The footage lasts barely a dozen seconds. Yet its powerful imagery — of ants crawling over a crucified Jesus, from artist and activist David Wojnarowicz's A Fire in My Belly (A Work in Progress) — has caused an art-related uproar not seen in this country since the National Endowment for the Arts and “Sensation” controversies of the 1990s.

Originally a 20-minute film, A Fire in My Belly was created by Wojnarowicz in 1986-87 as an expression of his outrage and grief over the AIDS epidemic and his own HIV diagnosis (the piece was considered unfinished when the artist died of AIDS complications in 1992).

In October the Smithsonian Institution's National Portrait Gallery, in Washington, D.C., created a four-minute re-edited version of the film (with an added soundtrack, taken from the Wojnarowicz papers at NYU's Fales Library, of audio from an ACT UP demonstration) for an exhibition titled “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.” It was quickly met with protests from Catholic League president Bill Donohue and expected Speaker of the House John Boehner, who trained their sights exclusively on A Fire, the former deeming it “hate speech” and the latter calling it “an outrageous use of taxpayer money and obvious attempt to offend Christians during the Christmas season.”

A month after the exhibition's opening, the Smithsonian removed the film. The institution claims not to have caved to pressure from the religious and political right, and defended its action by saying, “Attention to this particular video imagery and the way in which it was being interpreted by many overshadowed the importance and understanding of the entire exhibition.”

The art community, however, has been extremely critical of the move, with the Andy Warhol Foundation (a “Hide/Seek” co-sponsor) announcing a withdrawal of funds to the Smithsonian until A Fire in My Belly's reinstatement, and museums and galleries nationwide — including Los Angeles' CB1 Gallery, REDCAT, LACE and Gallery KM — defiantly showing the entire film.

One of the first to take up the cause was the Hammer Museum, which moved to screen A Fire the day after it was censored in Washington. Showing the original version of the film, chief curator Douglas Fogle tells the Weekly, is as much an aesthetic stand as a political one.

“In an era where reductive punditry has replaced thoughtful critical analysis, it is more and more important for cultural institutions to be a place where the viewer is respected enough to be able to make up their own minds after encountering a painting, a sculpture, a film, a photograph, a drawing, a performance or an installation,” Fogle says. 

Fogle believes the Smithsonian's significant federal funding led to A Fire's removal. Like the other art organizations screening the film, he refuses to let the institution off the hook for avoiding a First Amendment battle. “It was so sad for me to find out that the National Portrait Gallery had betrayed this trust in our audiences,” he says.

Even viewed in light of the recent controversy, A Fire in My Belly likely will mean different things to different audiences; it's a complicated and unsettling film, not the obvious provocation church and government authorities would have the public believe it is. Wojnarowicz's silent Super 8 images comprise a portrait of a country as much as of himself. The film's first, 13-minute section surveys the streets of Juarez, Mexico, where livestock pass through intersections, headlines blare reports of daily murder and a heavy atmosphere of violence finds expression in gaudy professional wrestling matches and bloody bull- and cockfighting. Wojnarowicz constructs a dense montage of dark, disparate images that comment on the main “story.” Shots of monster masks, falling coins, gun-toting puppets, feuding children and a burning map of Mexico evoke an impoverished, horror-show society in which masculinity becomes prey to destructive and cannibalistic impulses.

The second section — seven minutes long, distilled into four for the re-edit — links the Mexican theme to more personal concerns. Wojnarowicz himself appears, sewing his lips together with red thread. Various images of corporeal passion and anguish follow: amputees, desiccated corpses, a masturbating man, an immolated Saint Bernadette of Lourdes.

All these invite homoerotic and AIDS-related readings, but A Fire in My Belly also works on a universal and humanistic plane. In the rich tradition of Catholic art (Wojnarowicz attended Catholic school in his youth while hustling in New York City), the film compares religious longing with the physical desire and corruption it attempts to transcend. In this regard, the insects crawling over a suffering Christ remain ambiguous symbols, either soldier ants (animal-brothers to the repressive, patrolling cops seen throughout A Fire) or else carpenters (the spiritual brethren of Jesus).

The generated associations are myriad, the inspired emotions troubling and complex. Thanks to museums currently rallying to Wojnarowicz's defense, they can be fully experienced rather than opportunistically demonized.

LA Weekly