Mysoon Rizk, an associate professor of Art History at the University of Toledo spoke about the artist David Wojnarowicz and his controversial art video “A Fire in My Belly” Tuesday night in Yeager Recital Hall.
Wojnarowicz was a mixed-media performance artist who lived and worked in New York City in the 1980’s until his death in 1992 from AIDS-related illnesses. His art focused on death, disease and feeling like an outsider.
Rizk began her talk as “A Fire in My Belly” played in the background. The video caused controversy recently when an edited version was shown in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. as part of an exhibit focusing on sexual identity in portraiture.
The video shows several graphic images, including male self-stimulation and ants crawling over grave tokens, including a crucifix. The Catholic League and John Boehner, speaker of the House of Representatives, spoke out against the video for this image.
Rizk structured her speech with three rules of thumb interspaced throughout her talk.
“Rule of thumb No. 1: Always view, in its entirety, the work on which you speak,” Rizk said.
She focused on how very little the “controversial” imagery factored in to the video. Four seconds of the cut shown at the National Portrait Gallery of the total four minutes were of the ants on the crucifix. In total, the full film lasts 11 minutes.
“Rule of thumb No. 2: Never reduce an artist by a single work created,” Rizk said.
Wojnarowicz worked in many media and did not just make provocative films. In fact, “A Fire in My Belly” may not have been the final cut, either in the 11 or the four-minute versions. He worked in collage, paint and photography to express himelf in ways that were not meant as anti-religion.
“Rule of thumb No. 3: Never insist on a single interpretation of a work of art, instead cultivate an open-endedness,” Rizk said.
This means, she went on to say, that Wojnarowicz meant much more than anti-religious sentiment when filming the ants-on-Jesus scene, as she called it. It could have been a reflection on death itself, or an Aztec myth.
“A Fire in My Belly” was pulled from the National Portrait Gallery after the denouncements by Boehner and the Catholic League. In response, major funders of the exhibit, including the Andy Warhol Foundation, withdrew support.
But, Wojnarowicz was no stranger to censorship when alive, either.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Wojnarowicz became an activist for both AIDS and artist’s rights. In 1990 he fought and successfully won a suit in which he claimed that his works were taken out of context in order to justify censorship.
The second part of Rizk’s address talked about Wojnarowicz’s fascination with “pests, vermin and parasites” as parallels to the human condition. Many of his works feature stray animals or insects, as he claimed, creatures he felt empathy with for their outsider status. As a young gay man, Wojnarowicz identified with being an outsider and also repressed and crushed by humans – including his family, Rizk said.
“Ultimately, his zoomorphism, or more accurately, biomorphism, exposes human frailties,” Rizk said.
Wajnarowicz also drew parallels between the plight of AIDS patients during the hight of the epidemic, the American Indian genocide and the slaughter of the buffalo, according to Rizk.
The talk ended with a question-and-answer session. Rizk said that the controversy the showing of “A Fire in My Belly” aroused has mostly died down since its initial flare in November of 2010. Prior to this showing, the video received little attention, even from Wojnarowicz scholars like Rizk, she said.
“It was a work in progress, so it wasn’t intended to be shown,” she said.