FIRE IN HER BELLY: Curated by Martabel Wasserman: June 8 - July 20, 2013


Curated by Martabel Wasserman

Annie Sprinkle performance: "Post Porn Modernist" 1992

“We were trying to get under the cosmeticized skin of representation, not only in the mass media but also in art itself, to develop a more complex understanding of the connections between studio and street work, academic and populist writing, and all the stuff in between.”- Lucy Lippard, “Too Political? Forget It.”[i]

“Who am I beyond this skin I am in? beyond this place where I’ve been changed?”- Kara Walker [ii]

Read my lips. Bodies are battlegrounds. In wars waged over and through contested bodies, pain and pleasure become political fodder. Loss is collateral damage. Casualties are kept off the evening news, and wars linger on. If representation is not reclaimed, the risk is invisibility.

GANG, READ MY LIPS,1992, photocopy on paper 17" X 11"
Read my lips. Different types of bodies are policed differently, strategically obscuring how experiences of oppression are connected. It takes moments of crisis to make the connections clear; when the cultural pendulum swings so far right, coalitional politics between marginalized bodies becomes the only option. The early years of the AIDS crisis and the ensuing culture wars were one such moment.  Feminists, leftists, queers, anti-racists and AIDS activists united in anger, sharing tactics for reclaiming representation, resources and rights. The AIDS crisis and the culture wars are ongoing, but the cultural and political landscape is bathed in the cheery glow of neoliberalism with the false promise of justice looming on the horizon. Appeasement divides us again.

There is an art historical narrative of the culture wars that is relatively well rehearsed: it focuses on the battle staged over the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA). Senator Helms and his cronies tried to define and regulate obscenity on a path to eliminating federal funding for the arts to restore “family values” in the United States. Artists who were caught in the crossfire emerge as the key figures in this version of the story and the significant aesthetic, performative and theoretical challenges posed to right wing ideology are ascribed to the (undeniable) brilliance of only a select few. This approach has the inadvertent effect of reinscribing the legacy of Reaganomics and the individualism of the 1980s that the coalitional organizing of the time sought to counter. Some of the artists in the story of the culture wars emerged from the trenches of ACT UP; others did not. Nevertheless, this backdrop of coalitional politics is crucial to how dissent was articulated during this moment. The commodification of dissent by the market and the academy evacuates the charged conditions in which these subversive aesthetic and theoretical frameworks emerged.

There have been significant formal innovations in the historiography of the culture wars to narrate the horizontal organizational structures, and emphasis the privileged place that bodies coming into contact with each other had within the movement. Ann Cvetkovich insisted we make space for affect in An Archive of Feeling. Jim Hubbard and Sarah Schulman’s The ACT UP Oral History Project is a collection of personal narratives that counteract the dominant tendency of narrating history through a singular disembodied voice. Additionally, both of these projects recognize the importance of feminism in the successes of ACT UP — a legacy that is often lost in art historical accounts of the time. Fire In Her Belly seeks to counteract the dominant art historical narrative of the culture wars, resurrecting images that have been obscured from feminist and queer histories alongside those that have been anointed as canonical, bridging time and space to point to the collective process of visualizing dissent. The exhibition is an attempt to insist upon the importance of feminism in the visual culture of the time, and to look at how contact – between bodies, social movements, and ideas – shaped the interventions that big names made in contemporary art.

Anita Steckel, “Presidential Handshake,” 1983, offset print, 11" X 8 1/2"
The beginning of the AIDS epidemic called for new ways of thinking about identity politics. In the trenches, activists knew the virus was transmitted through specific acts, not specific identities. Grassroots education about the transmission of HIV/AIDS focused on descriptions of acts, dislodging common practices from generalizations about identity: not all men who have sex with men identify as gay, for example, or not all users of intravenous drugs fit popularized descriptions of junkies. The necessary focus on the exchange of bodily fluids informed new thinking about the fluidity of identity itself.
AIDS activists saw that bodies are not autonomous – that they change each other through contact. We are physically permeable but often oblivious to this materiality of the self because of the challenges our permeability poses to dominant ideas of the individual. The centrality of the body, both physically and theoretically, made space for the emergence of queer politics – a politics of non-normativity not bound to a fixed identity. 

In the 1995 theoretical investigation of ACT UP, Saint Foucault: Towards a Gay Hagiography, David Halprin articulated the utopian potential of queer as a rallying cry:

ACT UP draws members of all constituencies affected by the AIDS catastrophe, creating a political movement that is genuinely queer insofar as that is broadly oppositional; AIDS activism links gay resistance and sexual politics with social mobilization around issues of race, gender, poverty, incarceration, intravenous drug use, prostitution, sex phobia, media representation, health care reform, immigration, law, medical research and the power and accountability of “experts.””

