In 1989, Donald Wildmon, founder of the American Family Association, mailed a pamphlet reproducing details from collages by the New York artist David Wojnarowicz (1954-1992) to every member of Congress, to various news media outlets and to religious leaders across the country.
Mr. Wildmon, a Methodist minister, had prepared the pamphlet himself; he considered the images pornographic or blasphemous. He had copied them from the catalog for an exhibition partly supported by the National Endowment for the Arts, the real object of his protest. Wojnarowicz (pronounced voy-nah-ROH-vitch), furious at having his work selectively edited, sued Mr. Wildmon for misrepresenting his art and won the case.
Twenty years later, history is repeating itself, with variations. Wojnarowicz’s work is under similar attack, this time by Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, and several members of Congress. The offending material is again a detail of a larger work, an image of ants crawling over a crucifix, excerpted from a Wojnarowicz video that was included in a large group show called “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington.
On Dec. 1 the gallery, part of the Smithsonian Institution, took the video off view. One big change from 1990, however, is the nearly universal presence of the Internet. Word of the self-censorship instantly spread, and the video itself, titled “A Fire in My Belly,” went viral, turning up on a number of Web sites, including YouTube. Untold numbers of people could now see something that, without the publicity generated by the dispute, they never would have known existed.
And what are they seeing? A raw, moving, disturbing piece of art that comes in two sections: one is 13 minutes; the other is 7 minutes, video of the same title found on a separate reel after Wojnarowicz’s death from AIDS. In an added complication, the two tapes were edited down to one that is roughly 4 minutes for the National Portrait Gallery show.
The one thing they all share is a source, the artist’s childhood. Even given that Wojnarowicz was not above self-mythologizing, that childhood was rough. His parents divorced and then disappeared when he was 2, leaving him to a succession of temporary homes and often abusive relationships. On the positive side, many of these homes were in semi-rural settings, and the natural world became a sustaining resource for him. In the lives of animals, birds and insects he found clarified versions of human behavior, and alternatives to it. -- https://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/11/arts/design/11ants.html
Echoing themes explored throughout David Wojnarowicz's art and writing, A Fire in My Belly is a visceral meditation on cultural and individual identity, spirituality, and belief systems. On a trip to Mexico City with Tommy Turner to scout Day of the Dead imagery, Wojnarowicz shot 25 rolls of super-8 film, documenting scenes that embodied the violence of city life. A central image is that of a child exploited as a fire-breathing street performer, which resonates in the title of the film and Wojnarowicz's own experience hustling on the streets at a young age. He later staged scenes in his New York City apartment to combine with this footage, collecting dreamlike images to illustrate thematic sections he planned for the film's structure, outlined in a cutting script. Among these images is a dancing, gun-wielding marionette, coins dropping into a plate of blood, vibrantly colored loteria cards, and the now iconic self-portrait of the artist with his lips sewn shut.
A Fire in My Belly was never completed. What currently circulates and is preserved in the Fales Library Collection of NYU, which holds the David Wojnarowicz Papers archive, is a 13-minute version entitled A Fire in my Belly, A Work in Progress, and a 7-minute excerpt that possibly represents a chapter planned for the finished version. Wojnarowicz's cutting script shows that he thought of organizing it into discrete sections (numbered 1 - 8, with notes to combine sections). Each section includes notes on general themes, such as "aggression" or "hunger," accompanied by specific symbols - religious icons, the four elements, or colors. The physical film reveals Wojnarowicz's unfinished ordering of the sections; masking tape splices holding together the deconstructed film have since been removed for preservation, and are now indicated by black leader.
The cutting script makes clear the intended kinetic fury of the film, propelled by quick shots and stark transitions, an approach similar to the frenzied conclusion of his collaborative film with Tommy Turner, Where Evil Dwells (1985). Vibrant color and graphic images play a formal and conceptual role comparable to his paintings of the time. The iconography of the film resonates with such works as Crash: The Birth of Language/ The Invention of Lies (1986), which shows a fearsome, sooty locomotive plunging through the ruins of civilization, a correlation of industry and speed with humankind's separation from nature and ultimate destruction that is a prominent theme of A Fire in My Belly, as is the violence with which visual and spoken language can obscure as much as reveal the truth.
The movement of the film itself--never resting too long on an image, scenes of Mexico City shot from a passing car--becomes an expression of the speed and aggression of modern living. As Wojnarowicz describes in his essay In the Shadow of the American Dream: Soon All This Will Be Picturesque Ruins, especially in the sprawling west of America, vehicles are not just a convenience, but an agent of class stratification and indifference: "Owning a vehicle, you could drive by and with the pressure of your foot on the accelerator and with your eyes on the road you could pass it quickly--maybe not fast enough to overlook it completely, but fast enough so that the speed of the auto and the fear centers of the brain created a fractured marriage of light and sound. The images of poverty would lift and float and recede quickly like the gray shades of memory so that these images were in the past before you came upon them. It was the physical equivalent of the evening news."
Wojnarowicz was compelled to document and represent the lives of those he felt society sought to repress with the ruthlessness of the locomotive in his Crash painting. Mexico especially made a deep impression on him. Visiting shortly after the devastation of the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, he was struck by the extreme poverty he witnessed, which he described in an interview in 1991 with Jeri Cain Rossi: "I look at the poverty in New York which has gotten really more and more extreme over the last eight years. And people I know just say they can't believe it's getting to this stage. I just laugh and say, 'Go to Mexico City and you'll see the future of us.' You see just how far people get pushed...When you actually see like what they're making per day and how impossible that would be to survive on, I'm just amazed that people can get pushed to such an extreme."
In admonishing against the destructive forces of industrialized society, A Fire in My Belly also celebrates the colorful pageantry and social and religious rituals of poor and working-class Mexican cultures, which in their vibrancy speak to the endurance of the human spirit even in terrible circumstances. Wojnarowicz appreciated these sparks of life, perhaps burning all the brighter for the pressures being exerted. Writing later in a catalog accompanying a solo show at his gallery, P.P.O.W., in 1989, he observed: "Going south of the border I found myth to still be very much alive and with it the sense of connection to the ground people walked on."