Critics’ Picks

David Wojnarowicz, Untitled (Bread Sculpture),1988–89, bread, string, needle, newspaper, 13 x 3 x 6”.

David Wojnarowicz, Untitled (Bread Sculpture),1988–89, bread, string, needle, newspaper, 13 x 3 x 6”.

New York

David Wojnarowicz

392 Broadway
March 3–April 9, 2011

Controversy has introduced David Wojnarowicz—artist, writer, AIDS activist, and legendary figure of the 1980s downtown scene—to a new generation nearly twenty years after his death. Last November, the Smithsonian Institution removed a video excerpt of his unfinished 1986–87 film A Fire in My Belly from the National Portrait Gallery following objections from the Catholic League and members of Congress, whose outrage focused on a supposedly blaspheming detail from the film: a shot of ants crawling over a crucifix.

As Internet versions of Fire went viral, misconceptions about the work also spread. The present exhibition, simply titled “Spirituality,” serves as a corrective by presenting all of the film’s pieces—with their unsettling footage of everyday violence and gaily macabre objects filmed during Wojnarowicz’s travels in Mexico, intercut with staged studio shots—alongside works that demonstrate some of the recurring ideas and symbols in his art. Within this grouping, many of Fire’s striking images appear in other pieces and are anticipated by earlier fascinations. In a series of photographs, ants swarm more things—a naked man, a gun, money. The sculpture Untitled (Bread Sculpture), 1988–89, shows two halves of a loaf stitched together just as the artist’s mouth is sewn shut in his iconic self-portrait (these images appear in the film too). Of special note are previously unexhibited items from Wojnarowicz’s archive: treasured souvenirs and talismans, a notebook open to a page of his thoughts as he shot in Mexico. Beside the monitor that plays Fire, a cutting script shows the planned structure for this work in progress, its sections labeled in marker with phrases such as “celebratory death” and “prostitution (water).”

The exhibition succeeds in showing the dimension and context lost between the charge that Fire was intentionally sacrilegious and the Smithsonian’s apology that the work was, rather, meant “to depict the suffering of an AIDS victim.” Wojnarowicz’s work here—with its syncretic spirituality, its seething anticapitalism, its depictions of gay sex, animism, and self-mutilation—maps a kind of Jungian shadow of the Christian right. And the ants on the crucifix are the least of his affronts to the viewpoints that would censor him.