Crucifix Art Controversy Comes to Brooklyn Museum

One work was pulled from the National Portrait Gallery last year.

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    A video entitled "Fire in My Belly" by the late multimedia artist David Wojnarowicz was part of the National Portrait Gallery's "Hide/Seek" show until it was pulled after the Catholic League and members of Congress complained that the piece was sacrilegious due to a sequence showing ants crawling on a statue of Christ.

    A major exhibition that includes a film of ants crawling on a crucifix opens next week at the Brooklyn Museum, an institution known for presenting edgy and bold artworks that in the past included a painting of the Virgin Mary that incorporated elephant dung.

    "A Fire in My Belly" is a film by the late David Wojnarowicz that was pulled from the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., when the exhibition was shown there last year. The ant scene angered some in Congress and the Catholic League called the work sacrilegious.

    It is one of more than 100 pieces in "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture," the first major museum exhibition to explore how gender and sexual identity have shaped American art.

    Brooklyn Museum Director Arnold Lehman said Wednesday that the museum wanted to present the exhibition "clearly because it's such an important aspect of American art in the 20th century."

    "We decided to reconstitute it as originally planned by the curators. We haven't changed the exhibition in any way other than having to replace a handful of works of art that were otherwise promised to other exhibitions or institutions," he added.

    Wojnarowicz's work explores the subject of AIDS and was created before the artist was diagnosed with the disease, which claimed his life at age 37 in 1992.

    The ant scene fills only 10 seconds of the short film, which was shot on Super8 film and later transferred to video.

    "My hope is that this will be an extraordinarily important way in which to bring the entire city together to celebrate American art during this last century," Lehman said.

    "This is New York City. This is a city that has thrived on the incredible contributions from the gay and lesbian community. This is a state that's just passed a very progressive legalization of gay marriage."

    Catholic League President Bill Donohue said he wasn't surprised that the exhibition was coming to the Brooklyn Museum, which he called notoriously anti-Catholic, but he said his group would not hold protests like it had in Washington.

    The League has criticized the museum in the past for a painting by Chris Ofili called "The Holy Virgin Mary," a work that also angered then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

    Giuliani in 1999 tried to cut public funding from the Brooklyn Museum of Art after it featured the work," which depicts Mary with African features and includes a shellacked clump of elephant dung and magazine cutouts of female genitalia.

    After the controversy at the Portrait Gallery, the Smithsonian Institution's governing board called for changes in how potentially objectionable exhibits are handled. The board said it must be prepared to handle museum disputes and guard freedom of curators in the face of political pressure from Congress or other groups.

    Lehman said the only protests his museum received was when it first announced plans for the exhibition earlier this year. A Catholic lay group in Pennsylvania, The American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property, sent several thousand "pre-programmed" emails to the museum, he said.

    Giuliani in 1999 tried to cut public funding from the Brooklyn Museum of Art after it featured Chris Ofili's "The Holy Virgin Mary," which depicts Mary with African features and includes a shellacked clump of elephant dung and magazine cutouts of female genitalia.

    After the controversy at the Portrait Gallery, the Smithsonian Institution's governing board called for changes in how potentially objectionable exhibits are handled. The board said it must be prepared to handle museum disputes and guard freedom of curators in the face of political pressure from Congress or other groups.

    "Hide/Seek" runs at the Brooklyn Museum through Feb. 12. Other contributing artists are Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Thomas Eakins and Annie Leibovitz. It will then travel to the Tacoma Art Museum in Washington state.