 by artist and AIDS activist David Wojnarowicz is currently on view at the University of Chicago’s Smart Museum of Art. A tribute to Wojnarowicz’s friend and former lover Peter Hujar, who died of AIDS, the work has recently caused national controversy.
While being played as part of the exhibit “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, the film’s short sequence of ants swarming a miniature Jesus on a crucifix caught many people’s attention. Among them were Republican congressmen John Boehner and Eric Cantor, who, along with the Catholic League, petitioned the Smithsonian to remove it. Failure to cooperate, the two congressmen threatened, would result in loss of funding. On November 30, Secretary of the Smithsonian G. Wayne Clough complied.
In protest, institutions across the country–the Smart Museum included–have responded by showing the film, presenting it as a symbol of the freedom of artistic expression. Literature from the Smart concerning “A Fire in My Belly” proposed that the short film can be interpreted in a number of ways, and that “art [has the] power to open new ways of thinking about ourselves and our world.” One recent viewer of the film at the Smart Museum expressed frustration because the film “is controversial but should be shown.” Another had the opposite reaction of Boehner and Cantor, feeling “disgust and anger that it was taken out of the Smithsonian.”
In the face of government failings to address the AIDS crisis, Wojnarowicz worried about the limitations of art’s power to illicit change. Watching his film play in the YouTube era, it seems impossible that his voice could ever stop streaming.