Halprin describes queer as all-encompassing of difference. But the gap between theory and practice, was, as it often is, a treacherous chasm to traverse. Halprin’s analysis of queer is reflective of the hopes of this period, but elides the difficulties of organizing across difference. Similar to popularized notions of the social movements of the 1960s, dissent and conflict that happened within AIDS activism are often overshadowed by an idealized picture of the movement’s potential. Commentators of social movements often fall in one of two equally destructive camps: on one hand, to over-idealize, and on the other, to over-criticize. When telling these stories, it is our job to account for the difficulties inherent in organizing, but also to find the real moments of hope upon which to graft new movements.

“If I could open your body and slip inside your skin and look out your eyes and forever have my lips fused with yours I would. It makes me weep to feel the history of your flesh beneath my hands in a time of so much loss. It makes me weep to feel the movement of your flesh beneath my palms as you twist and turn over to one side to create a series of gestures to reach up around my neck to draw me nearer. All these memories will be lost in time like tears in the rain” – David Wonjnarowicz

The text is excerpted from a 1990 work, When I Put My Hands On Your Body. The description mourns the loss of an individual, a lover.  It is silkscreened across the surface of skeletons in an image of excavated ruins, mourning the loss of a society, a tribe. Wonjnarowicz was taken by the epidemic 1992.  What the does it feel like not to die with your comrades in battle, but to keep on living and fighting as the moment of impact recedes further into the catacombs of history?

Julie Tolentino performance: "it will all end (in ultra red) tears," 2011
documentation courtesy of Thomas Qualmann
In Julie Tolentino’s on-going series of collaborations The Sky Remains the Same, she performs the pieces she has found most influential alongside her peers who originally performed them. In opposition to the reperformance impulse in contemporary art, which seeks to stabilize the meanings of work, Tolentino explores “how works may unbind/unwind/undo us as another form of history making.” Her performance Self-Obliteration with Ron Athey poignantly speaks to the questions of translating pain and desire across difference that Fire in Her Belly seeks to address. The performance begins with Athey, and later Tolentino, aggressively brushing a lush blond wig. When the performers remove the wigs, they reveal a set of pins on the underbelly of the acrylic blond mass that had been piercing their skulls as they brushed. Blood drips down. The prop, a sign of normative beauty and desire, stages drag that is specific to the gender, race and sexuality of each performer. In the second part of the performance, they each slide a pane of glass back and forth across their nude bodies. He is HIV-positive; she is not. He is a white man; she is a woman of color. They are both queer. Though performing the same action, their embodiment changes how the connotations of blood, nudity and pain are interpreted. Meaning is not transmitted between performers. Their queer exchange speaks to both the impossibility and necessity of solidarity.

Solidarity, like love, is difficult by design. As forms of bonding, they point to the limits of empathy and the impossibility of understanding another human’s experience. Love is charged by the inevitability of loss. Solidarity is fueled by the optimism that organizing across difference is sustainable. While we can’t hope for a pure translation of experience, what we produce in the process of trying is the very material of radical transformation.

[i] Ault, Julie, Brian Wallis, Marianne Weems, and Philip Yenawine. Art Matters: How the Culture Wars Changed America. New York: New York UP, 1999. Print.
[ii] "MoMA | Projects | 1999 | Conversations | Kara Walker." MoMA | Projects | 1999 | Conversations | Kara Walker. N.p., 1999.

Andres Serrano, "Piss Christ" 1987, cibachrome print, Edition of 10, 40 X 30 inches © Andres Serrano

all images copyright: the artists 

 Installation view: Connie Samaras, Lisa Kahane/Paulette Nenner 
all images copyright: the artists

Installation view: Anita Steckel, Clarissa Slighe, Robert Mapplethorpe
all images copyright: the artists

Martabel Wasserman is an artist, writer and curator currently living in Long Beach and completing her MFA at the University of California, Irvine. In 2010 she graduated from Harvard University with a degree in the Studies of Women, Gender and Sexuality and Visual Environmental Studies, for which she completed a catalog documenting the exhibition ACT UP New York: Art, Activism and the AIDS Crisis, 1987-1993. She has shown her photography in Boston, Providence, New York City, Los Angeles and Berlin. She is currently editing RECAPS (Reclaim Culture, Art, Politics and Sexuality) at

All image copyrights: the artists