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Getting the facts straight about Wojnarowicz's 'A Fire in My Belly'

February 2, 2011 |  3:09 pm

Fire

The art work at the center of the current Smithsonian Institution controversy -- David Wojnarowicz's "A Fire in My Belly" -- is perhaps the most talked about, argued about and blogged about piece of art of the past year. Not bad for a film that's a mere 13 minutes long (in one of its versions) and more than 20 years old.

But amid the heated debate over whether the Smithsonian was right to remove "Fire" from an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, a lot of the facts about the artwork have become clouded, obscured and even misconstrued by the public and various reports.

Two experts who have intimate knowledge of "Fire" -- Marvin Taylor and Brent Phillips at New York University's Fales Library & Special Collections -- have compiled a list of inaccuracies and misconceptions about the film. (A recent article in the Wall Street Journal features an interview with the archivists.) The fact sheet, which was compiled with the help of Tom Rauffenbart, who is the executor of the Wojnarowicz estate, contains eight points of clarification about "Fire."

Phillips and the PPOW Gallery in New York, which represents the late artist, sent Culture Monster the latest version of the fact sheet, which you can read it in its entirety  below. The gallery said it will be holding an exhibition starting March 4 called "Spirituality" of work by Wojnarowicz that will show "A Fire in My Belly" (in its original uncompleted version) and related works that will clarify the time frame of the film, when Wojnarowicz was diagnosed with AIDS and how this work and subsequent works by Wojnarowicz explore AIDS and religion, including Catholicism.

In the rush of reporting on the National Portrait Gallery’s removal of David Wojnarowicz’s film A Fire in My Belly several inaccuracies have been reported and reprinted/posted.

 Below are some corrections to those errors based on the primary source material held in the David Wojnarowicz Papers at Fales Library, New York University.

1. A Fire in My Belly was originally shot on Super8mm film and did not have a completed soundtrack. It is not a “video.”

2. A Fire in My Belly was never completed by Wojnarowicz. A text panel at the end of the film reads: “Film In Progress, David Wojnarowicz, 1986-7.”

3. The incomplete A Fire in My Belly runs 13 minutes. Had it been completed it would have run longer. We have a cutting script Wojnarowicz was working from, thus we know that there are sections not included in this segment.

4. A Fire in My Belly was not created as an homage to Peter Hujar. In fact, it is questionable if it was created as a response to AIDS. It predates Wojnarowicz’s finding out that he was HIV positive and the change in his work that reflects his status.

5. An additional section/chapter/excerpt from A Fire in My Belly was located on another film reel in Wojnarowicz’s collection. It runs 7 minutes. These sections are listed in the cutting script under the section heading “Prostitution.”. This section was used by Wojnarowicz and Rosa von Praunheim in von Praunheim’s film Silence = Death, 1989. We have a super8 film roll that Wojnarowicz titled that reads “Peter, etc…. Mexico, etc.” and contains the name “Michael Lupetin” written in pencil and has Wojnarowicz’s  phone number “228-7024 NYC”—all written in Wojnarowicz’s hand. Lupetin was the producer of Silence=Death. Based on the edge code, the film stock is dated 1986-7.

6. A 4-minute edit of this 7-minute excerpt was used in the Hide/Seek exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery with an added soundtrack derived from an audiocassette from Wojnarowicz’s Papers of a June 1989 ACT-UP demonstration. This added soundtrack was not part of the artist’s original work and/or vision and probably has led people to think that A Fire in My Belly was about the AIDS crisis. The addition of this soundtrack was approved by the Wojnarowicz estate.

7. The Youtube version of FIMB with music from Plague Mass by Diamanda Galas was loaded by Semiotext(e). This version originally appeared in Rosa von Praunheim’s film Silence = Death, 1989. The master footage for this version with the Galas soundtrack is not in the David Wojnarowicz Papers at the Fales Library nor is there any indication that Wojnarowicz created this version. It is debatable whether the piece included in von Praunhiem's film could be called A Fire in My Belly. The most we can accurately say is that the footage was removed by Wojnarowicz from A Fire in My Belly and given to Michael Lupetin for use in Silence=Death.

8. We do not know why Wojnarowicz never completed A Fire in My Belly.

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Critic's notebook: Smithsonian chief digging a deeper hole

-- David Ng

 Photo: "A Fire in My Belly" at the New Museum in New York. Credit: Spencer Platt / Getty Images

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