Tuesday, February 1, 2011

My Field Trip To See 'Hide/Seek'

As many of you probably know, the National Portrait Gallery in Washington launched an LGBT-themed exhibition called 'Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture' back in November. This was significant for the sheer number of iconic pieces included in the show and for the fact that it was the first queer-themed exhibition to appear in a major American museum.
About three weeks in, the president of the Catholic League (actually a small--and virulently anti-queer--fringe organization with no official ties to the Church) complained about "A Fire in My Belly", a 1987 video piece by David Wojarnowicz. Nothing too surprising there, but what really caught the public's attention was the speed with which the Smithsonian capitulated to their demands. The video was removed from the show within 24 hours of the initial protest, and no effort was made to defend or even debate its merits. The curators of the show were not consulted.
Despite intense criticism from artists, writers and members of the public, the Smithsonian has not restored the piece to the exhibit. As Michelle described in an earlier post, Canadian artist AA Bronson has attempted to have his arresting work removed in solidarity but probably will not be successful before the show closes in a couple of weeks.
I had planned a trip to Washington to see the exhibit before all of the censorship craziness went down, but in the weeks leading up to my visit I was particularly interested to see how it would be handled. Would the show be marred by the controversy? How would the Smithsonian deal with all of the terrible press its decision has garnered? Would the public boycott 'Hide/Seek'? To make a long story short, the show was still amazing. Work by Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, Romaine Brooks and Georgia O'Keefe (to name just a few) hangs in three rooms on the second floor of the gallery. The show is arranged chronologically and thematically, beginning in the late 19th century and progressing to the present day. It was quite well-attended when I was there, and visitors were taking the opportunity to record their thoughts in the guest book (most of the comments I read expressed anger at the Smithsonian management for their decision). If you want to see the show for yourself, the always-awesome In the Life featured a tour in its January episode or you can check out the website. I also bought an exhibition catalogue which will be donated to the CLGA as soon as I finish reading it (I promise!).
As much as I enjoyed the exhibit, I was particularly happy to see how Washington's queer and arts communities have risen to the challenge. There's a large trailer parked outside the gallery featuring a banner that reads "Museum of Censored Art"; inside, the controversy is outlined in several panels, and a small television plays Wojarnowicz's video. I spoke with the two volunteers huddled at one end (who knew that Washington was so cold??), and they explained that they had just opened on January 11th, and that the Smithsonian staff had been surprisingly supportive of their efforts. Passerby were stopping in to check out the display and to watch the video, and the organizers have a strong presence on Twitter and Facebook. Prior to the installation of the trailer, protesters stood in the gallery itself playing the video on iPads hung around their necks, and countless galleries around the world have pledged to screen the piece. As dismaying as the whole thing has been, I'm really heartened to see this kind of creative resistance and I can only hope that the public's condemnation of the Smithsonian's actions will ensure that this doesn't happen again.

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